Kimmirut on the cutting edge

Community’s path to economic development may be paved with precious and semi-precious stones



Kimmirut is on the cutting edge of new economic possibilities.

Kyra Fisher, the community’s economic development officer, says the hamlet and surrounding area is rich in rocks and minerals that can be processed and sold outside Nunavut.

“We’ve had prospecting courses here in the past and there have been jewelry classes here, but there has been nothing done with gemstones,” she says.

The community has a group of enthusiastic prospectors who often bring precious and semi-precious stones to the hamlet office. “They’ve brought in all sorts of interesting gems, such as garnet, sapphire, tourmaline, spinel, even what they suspect are meteorites,” she says.

That enthusiasm led Fisher to bring an expert into the community of 430 to teach people how to process the raw stones to make them more desirable on the market.

“The more that can be produced in the community, the more money comes to the community,” she says. “They actually have samples we can sell but if they can process the stones in some way it’s even better.”

In early November, former Arctic College lapidary instructor Mark Webber visited the community to teach students how to cut and polish gemstones.

The hamlet purchased new equipment and 10 students worked for about two weeks with Webber in a space provided by the college.

Webber stopped over in Iqaluit on his way South and made a trip to the Arctic College Arts and Craft Centre to give workshops to first- and second-year jewelry students. He says the best way to learn lapidary is to practise it and actually touch the stones.

He stands behind a student wearing ear protectors and safety glasses working at a machine with a series of spinning wheels.

The student is performing one of the basic lapidary forms — cabochon cutting — rounding and polishing the top of a stone. The stone is first attached to a dopstick, a stick a few inches long, and then held against spinning wheels to makes smooth curves on the surface.

The different wheels, Webber explains, represent varying degrees of smoothing power, from very coarse to a leather band which is used to polish the stone.

Water flows beneath the wheels to keep the stones cool as the friction from rubbing on the wheels can cause the stones to crack.

“In 15 to 20 minutes a stone can be finished on top,” Webber says, “but the first time it takes longer.”

Chris Audla, a second-year jewelry student, sits at a bench marking out an oval shape in marker on a piece of agate. He explains that he sees the pattern on the rock as a horizon with clouds floating over it and wants to use the cabochon technique to polish it and then set it in a silver ring.

“It’s different,” Audla says of learning to cut gemstones. “I’m a carver. I’m used to cutting soapstone.” He moves on to another room where he will use a diamond cutter to cut the shape, which will then be adhered to a dopstick.

“Here it is the early days of gems,” Webber says of the art form in Nunavut. “If and when good gem material comes there will be people here who know how to cut it.”

Kimmirut is already preparing for that possibility. The community hopes to open a gallery in the Soper House, which is used as a visitors centre. Local artists have also formed an arts and crafts society.

And Kimmirut has even had some national exposure as a gem-cutting community. When DIAND minister Robert Nault was in Nunavut this month he, along with MPs Ethel Blondin-Andrew and Nancy Karetak-Lindell, flew to Kimmirut to view the lapidary workshop.

“The ministers were very enthusiastic and wanted assurances from me that this thing would continue, so I will be going for some grant money to have another session in the fall,” Fisher says. “Two weeks isn’t very long.”

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