The A-Z of Jewelry: I is for... Intaglio

By Sarah Jordan
Continuing the Sotheby’s series exploring the history of jewelry trends, here Sarah Jordan looks at the ancient history of intaglio.

T here are two types of gemstone carving that exist like a married couple: cameos and intaglios. A cameo typically reflects a small scene or figure carved in relief, so it protrudes out towards the wearer. In contrast, an intaglio is carved into a gemstone to create a hollow recessed image. They can be worn with the concave carving facing the wearer or turned over, to reveal an engraved image floating below a smooth surface.

Historically, intaglios were carved from hard stones for use as wax seals. Prominent individuals in the Roman Empire had their own unique intaglios, carved in amethyst, agate, garnet, jasper and cornelian, which served to identify and authenticate the letters they sent. The difficulty associated with carving hard gemstones made owning an intaglio, especially in the form of a signet ring, a mark of status. Finely carved intaglios were deemed the most desirable, not just because of the artistry involved, but because of how difficult this made the resulting wax seal to forge.

A new era of gemstone engravers began to emerge in the 15th century, when an interest in classical cultures merged with the exciting discovery of Roman artifacts in Italy. Later, during the Neo-classical movement of the 18th century, original Roman intaglios were hugely collectible, greatly admired and reflective of an elevated state of mind. This resulted in a surge of beautifully made copies in the 1800s, mostly for nobility across Italy, France, Germany and England. Despite the many centuries in between, these 19th century intaglios were made in almost the exact same way as those produced in the Roman Empire.

By the latter half of the 19th century, a preference for cameos saw intaglios get left behind. Improvements in the postal service and the introduction of postage stamps in 1840 made wax seals a relic of the past. Yet the spirit of intaglios – of identifying one’s self with a unique carving – can still be found in signet rings, which are enjoying a modern-day surge in popularity.

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