John Nels Hatleberg

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Security, Patience, Perseverance

There were not a lot of people able to tell me how to get here.

I struggled for years.

By age ten it was obvious that the piano lessons were not

going to work. I have incredible parents, and they recognized

that out of nowhere I had a passion for gems. It was

unbelievably intuitive of them. How fortunate for me that

they found and signed me up for a gem-cutting course at an

adult education program in the basement of a suburban

Maryland recreation center. It was me and a bunch of retirees

cutting agate cabochons underground. It was the best of


When the course was over we signed me up again. While

I was still in elementary school my parents found an elderly

man in our community who introduced me to the pinnacle of

“the art”—how to facet gems. Mostly though, Joe Touchette

taught me about patience. I apprenticed with him on Saturday

mornings until I left for college. While learning about

gems with Joe, I also interned at the Smithsonian, which enhanced

my quest and inevitably seasoned me to that precious


During college my faceting machine stayed with me, but I

never turned it on. I was taking in the freedom of school and

subconsciously searching for a way to link the interests that

preceded even my early attraction to gems, art and magic, to

the jewels themselves.

My pursuit of gems and art became an innate part of my

being—both profound and spiritual. I guess I could have been

Source: Printed with permission from John Nels Hatleberg.

moved by sports—I loved to water ski and I unicycled so

much that some people thought I didn’t know how to walk.

I could have been moved by religion or politics; but I chose

art. I had the personality to be seized by this pursuit in a relentless


My quest to master the art and science of conceptual gem

artistry grew and continued. My life was committed to not

only being the best at it, but also bringing it to the next possible

level. This brought me back to the Smithsonian a few

summers after I completed graduate school. It was at this

time that I was afforded a pivotal and career altering experience

by John White, the Smithsonian’s gem curator.

It was almost as if I were reading a wonderful novel and I

was a character in the book. The excitement of the story was

building and the magical turning point was finally in reach.

The story read like this:

The Hope Diamond was taken from its vault and transferred

to a darkened room. For several moments, John

White, the Smithsonian gem curator, helped me charge

this historical, rare and world-famous diamond with short

wave light. In the darkness, the largest blue diamond in

the world turned red and glowed like a coal, muted like a

dying ember. The only light in the room came from the

stone itself. This most famous of diamonds, steeped in

centuries of intrigue and allure and of the highest cultural

and historical rarity, was phosphorescing red. It seemed


Seeing this electrifying transformation irrevocably altered

the art that has since emerged from me. I became aware that

gems, which often serve as meaningful yet conventional symbols

in our lives, have the potential to show us to ourselves,

reveal aspects of our personalities and lives.

Artists are always remaking the same piece. I have probably

spent the last twenty years attempting to create objects

with a transcendence akin to that which emanates from engagement

rings. They are a perfect package. This has led me

to an unprecedented diversity in my work with jewels. I have

vaporized diamonds to create diamond air, lasered pure gold

tattoos, made mirrors of meteorites, sandwiched holograms

in gems, and found a pearl that appears so uncannily to be a

heart that people have sensed it beating.

For the last 15 years I have also had the honor of working

with the world’s most famous diamonds. I am primarily known

for this work. When given complete access to a famous diamond,

I can facet a replica that is visually indistinguishable

from the original. It is shocking to compare the two jewels

side by side. At times they incite awe.

The Hope-Centenary, Dresden Green, Eureka, Excelsior,

Shah Jahan Table Cut, Guinea Star, McLean/Duchess of Windsor,

Oppenheimer, Portuguese, B.1ueHeart, Millennium Star,

Victoria Transvaal, Incomparable and other diamonds have

been entrusted to my care. What is it like to work with these

jewels? It is a transporting experience. The diamonds are so

powerful, so beautiful, so rare, valuable, and seductive.

Some people say that I have worked on more famous diamonds

than anyone else in history. In part due to technological

advances, it is true that I am the only one in the world that

has taken the creation of replicas to the realm of an exacting

art form. There were not a lot of people able to tell me how

to get here. I struggled for years.

In this narrative, I have suggested how I have pursued

singular and potent jewels, how I am affected by them, and

how I am able to transfer that inspiration to what I do. Of

primary importance growing up was my feeling secure in my

parents’ love. They encouraged me to explore. My parents

told me they would believe in me as long as I believed in my-

self. This security and my patience to follow a muse seem to

insure my path.

This year I will be shown a new diamond recently

wrenched from the earth in Africa, a diamond that is so

vividly colored, so pure, so big, and so brilliant that when I

look into it I expect I will see all the way to Pluto. I hope your

travels in life take you far as well.