This is 3 days after New Year's eve and I didn’t plan this visit to San Francisco, I just hopped on the plane and came. I’m guessing that everybody is out of town, so I don’t get my hopes high when I email Jean Noel Soni, the rock star gem cutter that is behind Top Notch Faceting. Surprisingly, not only does he willingly answers back but he also wants to plan the visit for next day over the phone. I find this funny and surprisingly fresh. Usually I email people cause everybody is just too busy to answer phone calls and you can answer back at your own pace. Not Jean Noel, he tells me he likes to take the time and talk to people on the phone the first time he interacts with them. It’s more approachable and personal and he believes it’s a good way to get to know somebody.
As I’m heading to Jean Noel’s studio perched on a San Francisco hill, he texts me to let me know that he got delayed at the post office but that Eva (his wife) will be there to receive me. And as I arrive at his place, I’m greeted in the best possible way. Eva has a warm and easygoing smile that puts me at ease and Henri, their son, immediately introduces himself and asks me to play with him. Clearly this is not gonna be a typical studio visit and there’ll be no questionnaire because I thought that since his work is different we should just talk, like I usually do in the beginning of a visit. Plus I think it’s way more interesting to dig into his wealth of knowledge and get to know how he got on the track of becoming a gem cutter. Still, I feel like I have to give you a full disclaimer because I didn’t take as many photos as I should have had. A bitter cold was slowing me down and let’s be honest, how often do you get the chance to see and hold Top Notch Faceting work with your own eyes and hands? Not that often, so clearly I decided to enjoy myself and forget all about the camera. Plus I don’t think my photos are gonna be better than the those gorgeous photos he takes of his gemstones, before and after being cut, so we can enjoy just getting to know him.
For Jean Noel it all started when he was 15 years old. He was on the path to become a jeweler but got sidetracked when one of his teachers (at jewelry school) made them cut a cabochon as part of the process of the learning process. Cutting gemstones turned out to be way more interesting than doing jewelry and quickly it developed into a passion. If you’re familiar with his instagram and facebook posts you know that Jean Noel has lots of tattoos, notably one that is hard to go unnoticed. It's on the palm of his hand and represents a garnet. Garnets are his favorite gemstones as they are hard. He tells me they can fall on the floor and bounce back (I believe him but I wouldn’t try it with his specimens). He tells me that he also has a tattoo for an aquamarine and that's Henri’s birthstone, as he shows me this beautiful (large) aquamarine crystal that belongs to his private collection (and that it will never be sold).
For me it’s interesting to see how a gem cutter works. Clearly he doesn’t need as much space or tools as jewelers do. His space consists of a workbench where a faceting machine sits, some tools, a loupe and a notebook. The notebook is the holy grail of his work. A red notebook that someone gifted him years ago and that he uses to note every single angle and measurements of every stone he has ever cut. This, along with his eyes are probably the most important tools for him.
A very fascinating aspect about Jean Noel’s work is his unique cuts. He believes that you should not cut the rough according to the rules of the market (notably price, shape and perceived value) but that you should cut it to maximize the beauty of the gem (the color, brilliance and fire). You should not cut a round, an emerald cut or an oval just because you can sell it for more, but that you should cut it in a way that maximizes its brilliance while working around inclusions and other natural characteristics the stone may have. This way of thinking is refreshing and extremely at odds with the current market. And that is why I believe it’s so interesting to see his work. He proves that there is a growing market for his way of working and that thinking outside of the box can actually be more interesting than what the market dictates.
It came a time in Jean Noel’s life that he decided to go straight to the rough’s source and bypass the duality of the gem world trade. He practiced what he preached and slowly developed his relationships in Nigeria (his favorite), Tanzania, Kenya amongst other places and kept coming back, year after year. This way not only does he know the source of his rough but he’s also supporting local business and miners. Miners, and people that now he calls friends. He has this pristine work ethic that you should not only talk to people, either personally or on the phone, but that you have to develop trust between each of the parts. His motto (which he repeats frequently) is that you should develop your relationships and always pay on time. That’s sound advice for a business that is mostly based on mutual trust between the parts, and that surprisingly in this modern age still works pretty well.
Two years ago Jean Noel stopped taking outside orders to cut gemstones and will finish all of his custom clients’ work this summer (of 2016). He has developed his business enough that now his objectives are to cut and sell his own gemstones. He organizes his time methodically and each day he cuts one gemstone. I laugh saying that there are days that you’re not at your best or that the thought of screwing up something so expensive can stress you out. He pauses, becomes serious and tells me that you cannot let those things get in the way. You clean your mind and you do it. Tomorrow there’s another gemstone to cut.
I’m mesmerized with Jean Noel’s gemstone collection. The different pieces of rough he’s showing keeps getting more beautiful. As he’s showing me one after another, he talks enthusiastically about its characteristics, the color and the story of how he got it. He shows me some sapphires from Nigeria that he just cut and you understand why his cutting and design vision strikes a chord with some many people. There is a beautiful green color grossular garnet from Tanzania that he's showing me the rough. The more I hear him talk about the gemstones and the more different beautiful cuts I see, I clearly think that Jean Noel is more than a gem cutter or a gemstone designer, he's an industry game changer.
In front of his workbench is a big mood board filled with photos of Henri and Eva, the first drawings that Henri did, and some thank you notes. Jean Noel tells me the story of one of his favorite thank you notes. A kid emailed him asking him if he could show him how he cuts his gemstones. Jean Noel arranged for the boy to come over and spent the whole afternoon explaining the tools, showing him the stones and sharing his knowledge (pretty much like he’s doing with me right now). In the end he gave him some gemstones, notably an amethyst. Some days later he got a thank you note on the mail, with some delicious misspellings and a cut ruby that this boy had mined in North Carolina and had polished himself. He gave Jean Noel one of his treasures as a token of his appreciation for sharing his knowledge.
Around the bench, the walls are covered with frames filled with butterflies, insects and other amazing beetles. Eva collects taxidermy and somewhat this just looks like a perfect setting for Top Notch Faceting to cut his gemstones. Eva also collects handkerchiefs that Jean Noel uses to clean his gemstones, once they’re cut and each time he shows them at events or to clients. It’s a fun way to have your family close by when you work.
An afternoon has gone by just with good talk and beautiful gemstones. Jean Noel is so sweet that he drives me back to my hotel and we get a chance to talk a little bit more. I get a big hug and kiss from Henri and I want to take him home with me as much as I want to take some of those gemstones. It’s not everyday that you learn something new, but today I did and I feel refreshed. And remember, build relationships and pay on time. Thanks so much Jean Noel (& Eva+Henri!) It was a real pleasure to meet you all.