People ask us all the time how we ended up with Rare Earth Trading Co, Highland Park Lapidary and Spheres To You with customers and operations spanning multiple continents.
It all started in 1970 when my brother John and I got bit by the rock bug and started collecting rocks on a family vacation around the United States and Canada. John was 10 and I was five and we stopped at nearly every road cut to collect stones and soil samples. At that time you could find nice material along the roadside, as the freeway system was newer then. We remember the thrill of digging thunder eggs at Priday Ranch (now Richardson’s Ranch) and finding Lake Superior Agates in Muscatine Iowa. We got our first slab saw and grinder later that year. The saw was a Highland Park 10-inch gravity feed saw and the grinder was a Rock Rascal. While both pieces of equipment worked, we almost give up lapidary because we could not achieve the results we had hoped for. As time passed, this became an impetus for Highland Park Lapidary 30 plus years later.
Rare Earth Trading Co
Over 20 years ago John started Rare Earth Trading while living in Ohio. He worked full-time in the Computer Semiconductor Industry, which led him to Silicon Valley, and then Austin TX, followed by India and China as the industry evolved. I had moved to Silicon Valley and then Boston building software companies and managing teams in the US, India and Eastern Europe.
Up until 2010, Rare Earth Trading Company (www.RareEarthTrading.com) was run as a side business focused on unique agate specimens, cabochons, spheres and rough rock. We used to run 35 conventional sphere machines using silicon carbide grit. The max number of spheres that could be produced with this technology was 35-40 a week. Not satisfied with this level of performance, John set out to learn diamond technology, which over the course of 10 years resulted in our Highland Park Lapidary High Speed Sphere machine and grinding cups, which can do a coarse grind on a 2.5-inch ball between 10-15 minutes down from the 6-8 hours it used to take.
In our commitment to making superb material available to our customers, we expanded our focus to include buying collections and rock shops in North America. We also began importing containers of material into the US from around the world.
We expanded our custom cutting services to provide commercial cutting services in the US at our Austin TX shop for short run slabs, cabs and sphere orders. We do larger scale custom production cutting of beads, slabs, cabs, spheres and petrified wood in our factory in China. Like Highland Park Lapidary, our cutting operation is managed and run daily by our American team members in China. For our cutters, we have deliberately hired team members who have never cut stone. This is because in many cutting operations, people are taught bad habits of only cutting fast for volume: they do not “see or respect” the stones. We teach a different approach that focuses on quality over quantity and instills a curiosity and respect for the natural patterns and characteristics of the stones. We teach our team members to bring out the best in the stones they are cutting.
Spheres To You
We met Jackie Lapin who was then owner of Spheres To You in the mid-1990s at the Quartzsite PowWow show. Jackie had built a terrific business focused on unique sphere specimens and we became one of her primary suppliers. She used to say “you always have the best stuff” when she would come to visit us at our Rare Earth Trading booth.
We built a good friendship with Jackie and when she shifted her focus to write her best-selling book “The Art of Conscious Creation” and to launch www.LifeWisdomNetwork.com, we made an arrangement to acquire Spheres To You around 2007. We were inspired by Jackie’s ability to create and grow a business focused on connecting people around a shared interest in beautiful mineral spheres.
In the years since we have focused on servicing an exclusive group of collectors – many which would come and visit to select their pieces. We had a vision of creating a website that would provide the serious collector the ability to closely examine each specimen with great detail and without distracting light reflections.
The new Spheres To You website (www.SpheresToYou.com) implements stunning 360 degree viewing technology with the ability to magnify specimens 30x for close examination. We developed specialized software for the web site and a unique photographic process that virtually eliminates light reflections – a difficult challenge which took us over 3 years and over $15K investment to achieve. We are presently photographing our inventory of over 8000 spheres so keep checking the site for new specimens.
In pursuit of unusual and fantastic pieces, we cut from our personal stock of over 50 tons of rock and add new specimens to our inventory regularly.
Highland Park Lapidary
By 2005 we were selling a lot of rough thru our Rare Earth Trading Company and many were large pieces we imported in from around the world. People always were asking us for used saws because they said they could not afford the new ones. We would go around the country buying up old saws and we found from our experience that the old Highland Park Manufacturing saws were the best saws out there. We could get $3,000 for a used 24-inch saw without trying. Given our experience manufacturing around the world, we starting thinking, “we could build brand new saws at almost the same price”.
Over the last 20 years we’ve seen the lapidary industry in the US shrink in size as less and less people have gotten into the hobby. We think a big reason for this is that previously equipment on the market was too expensive and often too poorly built to enable a new enthusiast to be successful. The focus had often been on selling equipment with little commitment or capability to helping new enthusiasts become successful and satisfied. We remembered our own frustration that nearly had us give up on the hobby when we first started. In considering getting into the equipment manufacturing business, we didn’t want to just be another company pushing a product. We only wanted to build what we would use ourselves and provide quality equipment at a fair price. In short we wanted to do our part to grow the hobby.
We chose the Highland Park Style slab saw because we believe this design is the very best. We admire the pioneering work that HP did to create saws that are still in use after 50 years. Before building our own saws, we first checked to see if there were any active HP trademarks or patents. We found that there had been a trademark filed (but never granted) in 2005 but was abandoned in 2008 by Barranca Diamond. We had heard that Contempo had purchased Highland Park related assets so we called up Bill Ritter (who owned Contempo) to see if what he could tell us about it. We had a great chat with him and learned a little about HP’s history and he verified that there were never any patents on the designs. Based this research, we filed for the Highland Park Lapidary trademark in 2009 was granted it in 2010 by the US Patent and Trademark Office. While we are in no way associated with the original Highland Park Manufacturing Company, the equipment we manufacture meets or exceeds original specifications and our replacement parts fits much of the equipment made in the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s.
We built our first 18 and 24-inch saws by reverse engineering the old ones we owned, measuring every part and creating detailed CAD models. We then made new moulds for the cast parts and detailed drawings for the machined parts. As production cutters, there were some aspects of the old machine that we didn’t’ like – the plastic window in the hood that always leaked, bronze feed dogs/split nut that were too expensive when they wear out and the undersized motors. We improved these aspects of the machines and showed our new 18 and 24-inch saws at the 2010 Quartzsite PowWow show and received a terrific response.
Since launching Highland Park Lapidary (www.HPLapidary.com), our equipment line has grown rapidly to include drop saws, trim saws, slabbing saws from 12 to 36 inch, sphere machines, flat lapping machines, ultrasonic drills, bull wheel grinders, oil cleaning systems, diamond blades, diamond flat lap discs, abrasive grit and polishing power and a range of diamond tooling and accessories and replacement parts for Highland Park, Frantom and other excellent equipment from the past.
Looking forward, we will continue our commitment to help cutters and collectors, both novice and professional, to be successful and doing what they love by providing unique specimens, cabochons, rough and cutting services from Rare Earth Trading Company, unusual rare and metaphysical spheres from Spheres To You and quality equipment and support from Highland Park Lapidary.