What better way to celebrate the natural beauty of a gemstone than by carving it up? Our history of engraving gemstones goes as far back as our history with gemstones themselves. Today, we’re going to look at some ancient engraving methods and how they differ from today’s techniques, as well as some of the coolest ancient engraved gems.
In the earliest days of gemstone carving, a hard stone or a piece of metal would be used to scratch away at the surface of a softer stone—a kind of early “scratch test.” This technique got the job done but didn’t yield the prettiest results.
Further down the line, the scratching material was attached to an early form of a drill, creating a more efficient carving process. Hard powders like emery would also be introduced to the drilling area to create a more powerful grind.
Nowadays, not much has changed. We use machine power instead of manpower and diamond powder instead of emery because gemstone engraving is done on such a tiny scale. The time and effort required to carve harder stone is no joke.
Ancient engravers weren’t just doing this for fun; there had to be some use for these gems.
Ancient carved gemstones show primitive images of gods and animals of cultural importance. These symbols could be used to identify the wearer and their property. Remember, this was a time before signatures, which is weird to think about.
As carving techniques evolved, the intaglio was developed and began to replace the old seals. An intaglio is when the craftsman grinds away at the surface of a gem to create a reverse image, kind of like when you plant your face in the snow.
Early intaglio seals in Egypt were cylindrical and could be rolled across wet clay or wax to leave an impression. Many of these seals also had a hole drilled down the length of them so the wearer could identify themselves or sign things whenever they needed to. It was kind of like carrying an ID and a pen all in one.
Later centuries saw the intaglio worn as a ring, and sometimes these rings were reversible. The wearer could have the ring seal side down most of the time and then flip it over when they needed to use the intaglio side.
Writings by Roman author Cicero tell of Roman citizens wearing intaglio rings and necklaces depicting their favorite philosophers. This suggests a transition away from intaglios for function and towards intaglios as adornment. This fashion movement created cameos, which persisted from Hellenistic Greece all the way to today, and they’re still popular.
Cameos are basically the inverse of an intaglio. Think of the surface of a coin—the image is raised rather than sunken in like an intaglio.
Carved gems from ancient Rome have been found all over, but my favorite discovery is when they drained the ancient Roman baths. Scientists found rings, gems, and all sorts of other things lost to time in the ancient drainage systems. Turns out we’ve been losing things while swimming for thousands of years.
The Timur Ruby
While Western cultures were busy carving faces and other images into their gems, civilizations in the Middle East had their own ideas. This brings us to one of the most famous engraved gems in the world—the Timur Ruby. This 361-carat polished redstone is actually not a ruby but rather a spinel. Nobody knew that until 1851 due to the limitations of gem identification technology, but that doesn’t detract from the special gem’s rich history.
The stone itself is named after Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire around 1370. This empire covered parts of modern-day Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Syria.
The Tamir Ruby is a remarkable gem with a fascinating story. The Timur Ruby is engraved with a few of the names of its previous owners, and we’re talking high-profile individuals. Jahangir, son of Akbar the Great, had his and his dad’s names carved into the stone. Included on the list are Shah Jahan, Baruch Cr Nader Shah, and Ahmad Saad Durrani. That’s why we like to call the Timur Ruby the Stanley Cup of gemstones.
Interestingly, since 1612, whoever owns the Timur Ruby has also possessed the famous Kohinoor diamond. This is because they were both put in Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne and haven’t been separated since. To this day, they reside together in the British Crown Jewels. Though I don’t think Queen Elizabeth has had her name put on it.
The Mogul Emerald
Next, we have one of the largest known emeralds in the world, the Mogul Emerald. It’s a 217-carat square-cut emerald that was originally mined in Colombia. It was sold to the Mughals, who absolutely loved emeralds, and their master craftsmen did something amazing to this gem.
One side of the stone features ornate curving floral designs with poppy flowers, and the other side has Islamic prayers and elegant Nusk script, one of the earliest forms of Islamic calligraphy. It’s also inscribed with the year 1107 of the Islamic calendar, about 1695-96, during the rule of Aurangzeb. It was sold by Christie’s auction house for over 1.5 million dollars, and as of 2007, it resides in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
The Shah Diamond
Lastly, we have what was likely the most difficult carving challenge on our list, the Shah Diamond. It’s a modest 88-carat elongated octahedron. There’s a groove cut around the end of the diamond so that it could be worn as a necklace. Like the Timur Ruby, it also bears the names of previous owners—Shyamazong, Shah Jahan, and Shafet Ali.
The mystery of this gem is just how did those incredible craftsmen carve the Earth’s hardest natural substance. Researchers have tried in vain to figure out just how they did it, but the answer is yet to be found.
Nowadays, we can use lasers and pens tipped with carbon atoms arranged to be even harder than diamonds. Many of today’s laser engraving technologies don’t damage the diamond, change the color or clarity, and can be used to help track and identify a stone. These engravings are also microscopic and require at least a jeweler’s loop to be seen. The engraving can also be personalized to have a company logo or a romantic message, maybe even the names of previous owners. The possibilities here are nearly endless.
What would you have engraved on your special stone? In this post, we unlock the secrets of exquisite engraving methods and the art of spectacular crystal carving, and also explore the world of precision and creativity. Hope you enjoy it.