Jewelry: The Secret World of the Gem Carver

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Jewelry: The Secret World of the Gem Carver

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In Résonances de Cartier, the house’s most recent high jewelry 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 the Russian designer Ana Katarina, whose jewelry 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 jewelry 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 maximize 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?” Mr. Hemmerle, like many others in the business, answered, “I cannot reveal my sources.”

Mr. Nicolas opened his own atelier within Cartier. He teaches three apprentices.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

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.

“Glypticians really are the unsung heroes of jewelry,” 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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. Ms. 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 “Colors 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 jewelry 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.Credit

Every material requires specific training, as well as specialized tools, said Wallace Chan, the Hong Kong-based master jeweler. Like many glypticians, Mr. 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,” Mr. Chan said, “and when you have concentrated and forgotten to breathe is when you realize what you have been able to do.”

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

In contrast, Mr. Nicolas of Cartier is committed to teaching his three apprentices at his atelier on the Rue de la Paix in Paris, not far from the haute joaillerie center of Place Vendôme.

His specialty is a distinctive silky finish to carved stone: “I do not polish the stones,” he said. “I make them softer.” (He gently rubs the stone with little wooden batons, although he sometimes uses diamonds, iron, brass or carborundum, also known as silicon carbide.)

Mr. Nicolas, a graduate of the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, spent 20 years working exclusively for Joel Arthur Rosenthal, the Paris-based jeweler known as JAR, from his independent atelier at Place Vendôme, where later one of his clients was Victoire de Castellane, creative director of Dior’s fine jewelry division.

But one afternoon in 2008, during the height of the global downturn, two of his major clients canceled all their commissions. A worried Mr. Nicolas asked to meet with Bernard Fornas, then the chief executive of Cartier; six months later, he opened his own atelier within the company.

Mr. Nicolas recalled telling the Cartier executive, “If a big jewelry house like Cartier doesn’t commit to the preservation of this art, all this will be lost.”

Now, almost 10 years later, Mr. Nicolas said that art is still what he wants “to keep, perpetuate and transmit.”

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