What Is Intaglio Jewelry?

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Many jewelry pieces can be considered works of art, and this is certainly the case with intaglio jewelry. Sculpture on the smallest of scales, intaglio jewelry combines both the talent of an artist, who carves likenesses, letters or other images into metal or gemstones, and the skill of the jeweler, who makes these tiny canvasses into rings, brooches or pendants. Among the earliest forms of jewelry, intaglio jewelry's classic style endures, remaining a sought-after jewelry art.

Antiquity

  • Although intaglio jewelry dates back to the Mesopotamian scarabs, it first gained prominence in ancient Rome. The gemstone intaglio was one of the most popular jewelry designs, decorating two popular Roman jewelry items—the fibula and the ring. The fibula, a large brooch used to fasten that staple of the Roman wardrobe, the toga, was often decorated with an intaglio. Roman men of social standing commonly wore intaglio rings, which were used to mark wax seals, a practice that continued for hundreds of years.

Materials

  • Intaglio jewelry can be made of any material that can be carved. Precious metals, gemstones, shell, wood, clay—virtually anything that can be etched can be made into intaglio jewelry. Precious metals are popular materials for intaglio rings, such as signet rings or family crest rings, while gemstones—especially clear, translucent stones such as rock crystal—are more often used for detailed designs.

Methods

  • Intaglios are made by hand-carving or using drills to etch the design onto the precious metal, gemstone or other material that will serve as the intaglio.

    The finished carving is sometimes treated or mounted to enhance the visibility of the intaglio. Translucent gemstones will often be mounted on an opaque background, while opaque gemstones are sometimes dyed or otherwise treated to make the carving stand out.

Identification

  • Intaglios are often confused with other forms of carved jewelry, including cameos, which are actually the opposite of intaglios.

    Cameo jewelry features relief carvings that are raised from the surface of the stone or other material. Intaglio jewelry is created by carving into the metal or stone, leaving the table, or top of the piece, flat.

Reverse Intaglio

  • An interesting variation on the intaglio is the reverse intaglio, commmon from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century. Reverse intaglios featured an image carved—in reverse—into the flat side of a half-round, clear gemstone, such as crystal; the image was then painted in and mounted on an opaque background, usually mother of pearl. The result was a tiny, colorful picture, viewed from the reverse, hence the name. Sporting scenes, animals and flowers were the most popular subjects for reverse intaglio jewelry.

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