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Glorious glyptics: the art of carving gemstones

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Glorious glyptics: the art of carving gemstones

“There is no room for error; it is not like a drawing that can be erased. Perhaps that makes the piece exquisite, ”says Claire Choisne, creative director at Boucheron. She is talking about the ancient art of glyptics, or gemstone carving, which is enjoying a renaissance as craftsmanship becomes more sought after in jewelery. “[Glypticians] can carve into very fragile stones, such as emeralds, without breaking them, ”she explains.

Boucheron’s New Maharajahs collection, unveiled in January, features glyptics in engravings of lotus flowers on rock crystal and mother of pearl. “I love gemstone carving because it infuses detail and complexity in the jewelery without adding anything,” says Choisne.

Boucheron Padma crystal ring, diamonds, rock-crystal and white gold, POA, boucheron.com

Nadine Ghosn Bon Bon Block, $ 6,395 (each ring sold individually), nadineghosn.com

Derived from the Greek word glyptos, meaning sculpted, glyptics is the craft of engraving to create intaglios, cameos and miniature sculptures in precious gemstones and hardstones. It is distinct from the craft of the lapidary, who is concerned with maximizing the sparkle of a gem through faceting.

Emily Barber, Bonhams’ jewelery director in the UK, explains that the art of glyptics “dates back to the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Assyria, Minoan Crete and Cyprus, where the designs cut into the stones were used as seals and means of identification” .

Artists and artisans of ancient Greece and Rome elevated carving traditions to a high art form. Glyptics was revived during the Renaissance, when portraits of influential personalities circulated in the form of cameos. It reached its apogee thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, who had his likeness incised in hardstones and founded a school of engraving in Paris in 1805.

Cartier Sixth Sens brooch in white gold, purple agate and diamonds, POA, cartier.com © Cartier Maxime Govet

Cartier Sixth Sens ring in yellow gold, fossilized wood, emeralds and diamonds, POA, cartier.com

Glyptics is a key part of the Cartier aesthetic, either as apprêts – original artefacts from the past set in modern creations – or as newly engraved stones. In 2010, the maison became the only jeweler with an in-house workshop and apprentices, guided by a Maître d’Art, Philippe Nicolas.

One of Nicolas’ most recent creations was exhibited this spring at Venice’s Homo Faber, a cultural showcase for exceptional craftsmanship. A precious box, about the size of an apple, the piece was hand-sculpted from a block of white opal and embraced by a geometric diamond-studded frieze reminiscent of Art Deco that turns into a bracelet. Cherry blossom flowers of carved chalcedony adorn the bracelet and the lid, and the largest flower at the top doubles as a brooch.

But embracing this technique can have another, deeper purpose. “Having an in-house glyptician and atelier goes beyond the simple objective of including glyptic art in our jewelery,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of heritage, image and style. “It allows us to understand gems better, and it changes our way of working, as the glyptic workshop does not simply execute designs.” Glyptics also opens up new creative avenues inspired by the properties of the stones themselves.

The art of glyptics can be applied to other materials. On a Cartier fossilized wood open cuff that has two tigers facing each other with fierce emerald eyes, it creates fascinating naturalistic color contrasts. Cartier produces no more than 10 glyptic pieces a year, because they take months, sometimes years, to complete. A Cartier carved aquamarine clock – deliberately left in part unfinished and unpolished in a “non finito” technique inspired by Michelangelo – also shows off the transformative effect of glyptics.

Jewelers are featuring glyptics more and more. Bulgari is releasing a tiara set with a dazzling 63.44-carat carved emerald to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee this year, while Van Cleef & Arpels, which often sets carved stones in its collections, is holding an exhibition, “Engraved Gems” (to October 1), at its School of Jewelry Arts in Paris.

Pomellato Kintsugi Venus cameo necklace, POA, pomellato.com

Hemmerle earrings in jade, demantoid garnets, bronze, white gold, POA, hemmerle.com

Pomellato’s latest high jewelery collection includes a pair of earrings that feature carved jade made in collaboration with a glyptician from the town of Idar-Oberstein, near Frankfurt. This area, with its geological abundance of hardstones such as agate, amethyst, jasper and carnelian, has attracted and trained some of the most skilled jewelery carvers since the Middle Ages.

“Glyptics was a ‘special guest’ which we have reinterpreted with our own aesthetics,” says Vincenzo Castaldo, Pomellato’s creative director. “Those earrings were among the first pieces sold from the collection, as clients seem to love it when we get out of our comfort zone while still keeping our signature intact.”

At Homo Faber this year, Pomellato presented a cameo pending depicting Venus, carved on a large shell by renowned engraver Enzo Liverino 1894 in Torre del Greco, near Naples, the center of cameo-making.

Glypticians, who patiently apply themselves to learning new skills, who adapt their tools or create new ones, and work around a stone’s unique features, can turn any gemstone into a unique piece of art. Munich-based Hemmerle, which has a long tradition of setting 19th-century cameos and ancient carved artefacts in modern jewelery, set two blocks of old carved nephrite jade resembling Leibniz biscuits in a pair of earrings with reverse-set paved demantoid garnets.

Nadine Ghosn employed glypticians to create her playful Building Blocks collection, inspired by Lego. “Each ‘Lego’ block is made of five different pieces of stones combined,” explains Ghosn, who spent two years perfecting the technique after testing various carving ateliers.

The collection embodies the importance of building and creating, and since each piece is made to order, “many clients have ascribed their meaning through the choice of stones”. As Rainero puts it, “when clients understand the extraordinary aspect of glyptics, they know they have something unique”.

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