History’s Most Successful Fine Gemstone Artist Debuts Magnificent Carved Sculpture Collection

INTERVIEW: With a $50 million, Guinness World Record holding gemstone sculpture among his credits, fine artist Daniel McKinney reveals new carved gemstone collection exemplifying his revolutionary impact on artisanal gemstone craftsmanship and sculpture art at large

Sculptor and jewelry designer Daniel McKinney is no ordinary contemporary artist. With decades of experience sourcing, supplying, cutting and setting precious gemstones to his credit, he is revered worldwide for creating ornate gemstone carvings on an unprecedented scale. Having realized global notoriety for creating majestic, rarely encountered carvings out of precious stones like sapphire, ruby, lapis lazuli and emerald—all sourced through his long-cultivated industry connections from around the world—McKinney’s work skillfully bridges the gap between traditional gemstone sculpture techniques, ancient history, the natural world and the animal kingdom.

No stranger to notoriety, in the late 90s McKinney sourced and designed the world’s largest carved blue sapphire, coined “the Millennium Sapphire,” which he crafted from a giant 90,000 carat stone discovered in Madagascar. The carvings of 134 historical figures—such as Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Albert Einstein—on this magnificent 61,500 carat piece of art serves as a monumental tribute to humanity’s ingenuity and achievements over 5000 years. The pedigree of the sculpture is decidedly impressive, including its display at the christening of the Princess Cruise Line’s Sapphire Princess (then the world’s largest cruise ship), an appearance at the Academy Awards and a Guinness World Records distinction as the world’s largest gem-quality sapphire—collectively spurring deals for this stellar piece commanding upwards of $50 million revealed in front-page major media news reports.

McKinney’s work as a sculptor and designer not only springs from his in-depth knowledge of the material properties of precious gemstones, but also his profound reverence for the natural world and the feats of human civilization. The pairing of each gemstone and the subject matter of its carving creates a dialogue between the physical properties of the mineral structures of the medium and the conceptual origins of the works’ inspiration.

McKinney’s brand new collection of ornate, bespoke gemstone carvings represents a never-before-seen suite of extraordinary artworks carved from rare pieces of higher end precious stones, again at his trademark unparalleled scale. His carvings draw inspiration from his passion for Renaissance, ancient civilization and other history; historic architecture; mythology and regal animals. With a particular penchant for sapphire in the many colors it naturally occurs, ruby, emerald and lapis lazuli, McKinney’s long and illustrious career as an international jewelry entrepreneur has afforded him special access to gemstone suppliers around the world. These unique, long-standing vendor relationships provide him with “first pick” privileges of their finest uncut stones, and the creations that ensue befit the caliber of these exalted materials.

Amid the debut of McKinney’s newest collection and with decades of fine gemstone art to his credit, the conversation with him below reveals more about this enigmatic artist.

MK: First, let’s start out with a bit about your earliest years. Was there anything in your childhood that prompted this particular career path for you?

DM: Yes, having been born in Texas then raised in Hong Kong, I first gained exposure to rough gems as a child hiking with my father in the steep mountains above the bustling city. My father, an avid rockhound and a university gemologist, taught me about the material origins and aesthetic qualities of uncut stones. Using rock hammers, we collected specimens of crystalline quartz, deep red garnet and iron pyrite. These excursions sparked my lifelong passion for gemstones and set me on a course to work with them throughout my career as an artist and jewelry designer.

MK: What about your years as a jewelry designer spurred your passion to become an artist?

DM: In the early 1980s I learned to source and cut rough gemstones myself, becoming a supplier for local Hong Kong jewelers and eventually establishing my own gem cutting factory. Initially serving clients from Idar Oberstein, the gemstone cutting capital of Germany, I honed my skills in cutting a wide array of gems like tourmaline, garnet, topaz and amethyst. Later on, my association with the pioneering retail company Sharper Image founded by Richard Talheimer, further propelled my career as a jewelry designer and supplier, for which I have been fortunate enough to gain prominence. By the early 90’s, I had become one of the leading silver and gold accent jewelry designers in Japan, operating under the playful nom de guerre, Daniel Le Duc.

MK: Was there any foundational or pivotal moment where your jewelry work morphed into fine arts and sculpture?

MK: Yes, early on I had partnered with former Texas Governor John Connally and began creating large, bespoke gemstone carvings exploring Western themes like cowboys and horses, which were sold through Connally’s private network as well as several galleries across the Southwest. From there, I took a notable departure from this Cowboy motif and crafted a sprawling, ornate Chinese mountain scene from a very large “Table Top’’ aquamarine crystal acquired from Nigeria, which was ultimately purchased by Warren Buffett’s company, Borshein’s, in 1988. To this day, my work melds Eastern and Western aesthetics, fusing the spirit of my Texan origins and with my childhood in Southeast Asia—two regions where I still frequently travel to draw inspiration as well as to source new gems...along with the far corners of the world beyond.

MK: From those years in the late 80s and early 90s when you were designing and creating more sculptural work out of gemstones, I know you were working through galleries and well-connected art consultants to place large sculptural pieces not just in businesses but also stately homes around the world. What are some of your favorite pieces from that era?

DM:  My favorite pieces were large lapis, malachite and jade carvings featuring cowboys and their horses, long horn cattle, spurs and coyote’s. Beyond these western themes, since my days in high school studying art history, I have also been enamored by the Renaissance period with such artists as Leonardo di Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. Their masterpiece paintings and creations are awe-inspiring and served as my inspiration for various creations, including the theme for the Millennium Sapphire for which I was fortunate to gain much fame and acclaim.

MK: In recent years you have a renewed focus on your fine art, now having created a new collection of bespoke gemstone carvings. What inspired this exquisite new suite of pieces and how would you describe this compilation on the whole?

DM: This new collection reflects my passion for historical figures, artists and architecture using a canvass of large precious gems. The enormous size of many of these sculptures surpasses anything ever seen even in the leading museums around the world. These art carvings, particularly in ruby and sapphire will be around for potentially millions of years as corundum has a Mohs hardness of 9 and is tougher than diamond. The high level of carving quality and details in this collection is unprecedented.

MK: How do you select which gemstone to use for a specific sculpture, knowing the work will guide the observer through the corridors of civilizational history or the wild beauty of the animal kingdom?

DM: The pairing of each gemstone and the subject matter of each carving creates a dialogue between the physical properties of the mineral structures of the medium and the conceptual origins of the works’ inspiration. Delving into the great stories, figures and accomplishments of history; the varied forms and gestures of nature; and even sometimes the evocative musings of myth and fantasy, all of my work is intended as an homage to human accomplishment, imagination and natural wonder. The luxurious, timeless and durable choice of the precious physical medium of the works serves as not only a bridge from the past to the present, but also a cultural lifeline into the distant future. The stones, themselves, not only embody an enduring expression of majestic physical beauty, but also a tangible expression of my admiration for both the subject matter and materials used.

Concept and gemstone selection aside, the process of carving and polishing these pieces is both meticulous and spontaneous. Emergent properties of the crystalline inner structures of each are only revealed as they are uncovered by the hewing of the stones. Unpredictable venation, speckles and areas of opaqueness and translucency give the carvings a prismatic inner life that is brought forth by their creation. The story that the pieces tell is two-fold, encapsulating both my epochal intentions as well as the primordial relics of the gemstones’ formation. While works in other materials might fade or decay in time, gemstone is a truly enduring medium. These carvings will not lose their luster and will persist in their current form for millennia.

MK: Throughout your career you’ve undertaken gallery displays, exhibitions and sales of your large carved gemstone sculptures. Do you plan to tour galleries with your new collection?

DM: My company plans to work with galleries around the world and cater to their premier clients with our exclusive and rare gemstone canvasses. Our large gemstone carvings will be shown on an exclusive, by invitation only basis. As always, these pieces are never advertised in a magazine or shopped on a website, but rather are merchandized through galleries and private dealers who work with elite clientele.  These historical pieces often become family heirlooms before they eventually become prominent pieces displayed in a museum.

MK: What about other merchandizing and retailing this fine your goal to have these pieces also sold in high-end retail interior décor establishments, museums gift shops and artisanal gift stores?

DM: Our small pieces can certainly be displayed and sold in museum gift shops or high-end specialty art stores. We will also be working with interior décor consultants to place special bespoke sculptures in elegant homes.

In all, McKinney’s remarkable carvings speak to his intimate familiarity with these precious materials birthed from Mother Nature, with the subject matter ultimately serving as his tribute to the grandeur of human endeavors. With each carving, he invites observers to share his awe of the natural world while also marveling at their own place within the tapestry of history. Already the most successful artist in the history of gemstone art, his recent endeavors exemplify his continued focus on designing and carving some of the largest and most valuable art pieces ever produced our of Sapphire, Emerald and Ruby gemstone. McKinney’s extraordinary new collection, characterized by its rarity and exceptional quality, is a testament to this fine artist’s distinguished journey revolutionizing the world of sculpture and artisanal gemstone craftsmanship.


Merilee Kern

Forbes Business Council Member Merilee Kern, MBA is an internationally-regarded brand analyst, strategist and futurist who reports on noteworthy industry change makers, movers, shakers and innovators across all categories, both B2C and B2B. This includes field experts and thought leaders, brands, products, services, destinations and events. Merilee is Founder, Executive Editor and Producer of “T...(Read More)

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