The Kindest Cut of All Turns Stone-Broke Roy Whetstine's $10 Buy into a Million-Buck Rock of Ages

updated 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Robinson romanced the stone for seven days.

The master gem cutter studied it under a twin-barreled jeweler's microscope, searching for hidden vulnerabilities. He turned it in his hands, trying to divine its inner structure.

The stone was the size and shape of a small potato; but it wasn't small potatoes. It weighed about a pound, and at one end of its rough and ridged crust a small spot had been polished to form a kind of window. Through it, in lavender depths, Robinson could see a dazzling, six-pointed star. It was Robinson's job to free that star.

At a Tucson gem fair 11 months ago, a 47-year-old Texas gem dealer named Roy Whetstine, broke after battling back from bypass surgery, had spotted the stone in a $15 miscellany bin. He had bought it for $10. A bargain. Then he had shouted "Yahoo!," for he had known all along what it was. It was a sapphire. A prized star sapphire—at 1,905 carats, twice the size of the legendary Star of India. In fact it was the largest pure crystal star sapphire in recorded history. Uncut, its appraised value was $2.28 million.

Originally Whetstine intended to sell the stone rough. To cut it was to risk shattering it; and at five-figure premiums he could not afford cutting insurance. But uncut, he could never reap the gem's full worth or release its full beauty. For 11 months he deliberated. Finally he decided. He was going to need a cutter as brilliant as the gleam inside that potato.

Cutters "have big egos," Whetstine says, and are stingy with praise. Yet when Whetstine inquired, Robinson's was the name every cutter mentioned. Only 37, he had been a successful free-lancer for 18 years.

The largest stone Robinson had ever shaped was a mere 60 carats. He took his time studying Whetstine's mammoth, then carefully marked it for the saw with a blue pen—a circle to indicate the first cut line, Xs and dots to mark the lay of the inner crystal. If he was right and had divined the exact center of the crystal in the stone's unseen interior, the arms of twin six-pointed stars would embrace the ovoid gem in exact alignment from each end. Their rays would touch lightly in the middle, like the hands of dancers in a pas de deux.

Late last month about 20 of Whetstine's friends, business associates and family gathered in the back room of the King Arthur Clock & Jewelry store in Piano, Texas to witness and videotape the momentous event. Pinkerton guards watched the doors. A decoy rock was placed in the cutting room to confuse would-be bandits. Among the spectators were Whetstine's wife, Jeanne, and their sons, Jonathan, 11, and Stephen, 4. Profits from the eventual sale of the cut sapphires will endow a trust fund for the boys.

"I didn't sleep last night," Whetstine confessed. "Nobody can know for certain what's inside until it's cut. If it has a transparent core it would be so unusual it could be worth $20 million. Anything can happen. Lord, a tornado could come out of the sky and snatch it away."

That didn't happen. Robinson, steady as a rock, locked the gem in a special clamp and gently fed it into the saw's razor-thin, diamond-tipped rotary blade, spinning at 1,700 rpm (slow compared to the average table saw). Lubricant dripped into the cut to stave off potentially ruinous heat and vibration. The violet of the sapphire, mixing with paint from the blade, tinted the lubricant. "Look, it seems like it's bleeding," cried an onlooker.

Robinson took 31 minutes to complete the cut. Then suddenly he held up a stone in each hand. Jonathan Whetstine let out a huge sigh. The crowd seemed to hold its breath as Robinson scrubbed the cut end of the bigger piece with alcohol and examined it with an eyepiece. "It's beautiful," he said, and handed it to its owner.

Whetstine glowed. "It's a bright lavender, just like I thought it would be," he said. "There's no transparent core inside, but that was too much to hope for." The still unpolished piece weighed in at 1,579.9 carats. "It's worth millions," said Whetstine. At 309 carats the little leftover chunk was itself worth a small fortune. (As polishing progressed, Whetstine slept in the store near the stone with a loaded .45 tucked in his bedroll.)

As Jonathan Whetstine cried softly and embraced his father, Robinson broke his reserve. "I've never been able to see a six-pointed star before from a new cut," he said. "It will be phenomenal. This is the kind of stone that kings of old would have fought wars over."

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