By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
World-renowned and multi award-winning gemstone cutter Tom Munsteiner died unexpectedly at home on Dec. 28, 2023. He was 54.
Tom was a fourth-generation Munsteiner and son of Bernd Munsteiner, of the masterful Munsteiner family of cutters. Tom owned Atelier Munsteiner in Stiphausen, Germany, near Idar Oberstein, and was well known for furthering the family’s legacy and cutting genius. He is survived by his wife, Jutta; son Philipp; parents Hanne and Bernd Munsteiner; and extended family.
While Bernd’s signature style of fantasy cutting was angular, Tom brought a softer, more rounded aesthetic to the House (see his award-winning “Double Bubble” earrings below).
“Tom was interested in convex shapes in reflections,” explains Brad Payne, owner of The Gem Trader in Cave Creek, Ariz., a purveyor of rare and fantasy-cut loose gems. Payne has been selling Munsteiner stones for about 12 years.
The Munsteiner family says they will remember Tom for his “hearty laugh and sharing knowledge with others in the lapidary community,” while many of Tom’s clients note his kind and generous nature in addition to his talents. When Payne founded his business 20 years ago, Munsteiner gems were among his first purchases.
“I was intimidated by many of the big German cutting houses with all of their history, but Tom was so friendly and collegial to me,” he recalls.
Edward Faber’s relationship with Tom goes back 40 years. Faber is co-owner of the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City and spent countless hours developing projects with Tom and spending time with the Munsteiner family.
“It’s hard to evaluate his contributions to the world, they’re enormous,” he says. “Tom had a vision for the family business to carry it on globally. He wanted to cut gems as an art form, took the mantle from his father, and carried it to a new level.”
As for Faber’s clients, they loved Tom’s rings.
“His cutting was ingenious, so what better way to see it than in a ring?” he says. “Early on, Tom inherited his father’s ability to evaluate rough stones, as their work depends much on lack of inclusions in the rough. Material like watermelon Tourmaline always has cracks and inclusions, but somehow they would find pieces without inclusions and make something brilliant.”
Tom’s body of work is vast. Highlights include making gem art for a German church—“One-inch by one-inch hand-cut tiles of Agate cut and sealed for a church to install as windows,” explains Shelly Sergent, Curator for the Somewhere in the Rainbow Collection (SITR) in Phoenix, Ariz.
Tom also traveled to mine sources like the “Pedra Azul” mine in Brazil, where he brought home a massive Aquamarine for his father to cut. That rough became The Dom Pedro Aquamarine, the world’s largest cut Aquamarine, and now lives in the Smithsonian Institute. A piece of that original crystal was also gifted to Tom by Bernd; Tom cut it, and father and son named it “Le Dauphin,” meaning “heir apparent.” The gem was set by jewelry designer and goldsmith Susan Helmich and is now owned by SITR.
Tom’s largest piece is his “Visions in Crystal,” a 6-foot-plus-tall rock crystal sculpture comprising 264 tiles of rock crystal Quartz, Citrine, and smoky Quartz framed in aluminum. The piece can be seen today in the foyer of the University of Arizona’s Alfie Norville Museum (and is available for purchase).
Sergent met Tom through friend and peer Helmich more than 10 years ago. She calls him a “force in the lapidary world,” who gave freely of his time. “Many American gem cutters owe him a debt of gratitude,” she continues.
What started as a business relationship for Sergent evolved into the Munsteiners being extended family. To date, Sergent has curated 70 loose gems, jewels, and objects of art from the entire Munsteiner clan for SITR. Tom even contributed a cut gemstone to a magical-looking gemmy mobile created for Sergent’s granddaughter when she was an infant.
Helmich has a long-running relationship with the Munsteiners, having met Tom when he was just 15. She was a thirtysomething gemstone importer and flew to Germany—her first-ever international flight—in search of Munsteiner gems. She’d bought one from Rare Earth Gems’ booth in the basement of the Double Tree Hotel in Tucson before AGTA GemFair was established. That lone stone got her hooked and paved the way for a yearslong relationship with who she now calls her German family.
“I watched Tom grow up, I watched the development of his work, and we created many collections together,” she says.
Abstract rock Crystal angels were among them. Tom made about 100 over five years. They were long and skinny with frosted wings—“A big hit, we sold them all,” says Helmich.
As a longtime distributor of Munsteiner gemstones, Helmich says she has about 100 from Tom alone in her vault. “Setting his gems became a signature for my goldsmithing,” she adds.
After Helmich purchased “Le Dauphin,” she set it into a same-name pendant that SITR purchased. Helmich even wrote a little book to go with it. The piece took home 2nd Place in the Evening Wear Division of the 2018 Spectrum Awards.
“The book is a tribute to both Bernd and Tom,” she says. “It’s the story of Tom’s rising talent within the family. He brought technical innovation to the business.”
For Helmich and many of Tom’s other peers and business partners, his loss is about much more than gemstones. Facets of her life include many reflections of the Munsteiners, who have become family.
“The Munsteiners are the beautiful facets in my family’s life—they are the gems,” she says.
“It was very special to be in the envelope of the Munsteiners,” adds Faber. “Tom’s loss is a great one many can feel.”
The family asks for privacy as they prepare for services to honor Tom. The Munsteiners invite industry members seeking to remember him to the Munsteiner booth at the GJX show or the Tucson Fine Mineral Gallery during the 2024 gem week.
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