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Ancient art, modern jewellery

written by Colton Sun


Intaglio, an engraving sunk below a transparent gemstone surface, is a major luxury art form in a vast variety of cultures that could be traced back to centuries. In ancient Rome, an intaglio ring was a symbol of power and wealth. Roman men tended to wear only one intaglio ring at a time, while women might wear them on each finger. This type of glyptic art continues its journey through time and becomes a form of art, ornament and jewellery nowadays. There are barely hundreds of intaglio artists left. Among the hundreds of cravers scattered around the world such as Germany, China and Italy, there are dozens in Russia, including Vladimir Popovich, one of the artisans of Argentov. “Intaglio carving is a lesser known jewellery form of modern time,” said the Russia-based jewellery brand founder and creative director Yaroslav Argentov. 


Miniature craftsmanship 

The splendid intaglio engraving techniques of Popovich does not differ much from millennia ago. The engraver first drafts a design on mold over the flat back of a gemstone. Engraving requires rotary tools to hollow out main lines while textures and layers are etched by polishing pins, above all, immense patience and delicate dexterity. The step that demands the longest time comparing to others step is the application of abrasive powder for polishing meticulous edges and details. After removing the powder, the semi-finished piece is stamped into wax to create a convex impression for quality inspection. The same step repeats until the design is impeccably executed. Argentov told Hong Kong Jewellery: “Craftsmanship itself has not changed, but the tools have evolved over the course of time. Electric engraving and magnification tools have significantly shortened production time. It takes approximately one month to create a one cm² intaglio, subject to the complexity of the design and texture of the gemstone.” Finally, the intaglio would set in yellow and white gold as a main stone and decorated with other gemstones such as white diamond, ruby, sapphire and mother of pearl. They make a magnificent statement jewellery to attract wandering eyeballs. 


In the ancient time, intaglios were made from precious and semi-precious stones, such as sapphire, rock crystal, amethyst and garnet. With decades of experiences working with a gamut of gemstones, Popovich shared that topaz is his favourite gemstone for intaglio engraving owing to its reflectivity. However, polishing topaz could be an enormous challenge as its perfect basal cleavage makes it more prone to chipping if improper pressure is placed on the stone. Two of his hand-engraved intaglios, Portrait of Dmitry Likhachov and Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, which were displayed at the exhibition entitled ‘Glyptics: Past and Present’ at the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg in 2019, were made from grey Topaz. Speaking of inspiration, Popovich has a soft spot for cultural heritage ranging from greatest paintings to compositions of all time. He said: “I created a pictorial piece featuring the bust of P.I. Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer in the Romantic period, after I listened to his string sextet Souvenir de Florence.”


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