Women's Jewellery

Chiselled good looks

Intricate, labour-intensive and suffused with a sense of storytelling, carved stones are adding a new sculptural dimension to fine jewellery. Vivienne Becker reports on the revival of an ancient art form.

February 16 2011
Vivienne Becker

The art of stone carving, of sculpting in gems, may be rooted in antiquity, but today it is bringing a fresh, contemporary impetus to the narrative thread running through fine jewellery. Too often undervalued, gemstone carving – the so-called “glyptic” arts – has all the freedom of expression of a true art form: it represents an artist’s view of the world, demands great skill and technique, and comes with the added challenge of understanding the mineral, with its layers, crystalline structure, vagaries of colour and texture. Quiet, cerebral, with a whisper of seduction and an air of mystery, a carved gemstone is the absolute antithesis of bling, drawing the onlooker into its miniature sculptural world and underlining the storytelling element of a jewel with pictorial preciousness.

So much so that when Cartier showed its latest High Jewellery collection, Douces Folies-Folies Douces, at the Paris Biennale, all eyes were drawn to a dramatic tasselled necklace hung with a 3-D sculpture of a gloriously bronzed panther head (price on request). This was a signature Cartier panther, no mistaking, but not as we know it; unexpected, intriguing, with only a fine border of diamonds, the animal’s head was carved in high relief and expressive detail in an indecipherable honey-golden material. This turned out to be petrified wood, some 70m years old, its glossy striations of sun-baked earth tones set against flashing feline emerald eyes.

Nearby, another panther was softly sculpted in creamy white opal, with onyx nose and emerald eyes, draped sensuously over a wide bangle set with yellow and brown diamonds (price on request). Both had a contemporary feel, while the pendant offered a modern take on a 1970s medallion, with a certain bold and irreverent spirit, yet also exuded an ancient talismanic quality. These figural fantasies not only heralded a revival of the art of gem carving, but also dared to introduce humble, non-precious materials such as organic petrified wood and opaque white opal (more common than gem opal) to a ravishingly precious High Jewellery collection: the value was all in the art.

The pieces were created by master gem carver Philippe Nicholas, who bears the title Maître d’Art: an honour conferred only on the élite of French craftsmen. Having worked independently for jewel houses around the world, including Cartier (for whom he carved orchids several years ago), Nicholas has now joined the famous jewellery house – primarily, says image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero, to pass on his hard-earned expertise and skill to a new generation.

In Paris, Nicholas showed me a huge boulder of petrified oak “from dinosaur times”. Captivated by a block that arrived in France in the 1990s, he travelled to Arizona to track down the diggers who found it so as to understand the secrets of its layers. When Jacqueline Karachi, Cartier’s creative director of High Jewellery, explained her creative vision for a carved-stone panther, he knew at once he had the perfect material. The process of such a complex design can take a year, involving research, modelling and some 300 hours of carving. “I choose the most beautiful piece, then I analyse the grain and use it to create a natural facial expression and the panther’s coat,” says Nicholas. “I have to work around the markings of the wood, assessing the varying hardness and angles of the layers. The carving has to have spirit.”

The art of stone carving was most famously revived in pre-revolutionary Russia by Peter Carl Fabergé, whose skilled craftsmen used minerals from the Ural Mountains to create characterful, often quirky animals and serene flowers in rock-crystal vases. Its use in jewellery, however, became something of a dwindling art, largely centred on Idar-Oberstein, the German town historically associated with gem cutting and carving. Here, among others, Gerd Dreher, a fourth-generation stone carver and often considered the finest gem artist in the world, still specialises in masterful carved animals (from €15,000), hand-sculpted mostly from his favourite Brazilian agate. Then in the 1990s there was a surge of renewed, heritage-driven interest in Russia, while improved training in Idar-Oberstein and new tools, such as diamond-charged drills often borrowed from dentistry, helped to spread the practise of gem carving to other centres, including Thailand. “We can do things today that were not possible 40 years ago,” says Dreher.

A few select jewellers around the world have always prized the storytelling and ornamental possibilities of carved gems. When Chanel Fine Jewellery wanted to tell the tale of Mademoiselle’s personal passions, they chose black onyx and white agate (interpreting Chanel’s favourite monochrome scheme) to depict the heavy, waxy, sculpted petals of the Camélia (from £1,150). Meanwhile, artist-jeweller Charlotte de Syllas uses her celebrated and exquisite stone-carving skills to bring daring artistic visions to life; abstract, stylised natural forms such as shells, leaves, knotted stems and migrating birds (from £4,500). Theo Fennell’s Marion skull ring, one of several carved gem jewels, is sculpted from black opal and enclosed in finely detailed gold ivy leaves (£11,500).

Goldsmith Elizabeth Gage selects hardstones such as jasper and fossilised palm wood, or gems such as aquamarines and bi-coloured tourmalines for carvings that range from classical subjects – gods, goddesses and unicorns, with ancient intaglio etchings – to lions, horses and her beloved birds: swans, owls and parrots (prices on request). She allows the natural form of the stones to suggest their own subjects, and aims at bringing out the charm and personality of each character or creature, using nuances of translucency and contrasts of matte and polished surfaces. “Many artists strive to capture the beauty of a bird or animal on canvas,” she says. “I try to capture their essence in my jewels using carvings that have a life of their own and which continually remind me of the beauty of the animal kingdom.”

Gem carving, so sculptural in form and technique, seems to appeal to jewellers with a strong connection to fine art, such as Brazilian artist-turned-jewellery-designer Kim Poor. This spring, Poor launches a collection of jewels set with gemstones that were carved in organic, abstract forms in the 1960s by Brazilian artist-jeweller Haroldo Burle Marx, brother of the famous designer and landscape artist Roberto, who created the wave-like Rio Promenade. Poor, an admirer of the talented brothers, bought an entire collection of gems hand-carved by Haroldo using his unique, free-form lapidary technique. Like glossy coloured beach pebbles, the curvaceous and sensual gems are set by Poor into huge hammered gold rings, multistrand bracelets or pendants (from £1,200). “I use carved gems for texture as I use glass in my paintings,” she explains. “I paint with stones, and the sculpted stones add texture to my work. I consider each individual piece a small work of wearable art.”

Cora Shebaini, daughter of art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, spent her childhood surrounded by art. “I grew up with sculpture, Memphis furniture and colour all around me,” she says. “I could either absorb or rebel, and I still enjoy colour, such as Donald Judd sculptures. I love carved stones – chrysoprase that looks completely poisonous, pale rose quartz, cornelian, and cocholong, white opal, lavender jade – there’s nothing comparable. And they’re durable, so they make sense for daywear.” Her clients buy her pieces as miniature sculptures, such as her signature gold Frame collection (from £4,000) featuring immaculately cut slabs of stone with markings like abstract art. Now, carved stones and matte ebony highlight her new Copper Mould collection (from £2,300) of appealing jewels formed like Kugelhopf cakes, tarts, jellies and ice-cream cones. The stones were specially cut for her in Idar-Oberstein: chrysoprase for jelly, rhodocrosite for raspberry pudding, coral underneath the criss-cross of a Linzertorte. “I was with my goldsmith in Switzerland and all I could think of was coffee and pastries. The pastries ended up in my sketchbook.”

Another, spicier flavour influencing today’s jewellers comes from Asia, which has its own long tradition of stone carving – jade in China, emeralds and rubies in India. Tapping into their heritage of spectacular commissions for maharajahs and their mission to tell stories that inspire wonder, Van Cleef & Arpels composes necklaces and suites around luscious rubellites or emeralds carved for the house in India (price on request). Just Jade, a new Italian brand, sets intricate Chinese jade, turquoise or mother-of-pearl carvings into wearable jewels, earrings and pendants (from £1,100). Michel Ermelin, president of chic, Parisian boutique brand Verney, envelops antique stone carvings in contemporary settings (from €3,000), encrusting the strong colours of carved turquoise, coral, green or black jade, a Burmese sapphire or an emerald elephant with subtle, sophisticated grey or bronze diamonds; adding a golden pearl to yellow jade or contrasting deep-pink flower-carved rubies with intense emeralds. “The combination of refined antique work and modern mounts balances luxury and elegance,” says Ermelin, “and at the same time it’s understated, giving women the sporty-chic look that is so much in demand.”

In Hong Kong, awe-inspiring artist-craftsman Wallace Chan, who was apprenticed at the age of 13 to a traditional Chinese carver, has pioneered a technique that combines cameo and intaglio carving to create a 3-D sculpture within a stone (from $80,000), playing with angles and multiple reflections. Sculpture, he explains, drives his technical ingenuity and defines his work, and just as nature tells her story through gemstones that have taken thousands of years to develop, so his carvings, embellished with diamonds, enact their own drama.

When it comes to drama, it’s hard to surpass the artistry, virtuosity and near-reckless audacity of Turkish master-jeweller Sevan Biçakçi, who works in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul revitalising ancient, traditional skills. His monumental pictorial rings (from £7,000), mesmerising and mysterious, are treasured by art collectors around the globe. They are composed of massive dome-like gemstones (which have included a million-dollar emerald), intricately carved from the back and often painted like Ottoman miniatures, so that exotic Byzantine images – cherubs, mosques, tulip gardens, peacocks, palaces – seem to float, dreamlike, inside the stone. An artist’s world within a gem.