Ageless Design: Gem Engraving

Gem engraving and carving are techniques that have been used by civilisations across the globe, both ancient and modern, to decorate gem material and also add a level of functionality. One can still find many surviving examples of ancient Roman and Greek carved gems in museums to this day. Intaglio, meaning carving, is the method used to incise gems with shapes, patterns or designs. Inversely, cameos are carvings in relief which stand out from their background, giving a three-dimensional effect.


Both these designs experienced a resurgence in popularity during the renaissance period and were only borne by the extremely wealthy, clergy or royalty as symbols of familial, vocational or even religious prestige.  Both intaglio and cameo designs not only continued to be made in the 18th and 19th centuries but seemingly became more mainstream in their popularity. Intaglios became increasingly common for the use in signet rings or fob seals.

AN ANTIQUE CARVED HARDSTONE INTAGLIO FOB SEAL the body decorated in high relief with shell and scroll designs, with inset polished bloodstone panel reverse carved with coat of arms and motto ‘Proponit Homo Disponit Deus’, unmarked, 4.1cm, 25.3g.

AN ANTIQUE CAMEO NECKLACE, 19TH CENTURY in high carat yellow gold, comprising of eleven graduated carved cameo links suspended between three rows of gold chain, unmarked, 52.5cm / 20.75″, 57.7g.

Aside from being used to display the aforementioned qualities, both kinds of gem engraving were used simply as a form of decoration and adornment. Many antique intaglio sport beautiful floral designs or mythological scenes often drawing on gem engraving’s ancient classical heritage. Moreover, cameos have been consistently used as a form of miniature portraiture (often self-portraiture) which gained huge popularity in 19th century Britain. During this later revival, British jewellers started to recreate and adapt these beautiful designs in a myriad of different new ways. Precious gemstones such as rubies, sapphires and emeralds have also been used in the creation of both intaglios and cameos, offering a more valuable and unique version of these beautiful jewels. European jewellers drew much  inspiration from eastern, and in particular Indian, carvings in both semi-precious and precious gemstones.

ANTIQUE HARDSTONE INTAGLIO SIGNET RING the intaglio depicting a scene of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology, size R / 8.5, 20.8g.

AN ANTIQUE CAMEO PENDANT, 19TH CENTURY in high carat yellow gold, the oval body set with a carved agate cameo depicting a classical scene, within beaded borders, suspending an Etruscan revival urn motif, below scroll decoration and bail, unmarked, 7.2cm, 12.8g.


It was during this later period that both intaglios and especially cameos started to be engraved out of a larger variety of materials including coral and shell. Traditionally these engraving had been made in materials such as onyx, lapis lazuli, jade, agate, bloodstone, jasper, malachite, carnelian and many more, which all offered a level of hardness that could maintain the intricate designs. Reverse Intaglio crystals, having originated in continental Europe, were a new type of design which gained popularity in Victorian Britain. Often called ‘Essex Crystal’, this type of intaglio was made by carving a design in the back of a rock crystal cabochon and then filling this carving with multiple layers of paint. 

AN ANTIQUE REVERSE CARVED INTAGLIO AND DIAMOND BROOCH in yellow gold and silver, designed as a star, set at the centre with an Essex crystal style reverse carved intaglio, depicting a horse and jockey, the arms of the star jewelled with old cut diamonds totalling 1.2-1.5 carats, unmarked, 3.2cm, 8.8g

Prince Stanislas Poniatowski’s Collection

To round off, we have some very important intaglios in our upcoming May auction. These being three carved gems from the infamous collection of Prince Stanislas Poniatowksi, who famously commissioned a group of jewellers in Rome to make several thousand intaglios which he passed off as genuine ancient specimens. The intaglios were mostly carved with mythological depictions drawn directly from famous ancient writings. This seemingly ancient collection went up for sale at Christie’s in 1839, after Prince Poniatowski’s death in 1833,  only for the intaglios to be later revealed as modern creations. This deception greatly shocked the art world at the time due to its sheer magnitude and unanticipated nature. However, in recent times these items have become increasingly popular and collectable due to their incredible provenance and inherent beauty. The three that will come under hammer in our sale include an amethyst intaglio necklace in an ornate gold setting and two carnelian intaglios, one loose and the other in a plain gold setting. Check out the online catalogue for more information on these interesting gems and more!

AN ANTIQUE CARVED AMETHYST INTAGLIO PENDANT AND CHAIN, FORMERLY BELONGING TO PRINCE STANISLAS PONIATOWSKI the amethyst carved in detail to depict a scene of Apollo and Cyparissus, within a gold mount, suspended from an antique gold chain, unmarked, intaglio only 4.1cm, pendant 5.4cm, 55.4g.


AN ANTIQUE CARVED CARNELIAN INTAGLIO, FORMERLY BELONGING TO PRINCE STANISLAS PONIATOWSKI carved to depict a scene of Ulysses receiving the winds from Aeolus, within a gold mount, suspended from chain, intaglio only 2.8cm, 6.6g.