My fiancé and I went to London’s Hatton Gardens looking for a diamond but came away with a 2,000-year-old frog, carved in glowing orange carnelian. Trying on this ring for the first time provoked in me an unexpectedly emotional response. Perhaps it was the little frog’s perfect proportions, still as pond-ready as they would have been in the 1st century AD; perhaps it was the ancient gold band that fitted me exactly. What I know for certain is that I should not have let the jeweller see my eyes welling up. After that, bargaining was futile.
A carved intaglio ring was once worn by every powerful businessman in the Roman empire, so he might authenticate documents by stamping it into a hot wax seal. In our digital age, they are prized as talismans, and prices can be surprisingly accessible. “Intaglios are one of the most undervalued aspects of the antiquities trade,” says dealer Peter Szuhay, who offers them from £900. “Over the past five years I’ve seen more and more people come in saying they’re searching for something different, something ancient.”
To look at intaglios usually requires a degree of squinting or magnification. Then the carvings reveal themselves, often as fish, elephants or mythological creatures somewhere between the two, their scales and hair deftly delineated; or rulers’ heads with masses of curls. Others are carved more crudely: Minerva’s shield, spear and helmet struck in a few economical grooves. Some are made from flamboyant amethyst, some agate, others rich red jasper. Some remain in their original settings, while others have been reset.
“Roman intaglios are the archetypal collectors’ item,” says Laetitia Delaloye, antiquities specialist and head of sale at Christie’s London. “Even in antiquity they were already being collected.” Julius Caesar, Pope Paul II and Lorenzo de Medici were early fanatics, the latter engraving his name on each gem. Today, no reputable jeweller would do such a thing. “We won’t destroy the integrity of an ancient item – if a ring doesn’t fit, we won’t change it,” says Justin Daughters, manager of Berganza (where my ring was purchased and which now has a carnelian example for £4,600). However, a variety of sizes exist and can, with care, be worn daily (original settings of pure gold are soft, as alloys weren’t then often used).
Sue Seibert-Fremont, a former textile designer from New Jersey, has owned her favourite intaglio for 10 years. “It has the lion-snake Chnoubis on one side and a pantheistic god on the other, and letters all around. I immediately fell for it – I’ve worn it every day since, hanging on a necklace.” Her collection focuses on “magic stones” – 1st- to 3rd-century-AD talismans with incantatory inscriptions. “They were for someone with a stomach ache or expecting a baby, or so on.”
“Intaglios make a glamorous signet ring,” says Delaloye. “People often enjoy the sense of status that comes from wearing one depicting a god, or Zeus’s thunderbolt. That said, animal designs are also very popular. There was a lot of interest in a mouse in the last sale.” A black jasper intaglio of a huntsman leaning on his staff, his dog gazing at him loyally, sold at Christie’s London for £1,188 last October. Prestigious portraits and mythological tableaux are much more valuable. A carnelian ring carved with Alexander the Great in the guise of Herakles, his head draped in a lion’s skin, was sold by Bonhams in London for £55,200 last year, and Herakles himself appears on a carnelian ring expected to sell for $120,000-$180,000 at Christie’s New York in December. Bonhams will also offer many deities among the 30 or so intaglio rings (from £1,000 to £5,000) at its October Antiquities sale.
However, some symbols can be hard to understand. I was advised that the squiggle above my frog was a lily pad (or possibly a slug), but to me it is a tadpole, and the ring represents metamorphosis or the life cycle: an appropriate emblem for an engagement ring. Seibert-Fremont tells me that her daughter once wore a gem she believed to be “magic” to college in Chicago, only for a professor to say: “I’m afraid that’s a curse stone.”
The authenticity of an intaglio may be established by dating its setting using X-ray fluorescence analysis, but the stones themselves are harder to date. A trained eye can usually discriminate between the robust expertise of ancient carving and the more precise intaglios created in the Renaissance. Szuhay has a rule of thumb: classical stones look less impressive but create wonderfully detailed seals, while the neoclassical look better but create less striking seals.
Above all, collectors should explore provenance. Some intaglios now on the market would once have been in the great collection of the 4th Duke of Marlborough, whose 800 or more ancient, Renaissance and neoclassical gems were dispersed in 1899. One-third of these once belonged to Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who purchased many of them in 1638 from the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. Oxford historian of ancient art Professor John Boardman has compiled an online database of images of the impressions made by Marlborough’s intaglios before they were sold, so it is possible to check if an intaglio was once his. “Several people have succeeded in this in the past two years. We can then record its whereabouts, but often this is the signal for the piece to be sold, and its value is considerably enhanced by having such a good provenance,” he says.
Roman intaglios are considered an investment, not least because, as a limited resource, prices are likely to rise. However, supply can increase, too, as international archaeology unearths new rings, particularly in the Phoenician “fertile crescent”. (UK discoveries need to pass through the treasure trove process and be rejected by museums before they can appear on the market.) Whatever its provenance, every intaglio ring raises fascinating questions – such as how many times it’s been bought, sold, loved and lost on its 2,000-year journey.