The study of carved and engraved gemstones is a fascinating one, and it has endless possibilities for the jeweler who really wants to know more about them. All gems have an ancient lineage, but the art of carving gems originated long before the art of faceting them. In the centuries before Christ, the only polished gems were those that had been polished by being rubbed against pebbles in river beds and streams. Excavations have revealed that the first carved gems were made about 4000 B.C. These were not the popular cameos and intaglios of today, but the cylinders and seals that were used principally for affixing "Signatures" to contracts and for messages and tokens of identity. We are amazed at the delicacy of carving and the beauty of design. The exquisitely carved designs of wind-swept trees are possibly the most outstanding examples of this delicate art.
In Egypt and Crete almost the same designs were used. The bee was the sign of royalty and the hands were the sign of the worker. There are repeated representations of the saffron, the flower sign, suggesting the importance of the dye industry in the ancient world, since dye was made from the saffron. In fact, the story of early civilizations is told in their carved and engraved gems and in their pottery, but the gems endure while most of the pottery has been broken or entirely destroyed. These early cylinders and seals are not worn today as jewelry, but are to be found in the collections of the museums of the world.
It is the intaglio, cameo and scarab that are of interest to the jeweler from the standpoint of added sales. If a jeweler is interested in carved and engraved gems, he can undoubtedly find excellent specimens and buy them for comparatively little. Since cameos and intaglios are often made of durable material, a significant percentage of those that have been made throughout the last two or three thousand years are still in existence; Many, of course, are in museums or private collections. Many beautiful 18th and 19th century cameos are still in circulation, often appearing in old jewelry that has been turned in for its old gold value. Still others are kept in boxes with trinkets that are considered more or less worthless but that the owner does not wish to destroy.
There is a distinct possibility that if a sufficient number of retail jewelers could be interested in accumulating a stock of these old carved and engraved gems that the "craze" for collecting them could again be revived. Several waves of popularity for them have occurred during recent centuries, during which time the finer specimens have brought exceptionally high prices. Gradually, however, the prices have receded and they have found their way back into circulation, where they frequently became available for a fraction of their actual worth.
A good many cameos are still made, of course, particularly for mounting in men's rings. The majority of these are of very inferior workmanship, though occasionally a finely worked specimen is turned out.
Though the intaglio was developed first and has had, through the centuries, more years of popularity than the cameo, the cameo is generally favored today over the intaglio. The intaglio, in harder stones, makes an ideal ring stone for a man. It should be remembered that persons with little or no appreciation of diamonds and other gems can often be interested in exquisitely worked cameos and intaglios; not only are they miniature works of art, but they have the added advantage of being of a size that permits them to be worn as articles of personal adornment.
Although the term engraving is frequently used loosely to include the art of carving as well, modern practice tends to consider each form of craftsmanship as a separate and distinct classification. This division may be clarified by the following definitions.
- That branch of the lapidary art confined to comparatively small gems upon which are incised various types of figures or designs and that are generally mounted and used for articles of personal adornment (cameos, intaglios, etc.).
- That branch of the lapidary art devoted to the working of gem materials into articles of ornament and utility (vases, statues, etc.)
Therefore, it becomes evident that the principle difference between the two art forms lies in the nature and size of the article and the use for which it is intended.
These are not unvarying definitions, however, since certain small objects more characteristic of engraved gems and such jewelry pieces as carved pendants fall into the category of carving. In addition, a carved article may bear an engraved inscription and thus be representative of both types of work. In other words, a certain amount of "overlapping" is to be expected. But, in general, the definitions hold true and serve effectively as a means of classification.
In the more than six thousand years that gem materials have been carved or engraved they have been made for one of three main reasons; often they have combined all three.
As an Ornament
From prehistoric times, the rare beauty of cut-and-polished gems has been desirable. Rings, earrings, necklaces and decorative inlays in furniture and utensils are only some of the uses to which engraved gems have been put. Even portraiture is found in this art medium. Goblets and vases were also carved.
As Seals or Signets
Throughout historic times, there have been long periods when the skill of writing was the rare accomplishment of only a few. Hard, durable stones engraved with a name or an adopted symbol were used to authenticate letters or documents written by professional scribes, much as the signature is used in modern times. Seals were used to insure property before the advent of the lock. Jars, boxes and even house doors were taped with string, and the knot was covered with clay or wax into which the private seal was impressed. Tampering would be proven by the broken seal.
As an Amulet or Charm
The mystic spell of the graven image, the sacred or magic word or name of a god, and the esoteric, curative or protective power of certain stones once molded men's thoughts and is still held by many today. Among the Gnostics of the 1st century A.D. the carved gem was not only used to spread their elaborate secret dogma, but it also served as a membership identification, much as a lodge pin is used today.
Although crude line drawings are found scratched on prehistoric stones, the earliest true artistic engraving probably originated in South Mesopotamia, in the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. From here it may have spread westward to the Nile Valley, or it may have here been an independent discovery. At any rate, a high degree of skill and artistic craftsmanship was found in Sumer, a territorial division of Babylonia (modern Iraq), as early as 4000 B.C. Cylinder-type seals for leaving impressions in clay writing tablets were the chief articles fabricated by the gem cutter. The idea of using durable stones may have originated from the tribal totem markings cut into the shafts of arrows and pressed into clay or register ownership. Successive civilizations that rose and fell in this area used stone cylinders as a personal seal. The people of Babylon, Syria, Assyria and Persia all cut their characteristic seals in gemstones as they passed in the pages of history for over three thousand years.
In the Nile Valley the cylinder was supplanted by the scarab seal. That they did not write on tablets of clay was only one reason; the more important cause was the rise of the symbolism of the sacred beetle, about 2500 B.C. The god Khepera, the creator, had for his symbol the beetle, called in the Egyptian language "Kheper." Our word scarab is from the Greek; it was the Greeks who first told of it before we could read the heiroglyphics. It caught the popular imagination and deep esoteric significance was given it, much the same as the symbol of the cross was to the Christian era. It was cherished as a powerful amulet, and it was so sacred that for a period of about two thousand years every person of the population of seven million Egyptians had one or more of these gems. It is no wonder that they are the most numerous of the ancient engraved gems available to collectors today.
Another civilization in the Mediterranean islands flourished between 3000 and 900 B.C. Their colonists reached out to the mainland of Greece, founding such great cities as Mycenae and Tiryns, and onto the isles of the Aegean. They, too, developed the art of gem cutting, following the methods learned from Mesopotamian and Egyptian traders. But their art was free of the creeds that hampered their teachers. They expressed the joy of life. They were to influence the art history of the Greeks who, as rude Aryan-speaking barbarians, were then moving south in a great migration from the Danube into the Peninsula of Greece.
Waves of Achaean, Dorian and Ionian tribes overran the lands of these cultured Mycenaean's and, by 1300 B.C., even the island of Crete, with its ancient Minoan arts. Then began the "Dark Ages" of Greece, while the new masters learned from the old.
The most intelligent of these Hellenic barbarians, the Ionians, did not let the last spark of Aegean culture go out, but slowly developed it with their own fresh vigor, influenced by their Eastern neighbors in Asia Minor. By the 8th century B.C. , the Ionians of Melos developed an archaic but promising style of art, including gems cutting.
In the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. , the demand for gem seals grew as commerce developed. Solon's laws prohibited an artist keeping a copy of a seal under the penalty of death, lest it fall into the hands of another. The scarab from was retained, the only bond of the artist to the past. It was decorative and not of religious significance, other than the good luck claimed for it by the Phoenicians, who sold them the idea. Soon the scarab back was omitted, the shape as a scaraboid alone being retained. Often cameo like satyr heads replaced the beetle form as backs of gems. Phoenician, Carthaginian and Greek traders carried the scarab form to all parts of the Mediterranean, including Italy and the Etruscans, but the style and subjects engraved could never be confused with the Egyptian prototype.
Between 480 and 350 B.C., the finest finished type of Greek gem cutting was accomplished. By 400 B.C., the Etruscan and Italic Greeks had developed lapidary styles of their own. Although the scarab form was retained, the subject matter was Greek mythology.
The Attic school led in Greece. A Hellenistic style quite different grew in the west from 300 to 100 B.C. This was replaced by the growing Roman domination. Characteristic gems of this period usually were cut by the Greeks, but they were influenced by the vigor of the new Roman Republic and then the Empire. This art was followed by a decline as the later Empire gave way to gaudy show and cheap ostentation. By the time of Commodus, the spirit of originality was declining. One can read the history of Rome in her cut gems.
In the East, the Mithric gems of Pertia and the Gnostic stones of Alexandria became the only field of any originality. Christian gems grew into the stiff formality of the Byzantine stones.
The late Persian empire of the Sassarians developed a glyptic art of some value between the 3rd and 7th centuries A.D. , but when the empire was conquered by Islam, that too passed. The Mohammedan signets were to contain only beautifully engraved prayers and quotations, for they were forbidden the graven image.
Seals through the Middle Ages in Europe were few, mostly ancient gems whose symbols and figures were misunderstood. The art of gem cutting did not wholly die, for when the renaissance dawned the art sprang into bloom. Ancient subjects were taken and treated with Gothic stiffness at first; this later developed into violent action in the subject matter. They were too full of their own times to try to copy the past.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a definite tendency to copy the ancient gems. The 18th century cutters lost all desire for originality, and the unsigned gems are distinguished from the ancient works only with great difficulty. Many signed their names in Greek or Roman lettering or, worse, signed names of ancient artists. Gem collecting became a mania with the idle rich of the 18th centuries. This led to forgeries and clever imitations that even today plague the collectors of of ancient works of the gem cutters of antiquity. In 1840, Count Poniotowski, a Polish nobleman, hired Italian gem engraver to make fine reproductions of ancient cameos and intaglios in natural stones.
We are today in another period during which there is comparatively little demand for stone carving and engraving. Most jewelry cameos are made of shell, primarily by mass-production methods, and they lack mar of the desirable and more artistic qualities of handwork. The most prize cameos today are not those of percent manufacture, but those that were made during the earlier centuries when the art was in greater demand; however, a few fine examples are still engraved in stone. Most of the highly accomplished artisans of recent times have been Italians.
As would be expected, the earliest expressions of the art of gem engraving were on the softer stones. This is also to be found in periods of decadence and during the transition of new cultures feeling their way in the new art.
At a very early period in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, gem cutters began working stones of a hardness of between 5 and B. This was possible because other crystalline-alumina abrasives were early discovered by some unsung genius over six thousand years ago.
Greek and Roman literature, even with such students as Theophrastus and Pliny, do not help us much in listing all the stones used by the ancients. Until comparatively recently, color and rough estimates of hardness were the guides to mineralogy. Wholly unrelated stones were lumped together by this method. But the great number of ancient cut gems in the collections of today give us a fair idea of the materials preferred at various times and places. The craftsman followed public demand, which for period and locality, was often definite enough to date the gem cutting.
There is conclusive evidence of extensive commerce in gemstones, even in prehistoric times. Minerals from deposits of distant points appear in early cut gems far from their source.
Minerals and Other Natural Substances.
The ancient world was familiar with most of the gem materials to day. Chalcedonies, as now, were the most universally used of all gemstones for engraving. In Egypt, scarabs of amethyst dominated the 12th dynasty; green feldspar, green basalt and jasper the 13th; carnelian and glass the 18th; red and green jasper and rock crystal the 19th; and lapis the 20th dynasty. In Mesopotamian area, cylinder seals before the 2nd millennium B.C. were made of softer serpentine and marble. In the early part of the 2nd millennium, hematite prevailed; later, jaspers and other chalcedonies were favored. The Assyrians preferred rock crystal, agate and carnelian after the 14th century B.C. With the Greeks, the cryptocrystalline quartz varieties sard, plasma, jasper and agate were favored; of the crystalline varieties, rock crystal and amethyst were favorites. They also occasionally used the harder stones like garnet and beryl. The Romano-Italic lapidaries preferred sard, plasma, jasper, amethyst, garnet, aquamarine, topaz, lapis-lazuli and sardonyx for cameos.
Emerald, ruby, sapphire and diamond have never been used extensively for gem carving and engraving. Emerald probably lacked favor because it is quite hard to work and tends to break rather too easily, perhaps after a considerable amount of work had been done on it. Ruby, sapphire and diamond were still less frequently used in earlier days because of their great hardness, which made it almost impossible to work them. A few intaglios in these materials have been handed down. In more recent times, the use of the diamond drill has made it possible to work ruby and sapphire with greater ease, but the diamond still cuts very slowly and is not regarded as a satisfactory medium for such work.
The size of cameos is not limited for use in jewelry. Larger cameos have bee fashioned for art objects or commemoration pieces. A notable example known as the "Apotheosis of Germanicus," now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, measures 30 x 26 centimeters.
Cameos carved from pink conch shells or from shells of the various pearl-bearing molluscs and other marine shellfish have been used for centuries. Some of those made during the nineteenth century are among the finest cameo work known. In some cases, the entire shell of a mollusc (though not of a conch) has been carved out as a single figure or with a number of figures. Both sides of the shell have sometimes been used for the face of the cameo, although the white lining usually is used for the top layer and the darker outside coating serves as a background for the figures carved in relief.
Cameos carved from the pin conch shell are almost invariably a solid color, since this shell rarely shows any color variations; hence, they are sometimes mistaken for pink coral cameos. Most shell cameos are fashioned from a mollusc shell that has a pink or brown lining. Almost all pink shell cameos fade to white or very light pink. Some fade much more rapidly than others, probably having been artificially dyed to restore their pink color. Therefore, the shell cameos with a brown background are, as a rule, much more desirable, although they also show some tendency to fade. Obviously, shell cameos are less desirable and expensive than those made of stone, since they are easier to work and break more easily.
Other materials that have been carved and engraved from time to time include ivory, amber, and even ostrich and emu eggs. Amber, because its softness makes it easy to work, has been carved by many early civilizations. The shells, of ostrich and emu eggs are commonly seen as whole specimens cut in low relief. Even rocks such as lava and basalt have occasionally been used. Coral cameos have enjoyed intermittent popularity; they are seen infrequently in the trade today.
The majority of stone cameos are fashioned from chalcedonies. In most of those used in jewelry, the raised portion is white and the background black, brown or light red of low intensity.
Those with reddish-brown background are properly known as SARDONYX CAMEOS. Those with a more intense reddish background and a figure of some other color, usually gray or black are also frequently seen and are properly known as carnelian cameos. Those made from onyx of three or more differently colored layers are not uncommon, usually depicting two or more figures or heads, each being fashioned from a different layer. Onyx, of course, is the most frequently employed gem mineral, because its different colored layers are parallel and of approximately even widths. However, agate of different colored layers (which are of uneven widths) is also employed, requiring more skill on the part of the carver but rarely producing as pleasing results. Green and white cameos almost always consist of a white figure on a green dyed background.
Glass paste colored with metallic oxides were used by Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Roman gem cutters. No lead oxide, which is used in modern pastes to increase brilliancy (but reduces hardness), was employed. In un faceted stones, color was the most important consideration. For luminous texture, color and hardness, the ancient glass was superior to the modern paste. Ancient pastes are cut with facets and sold in Italy today as seal gems. The minute air bubbles in ancient glass give it a more luminous quality than the modern product. Generally speaking, the ancient pastes were really superior to the ancient gems in richness and beauty of color. The Roman paste makers even made clever fusions of laminated glass to imitate sardonyx for cameo cutters.
At other times, the molding of glass and ceramics (earthenware, porcelain, Cc.) was done not a substitute but with a candid desire to produce a beautiful job. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Josiah Wedgwood, an Englishman, manufactured cameos from pottery. He used his blue, green, pink, yellow or black "Jasperware" as a background for white molded pottery figures in relief. Some of these were excellent reproduction of ancient cameos and they were widely distributed. These same cameos are still being made by the English firm that Josiah Wedgwood founded and are sometimes seen in gift shops and jewelry stores in North America. Known as Wedgwood cameos, the most usual variety is a white figure on a blue background.
Many very crude cameo imitations have been molded from other substances. Formerly, wax was used; more recently, plastics of various kinds. Most of these are easily detected at a distance, because of their high or waxy luster and the lack of sharp outlines of their figures.
These are not carved from one piece but consist of two or more cemented layers of genuine materials or a combination of genuine and limitation materials. Contrary to general belief, they are not frequently seen; they are probably produced in order to salvage the remaining worth wile layers of cameos that have been broken accidentally.
(NOTE: It is generally customary in the trade today to distinguish between carved and engraved gems by the use of such terms as STONE CAMEO, SHELL CAMEO, CORAL CAMEO, etc., depending on the materials from which they are fashioned. A stone cameo, for example, refers to one made from any naturally occurring mineral or rock. In addition, the ethical jeweler or gem dealer is careful to apply the term IMITATION to all engraved materials composed of wax, glass, plastic, etc., and the term SYNTHETIC to all those fashioned from synthetic materials.)
The earliest lapidary tool was any sharp, hard stone such as quartz, corundum or, later, white sapphire and diamond. The principle most frequently employed was to use an abrasive paste of emery or corundum dust in oil or water and copper or even wood to abrade the stone. Pliny states that most of this abrasive came from the Isle of Naxos. Hill tribes of India still use bamboo points to drill hand rotated drills and bow driven points of soft metal, such as copper impregnated with the abrasive, were used even in prehistoric times. By 4000 B.C., the gem-cutter's equipment closely resembled the tools of today. The bow drill soon began to be used not only with point drills but with tubes and wheels of various sizes as well. Later, a bow driven lathe was developed. Still later, a sapphire or diamond silver was mounted in an iron or bronze handle and used as a fine-lime finisher and graver. The ophrastus and Pliny give accounts of methods that were surprisingly modern. Careful study by archaeologists of the many gems found in various stages of completion give a clear picture of the steps used in fashioning. Rough shaping was done with copper wire and emery paste, Whetstones of black Lydia). jasper and particles of emery melted in resin were used to smooth the surfaces. Blocking out was done with drills and tubes of various sizes. The rotula, or wheel of bronze, was often used, frequently, the roughing-out operation was the work of an apprentice or assistant, the master artist taking over with the graving point where skill, personality and experience were required. Polishing was done as today, with metallic oxides and soft wood or, for flat surfaces, with a cloth dusted with ochreous earth or hematite. Glass cameo work in two colors was done by dipping cobalt-blue glass into molten white glass; a thin, white coating was thus fused on. This was worked away to form the figures, leaving a blue background.
Today the power lathe is the most important tool for engraving gems. It consists of a fixed motor, the shaft of which hold a small chuck, or collect. The drills and cutters used for carving are mounted in the collect. The most recently introduced cutters are made from sintered metal impregnated with diamond dust. Previously, steel tips were used and they were charged by applying olive oil and diamond powder. The various shapes made include the ballpoint, wheel, oval, conical, sharp edge and cylindrical. The material to be worked is held either in the hand or cemented to a short dop stick and the engraving accomplished by manipulating the stone against the rapidly revolving cutter. In order to insure accuracy in the finished product, it is usually customary to sketch the outline of the proposed design or figure on the surface of the gem with a diamond stylus or other suitable instrument. Work done by a drill, in contrast to a cutter, is characterized by rounded grooves or lines and especially by holes where the drill has been stopped momentarily.
Infrequently, certain materials, especially softer substance such as shell, are engraved by hand with the use of steel gravers or wood-cutting tools. The method is, of course, much slower than the drill or cutter. Even in ancient days, when time was not practical on harder stones.
Because of the wide variety of sizes and shapes produced in carved stones, a combination of the techniques of both cabochon cutting and engraving is frequently employed.
On a large vase, for example, the artisan would find it necessary to use large electrically-driven laps and diamond saws for the initial work, followed by a more careful use of small drills and other engraving tools for the application of tedious designs and other delicate handwork. Otherwise, the cabochon method of utilizing various grain size of abrasive powders and polishing agents on different types of laps is generally followed.
A seemingly endless variety of objects have been, and are, produced by carving, some of the more frequently encountered being vases, bowls, and perfume bottles, status, and numerous figures of birds, animals and other wildlife. Such carvings may range in size from a carat or less to many pounds, and be very simple or extremely complicated in design, jadeite and nephrite are probably the favorite gem materials for carving, particularly with the Chinese. Rose quartz, rock crystal, amethyst and lapis-lazuli are also popular.
Because of its long, continuous and widespread usage, the scarab must be considered first. Originating in Egypt about 2000 B.C.as a popular inscribed amulet-seal of deep religious significance, it spread to Syria and Phoenicia and thence by the trade routes to the Greeks and Etruscans as the basic gem form until about the 4th century B.C. Its mastic import was only a minor consideration outside of Egypt. In the 6th century B.C., it strangely disappeared from popular usage in the land of its origin; the reason is unknown.
As stated before, the scarab was a carved or molded representation of a common beetle of the genus Atenchus. So exact were most of the carvings that biologists clearly identify the four species venerated by the Egyptian fabricators, since living creatures were their models. On the broad oval base was engraved the symbols, names or figures for the impression. Since a words and symbols had deep magical significance in the complicated beliefs of the people, any object so sealed was protected. To unlwafully violate such a sealing would bring eternal damnation on the immortal soul of the culprit. A common inscription was the name of the pharaoh, who was considered a god. It might have been the ruling kind or one long dead but still venerated. Some had a symbol or written name of one of the deities in their numerous pantheon. Many bore the full name, titles, occupation or residence of the owner of the seal, male or female. Some merely had symbolic decorative motifs. Some larger ones had quotations from the "book of the dead" and were for placement in the mummy. One king used scarabs for promulgating edicts. An interesting, human interest type of inscription is found in the so-called "wish scarab" with such inscriptions as "May the name be established, mayest thou have a son", "May Amen protect thee and give thee strength" and "May Isis give thee a happy New Year".
Styles of fabrication dominated certain periods, and so it is possible to date most scarabs with a fair degree of accuracy. They were drilled with a hole for stringing on a cord or for a swivel in ring mountings.
Other Egyptian Forms as Seals
This form, which was probably introduced from the Aegean islands about 2400 B.C was a circular signet with a suspension ring above that was used as a stamp for sealing. It was largely replaced by the Scarab.
A flattened oblong gem, the plaque was drilled through the long axis and was without amuletic significance, except for the nature of the inscription. It was popular from about 1500 B.C to Roman times. Both surfaces were engraved and it could be used either as a seal or as an ornament. Early cameos in low relief first appeared on the plaque.
The cowroid, which was popular in the Hyksos period, was shaped like a cowery shell; i.e. an oval, high-backed cabochon.
The tops of scaraboids were cameo like Negro heads or animal forms, instead of resembling beetles. They were found in the Middle Kingdom. The base inscriptions were similar to those of the scarab seals.
This form was perhaps the first gemstone to be engraved; it was developed in southern Mesopotamia, where clay tablets were the chief writing medium. It first appeared around Urunk about 3300 B.C. and ran as a continuous series through the rise and fall of nations until about the 4th century B.C. Some ten thousand are new in collections throughout the world. In the three thousand years of the cylinders, they were universally used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Syrians and Persians. They spread to Egypt but lasted only a short time, since the dwellers of the Nile Valley wrote chiefly on a form of paper called papyrus.
All stones known to the ancient world used, but the preferences were hematite, jasper, chalcedony, quartz and lapis-lazuli. There were many sizes, but that most favored was from one-half to two inches in length. A hole was always drilled in the long axis through which a cord was passed; this permitted the seal to be worn around the neck or wrist or hung from the belt.
The inscribed subjects usually seen were figures of the deities or their symbols, legendary heroes or natural activities. Because of the greater surface presented by the cylinder seal, the inscriptions frequently depicted entire scenes from well-known legendary tales, which was not possible on the limited base of the scarab. The inscriptions were in cuneiform characters and gave the names of deities especially favored by the owner, the name and titles of the possessor, or prayers. The figures were vital, realistic and more animated than the conventionalized, restrained figures of the Egyptian artists.
Popular in Assyria, Persia and some of the island cultures, the figure or design of the cone seal was engraved in the broad end or base, with or without a suspension hole at the upper end. It resembled the cylindrical subject matter but with a more limited surface to engrave. Later, the cone was elongated into a handle, often with a long stem of stone, by the Hittite seal makers. Some were only hemispheres.
Gem Forms of the Western World
The core, or stamp, type of seal with variations of hemispheres and heavy ring like stones were adopted by the island cultures of Crete, Cyprus and their mainland colonies. The ring types would not fit the fingers but were strung on a cord or thong. The earlier stones of the Mediterranean and Aegean islands were pebble like and roughly lenticular in shape; others, which were more oblong, were described as glandular, because they resembled the "glandes" or sling bullet.
The subjects engraved on these early Western seals were chiefly animals, often grouped in heraldic attitudes. They were archaic but realistic and virile, showing Eastern influences and the freedom that characterized the Greek art yet to be. These date from 3000 to 1300 B.C. They were commonly made of soft stones, but rock crystal, carnelian and chalcedony were masterfully handled with the drill and wheel, probably introduced from the East.
After the fall of the Aegean cultures in the 12th century B.C., the long Dark Ages of Greece emerged with Ionian gem cutters of the Isle of Melos influenced by their Oriental neighbors but showing the characteristic free style of the conquered Aegean sea people. Only the scarab form was followed, but this also passed into the scaraboid, whose back showed only the cabochon of the scarab. As the demand for ringstone seals increased in the 6th century B.C., this humpback was planed off and the unper forated flat ringstone, to be mounted in a frame of metal or to form the bezel of a ring or pendant, developed. The full effort was now given to the engraved intaglio. The scarab lingered in the western lands of Italy a few centuries longer. The rising Roman influence soon demanded the gem form as we know it today, and the scarab-shaped seal passed from popularity.
Both the cylinder and the ancient scarab had intaglio figures engraved on them. The intaglio figure is depressed below the surface of the stone, commonly in such a manner that an impression made with the stone yields an image in relief. some intaglio cutting outlined the borders of a figure with depressed lines, thus leaving the figure itself approximately at the level of the edges of the stone.
The cameo is commonly a gem carved from two differently colored layers, especially onyx, the upper layer being used for the figure and the lower layer serving as the background. The cameo is actually a miniature bas-relief sculpture and, unlike the intaglio, will not yield an impression in relief.
For the most part, ancient gems were used for seals, whose sunken intaglio engravings gave a beautiful relief impression in the wax. This beauty of the impression was captured in the cameo cut for ornamentation, started by the Greeks about the 6th century B.C. It first became popular in the Hellenistic period of the 3rd century B.C. Sardonyx, in which the layers could be made to give a polychrome effect, and glass pastes were the favorite materials. The cameo became popular for portraiture in Rome. Some of these Roman cameos, as large as ten to twelve inches square, are to be found in the fine collections of today. They reflect the later Imperial taste for the elaborate and showy, rather than the finer skill in art spirit. The cameo craze died out in Rome in the 2nd century A.D.
The Renaissance and later gem cutters revived the cameo as a favored form, largely in imitations of classic styles. Shell cameos with strata of two-color variations became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The molded cameos of Wedgwood in the 18th century continue to have a gradually decreasing demand and hardly come under the heading of gem cutting.
In more recent times, a considerable variety of carved and engraved gems have been used. The chevee (she-VAY) is a term correctly applied to a flat-topped gem with a smooth, concave depression in the center. If the depression contains a raised figure it is then properly known as a cuvette (koo-VET); it may be considered as a combination of the intaglio and cameo forms, since the figure itself is in relief but is even with or below the edges of the stone. Both terms are often used interchangeably in the trade.
The last form to list is seldom thought of as being in the field of the gem-cutter's art, although for about 2600 years it has been one of his most universal expressions. For this service the greatest gem cutters of ancient or modern times were flattered to be called upon by the state. The only difference from their usual projects was in the medium on which they cut their seal intaglio. In this case it was iron and the purpose was coinage. In the 7th century B.C., the governments found that the ingots and pellets of gold and silver that had been used for centuries for commercial exchange were often underweight or deceptively alloyed with baser metals. This was regulated by issuing all metal for barter only after carefully testing and weighing it and setting their royal stamp of approval on the pellet, thus forming the first true coin. Such an object was nothing but a metal seal of the state. That the dies were the work of a gem cutter, usually the best in the realm, is evident in the magnificent medallions of ancient Syracuse and the portraitures of the early rulers of the Roman Empire-all gem seals in the finest tradition of the art.
Since the work of earlier periods is more esteemed than that of the present time, a definite knowledge of the age of a cameo or intaglio is helpful in judging its value. However, since they usually are made of gem materials, they are practically indestructible and thus seldom indicate their age by the amount of wear they show. The mounting sometimes furnishes a clue to the age of a specimen, but since fine old cameos and intaglios are often remounted, the fact that a gem is in a nineteenth-century mounting is no definite proof that it was not cut even in Roman times.
The Design of a carved gem is a criterion of its value. At all periods when stone carving was highly developed, design was basically sound and harmonious. However, in the earlier periods, particularly during Greek and Roman times, there was a tendency to crowd the design somewhat on the stone; but the examples from these periods, despite the crowding, are basically of good design.
Craftsmanship also is a reliable guide, particularly on harder gems. Poorly cut gems show poor workmanship, especially in such details as the eyes, nose and mouth of a portrait head, the careful working out of leaves, etc. Finely cut cameos and intaglios will bear close inspection even under magnification. Poorer workmanship shows itself in faulty modeling of objects that are visible even to the unaided eye.
There are both antique and modem engraved and carved gems that are valuable works of art. Both have a definite place. Unfortunately, however, there is no sure method of recognizing the true antique from the modern forgery cut by an expert. It is the same with counterfeit money. During the 18th and 19th centuries, gem collecting was in the hands of wealthy collectors and the incentive to the forger was great. With the exposure of the Poniatowski scandal, mentioned previously, cabinets of gems passed to a more critical group of archaeologists and students of the art of the past.
The student can prepare himself by becoming familiar with the fine collections in such institutions as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the metropolitan Museum or the various European museums, either by direct study or through the excellent reproductions in the catalogs of those institutions. Hard but pleasant hours of study alone will provide the deep knowledge that is necessary to recognize the spirit and styles of the past.
The average counterfeit will be obvious to one who is familiar with ancient costumes, hairdress, symbols, etc., which are so frequently violated by the less-informed forgers. There is no patina acquired by ancient gems, other than the dulling of the internal polish in the deep cuts; even this, however, can be duplicated by air blasts of fine emery. Surface scratches can be duplicated by forcing the gem into a turkey's craw for several days! Iron filings in acid can give white onyx the glossiness of age. But the style and spirit of the ancients, which is felt by an intimate familiarity of genuine antiques, is missed by most forgers, even when stones are pieced in ancient mountings. Many fine antique gems are re-polished for modern owners.
Ancient seals were thicker than modern intaglios. The cameos were large because the artisans could not work effectively in the small spaces now made possible by modern power tools. The ancients hated angles in the shape of a cameo. The face was usually convex, with irregularities on the back. The harder precious stones were seldom used. Slight depressions on the back of antique stones are seldom imitated. Uniformity of shape, either oval or round, was rare in classic periods. Uniform scratches are suspicious. The ancients cut a limited number of figures, except in the cylinders. They sunk the design deeply. They favored statue like poses, usually in repose, without the dramatic action that modem cutters crave to put into their compositions. It was more difficult to copy than to express themselves. The symbols of the gods and the portraits of the deities were uniform in the work of the ancient. The forger tends to dramatize, much as the theatrical producer often scorns the true Oriental music, dance or costume to fit what he thinks the public expects. Be careful of signed gems; they were few and the name is usually hidden. No one wished another's name on his personal seal. A man who worked during the last century in Europe, Marchand by name, did sign his name to the meticulous agate and onyx tablets he carved. His work is admired by collectors today and imitations of it have been seen, one of which deserves particular mention. A bracelet with six intaglio-cut stones signed with his name were found to be doublets consisting of glass tops and translucent chalcedony backs. Evidently the forger made an impression of actual Marchand pieces in clay, fired the clay, and made another impression (in order again to have the positive impression) in glass.
There are millions of modem scarabs made for the Egyptian trade. To the expert they present but a slight problem. The spirit of Egyptian art is usually missing, and the glaze is too uniform in color. Ancient glazes fade and change color on the surface, and the original color clings to the deeper carvings.
The autobiography of Pistrucci, one of the last of the great modem gem cutters, will warn the student how the fraudulent Roman dealers fooled the public. If you read German, the most scientific expert, Furtwangler, in his "Antike Gemmen" can lead the reader in the art or recognizing ancient engraved stones. The more you know of the past its art, history, beliefs and spirit the less chance will the expert, willful forger have to deceive the student.
Lastly, do not pay high prices. There are far too many fine genuine antique gems, scarabs and cylinders to have them classed as extremely rare. High prices only encourage forgers, for the work on fine copy is far too great when originals are not as valuable as most people think.
Although the appreciation of carved gemstones has declined in recent years, here and there in the world the art is being kept alive by dedicated workers. The demand for engraved coats-of-arms formerly kept many engravers busy, but today very few lapidaries specialize in this field.
In both Japan and Germany, since World War II, there has been a small revival of carved stones for use in jewelry. The materials used are nephrite (for leaves), amethyst, tourmaline, rose quartz, etc. (for flowers and fruits). The carvings, although nicely representational, are commercial in their execution. Carved jadeite fish have been imported in considerable numbers from Hong Kong. The use of multistone scarab in jewelry of all descriptions became widespread in the mid 1950's. Again, the feeling of the carving is commercial, but the similarity to ancient representations of this beetle is good.