History of Gems

Throughout the ages, gemstones have been seen as representations of wealth and power.  Symbols of supremacy, from crowns to richly decorated robes, have traditionally been adorned with jewels.  But gemstones are not just for the wealthy or the scientifically minded.

The art of cutting designs in precious or semi-precious stones either as cameos in which the design is raised in relief above the surface.  Intaglios were formerly used as seals for making impressions upon wax or clay.

Intaglio cutting probably started during the 4th millennium BC in Mesopotamia during the Elamite and Sumerian civilizations.  The first seals were usually cylindrical and were suspended on a cord.  They were made of marble and petrified shells.  The art reached its peak about 2800 BC in elaborate cuttings upon cylindrical rock crystal.  These commonly dealt with the adventures of King Gilgamesh.  

By the 1st millennium BC the art had spread throughout Asia Minor and although the cylindrical form was still common, domed and conical seals with flat surfaces for the intaglios became popular.  The design was usually cut in one of the colored quartzes such as amethyst, carnelian or jasper.  The Egyptians initially adopted the cylinder, but later produced seals of various shapes including that of the scarab beetle.  Unlike the peoples of Asia Minor, they engraved symbols rather then pictorial scenes.  Although the Egyptians made use of quartzes for their engravings, the most popular material for the making of seals glazed earthenware.  

The earliest Cretan gems were carved in soft steatite, but by about 1700 BC in the Minoan period, harder stones such as chalcedony were employed.  The engraving of seals for the bezels of rings appeared about 1100 BC.  The carvings on the gems of Greece and Rome provide a complete miniature history of the art of every period during which they were made.  The Greek gems of the 6th century BC were cut in agate, carnelian, and chalcedony.  

By the 4th century BC, the last had become the most popular material although lapis lazuli, agate, jasper, and rock crystal were also employed.  Gems of the Hellenistic period, dating from about 300 BC, were cut in a large variety of stones including garnet, beryl, topaz, sard, agate, and amethyst.  The use of glass as a substitute for more precious stones was also introduced at this time.  The cameo, usually made of one of the layered quartzes such as sardonyx or in colored glass, made its first appearance in Hellenic Greece and was brought to a high artistic level by the Roman craftsmen, who employed the same materials.  The cameo was commonly employed in articles of personal adornment such as brooches or clasps.  The intaglio gems of Rome were usually used as bezels of rings.  The domination of the western world by the Romans made available a great variety of stones and engravings were sometimes executed on sapphires and emeralds.

In the Roman Empire gem collecting became popular, and the art of gem carving was stimulated by the competition of collectors for the acquisition of particularly choice stones.