Engraved Gem Technique
- Gemstones were cut using abrasive powder from harder stones and a hand-drill or lathe.
- Magnifying lenses were not used by gem cutters in antiquity.
- Medieval gem-carving techniques were described in a guide by Theophilus Presbyter.
- Byzantine cutters used a flat-edged wheel on a drill for intaglio work.
- Gemstones can have their color enhanced using artificial methods such as heat, sugar, and dyes.
History of Engraved Gems
- Engraved gems have an ancient tradition in the Near East and were used in various early cultures.
- Cylinder seals were the usual form in Mesopotamia and spread to other cultures.
- Greek gems emerged under Minoan influence and reached refinement in the Hellenistic period.
- Ancient Egyptian seals often had inscriptions in hieroglyphs.
- Greek gems from the 8th and 7th centuries BC usually depicted animals in geometric poses.
Evolution of Gem Forms
- Early gems were mostly round or oval, with scarab backs and animals or divine figures.
- Gems of the 6th century BC became more oval and showed more detail.
- 5th-century gems became somewhat larger and showed fine detail, including signed gems by Dexamenos of Chios.
- Relief carving became common in 5th-century BC Greece.
- The cameo form reached Greece around the 3rd century BC.
Roman and Medieval Engraved Gems
- Roman gems continued Hellenistic styles and included portraits of philosophers.
- The Romans invented cameo glass as a cheaper material for cameos.
- Antique engraved gems were highly valued during the European Middle Ages.
- Gems were used to decorate goldsmith works such as crowns and book-covers.
- Engraved gems with religious scenes were produced in Byzantium and Europe.
Use and Preservation of Engraved Gems
- Gems were primarily used as seals, often mounted in rings.
- Impressions of intaglio designs were made in hardened wax for authentication.
- Reclining satyr, Etruscan c.550 BC, 2.2 cm wide. Note the vase shown sideways; it is characteristic of early gems that not all elements in the design are read from the same direction of view.
- Relief carving became more common, leading to gems meant for collection or jewelry.
- Impressions of gems were collected in plaster or wax for easier appreciation.
Engraved gem Data Sources