Cameo appearance: carved gemstone jewellery makes a comeback

Words by
Ming Liu

23rd February 2017

Today’s jewellers are combining rare materials and centuries-old techniques to create unique, exquisite accessories for the modern market.

What has long enchanted me about cameo jewellery, as both wearer and writer, is its intrinsic link to storytelling. Gems are infused with narrative: the solitaire ring to mark an engagement, the rare brooch passed down to a great-great granddaughter, even the account of how a seemingly simple diamond rivière was created can be gripping.

Such tales bring jewels to life and one emerging story in particular — that of the carved gemstone — is currently capturing the imagination of designers and wearers.

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Choker by Pippa Small in collaboration with Belquis Zahir

Choker by Pippa Small in collaboration with Belquis Zahir

Much of the interest comes from an increasing desire to know exactly what we are buying — a question that’s being echoed in everything from food to fashion. “We know less about where things are made and by whom,” says Amedeo Scognamiglio, the self-proclaimed “king of cameos” and a sixth-generation cameo carver.

“The basic principle of jewellery was always ‘know your jeweller’, but now we can shop anywhere — online, in boutiques or in department stores. We’re losing our connection to the original creator.”

To say that 21st-century jewellery will be low key, easy to travel with and not look a million dollars is a bit passé

Enter the carved gemstone, with all its glorious handiwork and heritage. Carved stones ooze with ancient art: in 500BC the Greeks possessed engraved signets as a form of identification, while the Mughal era in India (16th-18th centuries) produced some of the finest examples of elaborately carved flora and fauna, often with Mughal titles and dates.

No two carvings are alike and that inherent uniqueness was pounced upon this season by venerable Place Vendôme houses as they injected their creations with this extra one-of-a-kind craft. An exuberant Piaget sautoir came bedecked with sumptuous emerald and blue tourmaline-etched leaves, while Chopard has twice featured carved jadeite earrings: last season in chic all white, flushly set with opals and diamonds, and this year, flecked with pear-shaped emeralds. And at Graff, a secret watch was given added intrigue with a magnificent carved 20.65ct tourmaline face.

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Monkeygold Necklace by Amedeo, who uses local sea shells for his cameos

Monkeygold Necklace by Amedeo, who uses local sea shells for his cameos

Graff acquired the stone fully etched, but contemporary Indian jewellers Amrapali has recently taken the craft in-house in response to growing demand. “We are playing with many different cuts and shapes, plus we’re seeing more customised requests,” says CEO and creative director Tarang Arora. It can take up to 15 years to master the art and Arora says he has 10 carvers at Amrapali’s headquarters in Jaipur. “I can now basically cut whatever I want within our premises.”

This includes bespoke orders such as, say, scenes of Lord Rama in a forest, for a client who wanted to replicate his castle on a carved ring. Meanwhile, its fine jewellery lines feature funky earrings with inverted carved tourmaline leaves that merge East and West, old and new.

Among the best stones for carving are emeralds, says Arora, thanks to their soft and brittle nature. A standout piece is a carved pyramid-shaped 22ct Colombian stone that Arora turned upside down and set into a white gold and diamond ring. “The stone’s beauty emanates from the bottom up,” he says. “It adds depth and interest to the carving.”

Another designer who is turning this age-old craft on its head is the aforementioned Scognamiglio. His cameos are handcarved from sea shells in his hometown, Torre del Greco on the Italian coast near the ancient ruins of Pompeii, using a local tradition that dates back 300 years. “My job is not to sell jewellery,” he says. “It’s to keep my town’s heritage alive. Here, a father teaches his son and if I lose a generation, I can lose an entire tradition.”

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A Happiness Cuff by David Webb features carved, deep green jade

A Happiness Cuff by David Webb features carved, deep green jade

A carver himself since he was 15, Scognamiglio says he’s “obsessed” with making cameos modern; cue the whimsical motifs he’s carved on to esoteric materials such as black lava, tiger’s eye and wood: a three wise monkeys ring looks extra cheeky, while a rock’n’roll, bowtied dog dons a pair of reflective sunglasses. “My designs get edgier every year,” he says, “but put me on the bench and I will carve Diana, goddess of the moon and hunting, or Roman emperors. I’m super classic; that’s how I was trained and the way I respect the tradition.”

Paris-based Marc Auclert is another designer seduced by Roman emperors, in his case Renaissance intaglios. After two decades working for the likes of Chanel, De Beers and Sotheby’s, he launched his own line of jewellery in 2011 that combined his passions for repurposed jewellery and antiques (he hails from a family of antiques dealers).

Based a stone’s throw from Place Vendôme, Auclert’s signature is double intaglio rings — a tribute to how signets were stamped in wax to check their quality. Auclert couples the original intaglios with identical imprints in gold, a painstaking technique invented at his workshop. Other pieces include ruby-topped, pink gold earrings with mismatched Greek and Roman philosophers or patriarchs dating from 1819 to 1838.

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A Graff secret watch is made more striking by a tourmaline face

A Graff secret watch is made more striking by a tourmaline face

“You can talk about each design for hours — now that’s a conversation piece,” says Auclert with a smile, who adds that his creations, priced from €1,500 to €50,000, are understated and easy to wear. “To say that 21st- century jewellery will be very low key — safe and easy to travel with, elegant and not look a million dollars — is a bit passé.”

Lydia Courteille is another Parisian creating fantastical gems around high-quality antique carvings. “Leaving them in the safe worries me,” she says. “I love to give old stones a second life.” Cue a tribal-inspired brooch fashioned from three carved stones that embody Courteille’s passion for archaeology. Meanwhile a 19th-century carved coral head of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is set in opal-flecked silver and gold — and is a truly fabulous, aquatic and mythical-like piece.

In New York, the late jeweller David Webb spent hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art studying the line and figures of carved stones — a passion the house has boldly interpreted today. “David Webb celebrated the stone’s texture and irregularities,” says Mark Emanuel, the house’s co-owner. “He worked around their unique features rather than squaring them off or shaping them.”

A rakish Happiness Cuff that audaciously hugs a deep green jade stone is a case in point, while a yellow gold Crescent necklace of interlocking ribbed lapis lazuli would win over fans both old and new, who in the past have included Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, and today can claim Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lawrence in their number.

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Necklace by Amrapali, which blends old and new and plays with different cuts and shapes

Necklace by Amrapali, which blends old and new and plays with different cuts and shapes

While the story of ancient, refashioned stones adds context and authenticity, other designers are pushing the boundaries of the craft. British jeweller Pippa Small is no stranger to working with forgotten cultures, having partnered with Afghan charity Turquoise Mountain for nearly a decade. But her latest Seeds of Hope collection — launched with Belquis Zahir, the granddaughter of Afghanistan’s last king — features carved moonstones and carnelians with a 3D science-fiction effect that look more out-of-this-world than prehistoric man.

Elsewhere, Dutch sculptor-jeweller Bibi van der Velden has long experimented with her craft, whether moulding mammoth ivory into rams and sea snakes or honing her more organic Cloud line. “The collection took two years to develop,” she says. “We had to adjust the machine to get into the corners and achieve that roundness.” But it’s her Memorabilia collection that’s most impressive. Fashioned from hollowed-out rock crystal that’s polished to perfection, the stones are then filled with mobile gems.

“It looks super easy, but it’s not,” says van der Velden, echoing what surely makes this art so captivating to both the maker and wearer. “When I see a block of stone, I’m terrified but also so intrigued. You can really lose yourself — but in a good way.”

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Auclert jadeite and diamond earrings from Chopard’s Haute Joaillerie collection

Auclert jadeite and diamond earrings from Chopard’s Haute Joaillerie collection