The opposite of its better-known cousin, the cameo, intaglio is a form of hard stone carving that creates a depressed image. Whether it’s repurposing antique Greek and Roman stones, carving contemporary designs into modern materials, or creating an imprint of the original intaglio, designers are harnessing an ancient technique to create beautiful new jewels.
A form of glyptic art, intaglio is meticulous work on a tiny scale, usually involving hand tools used with emery powder to achieve a sometimes staggering level of detail. “I was “immediately fascinated by the world of the minuscule that intaglios opened up for me,” says Zoe Monnier of Pierres Paris, “and their refined blend of art and nature.” Antique intaglios are often found in semi-precious stones like cornelian, agate, amethyst and garnet, while contemporary artists have now begun using synthetic and lab-grown gemstones.
Historically, intaglios started out as seal rings carved in mirror image, to produce an impression when pressed into a soft material like wax. Family crests and portraits were historically popular, as well as mythological and religious figures amongst the Ancients, examples of which can still be easily found. They would typically have been set into gold or silver as a ring, but many found on the art market today are loose, indicating their original mounts may have been melted down during hard times and the intaglio stone reused.
Many contemporary jewelry designers are continuing this tradition of reuse, like Victoria Strigini, who repurposes original intaglios in modern settings; or restoring and embellishing excavated jewels, like Loren Nicole. Others, like Australian glyptic artist Ryan Bowen, have mastered a quite incredible art form that goes back millennia, to create a fresh interpretation for our times.
For anyone enchanted by the history of these carved hard stones, there’s still time to see Engaved Gems, an exhibition of cameos and intaglio at the Ecole des Arts Joailliers in Paris. From Greek and Neo-classical intaglios, to antique and medieval cameos, via Merovingian signet rings and Bishop’s rings, the items on show chart the full breadth of the art form of hard stone carving for adornment.
London-based French designer Victoria Strigini has long admired the antique coins and carved gems that have survived history, and continues the custom of repurposing Ancient antiquities by sourcing and re-setting them into recycled metals. Her work is underpinned by the contrast between the minutely detailed, hand-carved gemstones and the clean, disciplined lines of the modern settings which she creates for them. The Oeuf en Plat ring is a case in point: a tiny engraved stone is set into the side of an egg-shaped ring, that rises up off the knuckle in a gentle dome. And to share the history of these stones even more widely, pieces are also available in recycled silver.
Australian glyptic artist Ryan Bowen came to gemstone engraving via dentistry: “I’d always loved gems and was working in the dental industry as a lab technician, which uses similar tools and skills. I saw an intaglio in a store and thought I’d give it a try,” says the Sydney-based craftsman. It’s lucky he did, he now has a worldwide clientele in search of unique, finely made pieces. In using imagery – often rooted in fantasy – seldom seen in engraving, and modern materials like yttrium aluminum garnet alongside quartz, amethyst, ruby and sunstone, he works to “pull the Ancient art of gemstone intaglio into the modern era.”
Designer Zoe Monnier came from the art world to launch Pierres Paris, offering Roman and Greek intaglios in modern settings. Intrigued by the history and symbolism of these miniature works of art, she decided to create jewelry from them and launched her brand in 2016. As well as re-setting antique intaglios she sources on the art market, Zoe also offers unique intaglio imprints, casting the negative of the clearest intaglios she finds into 18 carat gold in a continuation of their original purpose as seals. The intaglio imprint ring above, represents the Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, set alongside a rich red garnet.
Intaglios are a recent addition for By Pariah, a London-based jewelry brand that celebrates the natural beauty of minerals and champions minimalist design. Founder and designer Sophie Howard was inspired by pictures of the Paria Peninsula in the Caribbean to showcase the treasures of the earth, and her brand is now best-known for her hand-carved and polished semi-precious gemstone rings, with perfect curves and volume and a contrasting gold seam. In colorful quartz, agate and carnelian, By Pariah’s intaglio pendants are equally elegant, featuring the horse-gold Pegasus, and can be paired with a recycled 9ct gold chain.
Loren Nicole’s background as an archeologist and museum conservator sparked a fascination with the history and craftsmanship of the historical objects she came across in her work. “I longed to understand more about how the treasures on my desk were made, thousands of years ago,” she says, “It was like reaching across millennia to learn from Roman, Egyptian and Bronze Age artisans.” Today she puts that knowledge to work alongside largely self-acquired technique, crafting modern settings using Fairmined gold and traceable gemstones for her Ancient treasures, in her studio in California, where she works without electrical tools, harnessing traditional techniques and manipulating her raw materials by hand. A smart modern update to the signet ring, this rock crystal intaglio 22ct gold ring features a bee, symbolizing wisdom, rebirth and hard work.
Like modern treasures dreamt up from an imagined past, Hannah Blount uses goshenite, tourmaline, moonstone and prasiolite as a canvas for her imagination. She grew up in Nantucket, daughter to a fisherman and a seamstress, with hand-working a big part of her island childhood. Today, she works from her New York studio creating refined, whimsical jewelry for clients around the world, with her small team of craftspeople and her dog, Beryl. These delicate, one-of-a-kind quartz studs feature elegant serpentine intaglio by Los Angeles-based glyptic artist Lala Ragimov.