ANCIENT CARVED GEMSTONES

WHAT IS AN INTAGLIO?

A precious or semi-precious gemstone that has been incised, creating a depressed engraving on the face of the stone. Popular motifs included animals, portraits, and mythological figures or scenes.

WHAT IS A CAMEO?

Contrary to an intaglio, a cameo is sculptural. It is an image in relief that has been carved from the surface of a gemstone – usually of two-coloured layers – resulting in a protruding motif. Cameos were introduced in the Hellenistic period, and later became popular during the Roman era.

WHAT STONES WERE USED AND HOW WERE THEY CARVED?

Precious and semi-precious stones, such as carnelian, jasper, agate, chalcedony, rock crystal, garnet, and amethyst, are amongst the most common examples. They were usually set in gold, silver, or bronze. Many are found as loose stones today, as over time, they were removed from their original mounts, either to melt down the gold, or to reset the stone differently. Gemstone engravers used simple mechanical hand tools with abrasive powders such as emery to carve into the stones. It is likely that gem cutters were engraving pieces without magnification, making the level of detail in their work truly astonishing. The quality of the carving, as well as the type and size of the gemstones, were key factors in determining their worth (and still are).

WHAT WAS THEIR FUNCTION?

At first, intaglios served a specific function: they were set in rings and were used as seals to sign or authenticate important documents. The design was carved in a mirror image, to produce an impression the correct way when pressing the ring into wax or clay. Because of their sculptural nature, cameos did not serve the same purpose, and were often worn as amulets. Engraved gems later became more of a personal adornment, and designs were chosen according to interests and beliefs. These gems were mostly worn in rings, but larger examples were worn as pendants.

DID BOTH MEN AND WOMEN WEAR JEWELLERY?

Yes – both wore jewellery. However, women wore multiple pieces at once, usually adoring their bodies with earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and fibula (brooch used to fasten garments), while men typically wore less. Jewellery was just as much a status symbol then as it is now.

CLASSICAL CARVED GEMSTONES OVER TIME

Engraved gems have survived thousands of years, mainly due to their small size and their hard materials. Some have been excavated, while others have survived thanks to their continuous repurposing throughout history. After the fall of Rome, from the middle ages and all the way through to the 19th century, gemstones were set into new mounts, while others were used to adorn religious objects such as books, crowns, reliquaries, and sometimes even altars. During the Renaissance, Classical gemstones were in high demand, which is why a lot of stone cutters tried replicating their antique counterparts. Grand Tourists of the 17th and 18th centuries showed a renewed interest in antiquity, and travelled across Europe collecting souvenirs, such as engraved gems, which they would then take home to display in cases. Collectors have been fascinated by the exceptional beauty of Classical gemstones since their creation, from the Greek and Roman elite through to the present day.