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The Secret World of the Gem Carver

By Milena Lazazzera

Philippe Nicolas, Cartier’s in-house master glyptician, or gem sculptor, at work in Paris. His specialty is a distinctive silky finish to carved stone.
 
Dmitry Kostyukov
Philippe Nicolas, Cartier’s in-house master glyptician, or gem sculptor, at work in Paris. His specialty is a distinctive silky finish to carved stone.

In Résonances de Cartier, the house’s most recent high jewellery presentation, the diamonds, emeralds and rubies that are de rigueur in such collections were combined with more unusual materials like smoky quartz and fire opals.

But it was a black jasper cuff, carved in a classic Panthère style, that would catch the discerning eye. It was the work of a glyptician, or gem sculptor, a highly trained artisan who turns rough stone or jewels into dazzling art.

“Black jasper per se is not rare or precious,” said Philippe Nicolas, Cartier’s in-house master glyptician, whose atelier designed and sculpted the bracelet. It was difficult to find two large homogeneous pieces of jasper, but the human skill used to create the cuff was what made the piece valuable, he said.

Such skilled artisans also made the delicate red and white flowers adorning the black dials of the Mademoiselle Privé Coromandel Glyptic watch that Chanel displayed at Baselworld early this year, and the white petals of chalcedony on the Voie Lactée brooch in Chaumet’s Hortensia collection.

The art of glyptic, using intaglio and relief techniques, is an ancient skill, well-known among the Greeks, the Egyptians and others in the Middle East. It was used in making cameos, popular during Roman times and the Renaissance and again in the 19th century, and it still inspires some contemporary creators like Russian designer Ana Katarina, whose jewellery includes an eye sculpted in Brazilian agate, and Brigid Blanco, an American designer working in Paris, who features classic cameo motifs like landscapes and profile portraits on her pieces.

The Munich-based jewellery house Hemmerle inserts old cameos into modern jewels because “in the olden days, sculptors looked at the stone in a more artistic way, asking themselves how to maximise beauty,” said Christian Hemmerle, a member of the fourth generation to work in the family business.

Hemmerle also offers some sculpted objects in crystal. But, when asked, “Who was the glyptician?” Hemmerle, like many others in the business, answered, “I cannot reveal my sources.”

Few glypticians are known to the public; most work behind the scenes, hired by houses when their particular skills are needed. The houses will not identify them, worried about the lure of rivals, and over generations the glypticians themselves have become distinctly reticent. Discretion is now the prime directive.

Dmitry KostyukovPhilippe Nicolas, Cartier’s in-house master glyptician, or gem sculptor, at his atelier in Paris.
Philippe Nicolas, Cartier’s in-house master glyptician, or gem sculptor, at his atelier in Paris.

“Glypticians really are the unsung heroes of jewellery,” said Claudia Florian, a consulting director at the Natural History department at Bonhams auction house. “The majority of them don’t even sign their work.”

Yet Florian, who oversees two sales of glyptic works each year from her base in Los Angeles, knows the master carvers by name and where to find many of them: the town of Idar-Oberstein, Germany.

“This little town, two hours to the west of Frankfurt, has 500 years of tradition in carving gemstones,” Florian said. “The masters sculpted the agate they found in the river Nahe and kept their tradition even when they ran out of their own stone.”

She visits the area regularly to seek pieces for her auctions, and describes Idar-Oberstein as a sleepy town with modest (“I don’t want to use the word tired”) shops displaying goods to attract tourists. “But once you have developed contacts in the area, and it does take years to build those contacts, and you get invited to visit some of the carvers, they will show sculptures made by their grandparents or pieces they keep for inspiration,” she said. “It is here that you find more valuable things, behind the scenes.”

Florian said glypticians like Gerd Dreher or Manfred Wild had made their names by crafting animal sculptures, usually private orders. These masters are able to obtain the best raw materials and command prices that, she said, can rise to as much as three times the value of the stones they use.

In addition to the Idar-Oberstein area, glypticians also can be found in other regions rich in stone or gems that can be carved. Florian said that, for example, carvers have been emerging in Brazil thanks to the country’s abundance of agate and tourmalines.

And Tarang Arora, creative director at Amrapali, said he selects carvers from Jaipur, which has had a gem-sculpting tradition since Mughal times.

China also has a rich history of glyptic art — some of which was showcased in “Colours of the Universe: Chinese Hardstone Carvings,” a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — as well as many artisans now working in the trade. Bibi van der Velden, a sculptor who now designs jewellery in the Netherlands, described how she traveled to a remote Chinese village (“I can’t tell the name of the village”) to find artisans skilled in working mammoth bones for her creations.

A black jasper Cartier cuff carved in the Panthère style. Mr. Nicolas said the human skill used to create the cuff was what made it valuable.
A black jasper Cartier cuff carved in the Panthère style. Mr. Nicolas said the human skill used to create the cuff was what made it valuable.

Every material requires specific training, as well as specialised tools, said Wallace Chan, the Hong Kong-based master jeweller. Like many glypticians, Chan makes his own tools: “I even have sometimes to build the machines first in order to build my own tools.”

The glyptician’s approach to work provides another key to understanding the skill. “You need to forget about your own breathing,” Chan said, “and when you have concentrated and forgotten to breathe is when you realise what you have been able to do.”

It was that kind of rigorous focus that several years ago prompted Chan to stop trying to train apprentices. He now puts all his energy into making as many pieces of jewellery as possible, hoping to inspire other carvers.