The Art of Gem Carving


Narrator: The process of gem carving is the same today as it was in antiquity, although modern tools
are slightly different. It begins with finding the right stone. Here, the carver chips
off a piece of carnelian. He selects the color and layer
of stone that suit the project. After cutting the gem further, he grinds the stone to
the rough shape desired, leaving it slightly larger
to allow room for carving. (machine running)
Water flows continuously to cool the stone to prevent
overheating and fracturing. The carver creates a slurry by mixing olive oil with an abrasive powder. Emery or corundum was used in antiquity, while diamond dust is used today. A metal drill is dipped
in the slurry and holds the abrasive particles as they
cut away tiny amounts of stone. The slurry turns brown from bits
of copper ground off the tool. Using a hollow tip, a whole is drilled through the gem from both ends. The core is broken off
with gentle pressure. Now the gem can be mounted in a ring, or suspended on a cord as a pendant. The color of the gem can be enhanced by soaking it in a
solution of iron compounds. Here, from rusted nails. Heating the gem further
intensifies the color. Using differently shaped tools allows the carver to cut various
shapes into the stone. On the back of the gem the artist sketches the rough form to be carved. In this case, a scarab, or beetle. The modern carver uses an electric drill, while ancient craftsmen
used hand-powered tools. For the final stages, he uses tools made of softer materials,
such as wood or leather, and a slurry made of a finer abrasive. The result is a smooth, polished surface. On the other side of the
stone the carver sketches the image of a young man
adjusting his sandal. The lines are bright enough for the carver to follow through the slurry, although some of the
engraving is done blind. The carver relies on the vibrations of the tool to feel when
it is cutting or not. The carver engraves the forms of the body with a a variety of tools, which decrease in size as he carves the finer details. Lastly, the carver adds a decorative
boarder and signes the gem. This work is a copy of
an ancient Greek gem in the Getty’s collection that was
carved by Epimenes around 500 B.C.

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