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Lapidary History: Early Gemstone Cuts





Historical Gem Carving & Gemstone Cuts


Early Gem Carvings


Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The humble bead was probably the first gemstone cut used by man, dating back several thousand years. Limited by the tools available at the time, as well as the hardness of most gemstones, the simple bead or 'cabochon' were the logical choice for jewelry making and ornamentation. Stones where shaped by rubbing them with other stones, then polished using 'sand' as an abrasive.



Intricately carved cabochon cuts known as "Glyptic" gem carvings, date back to the 7th millennium BC, and were popularized throughout the ancient world, from Egypt (scarabs); to Etruria, Greece and Rome (signets, gods); Achaemenid Persia and the Indus Valley (signets, deities); and ancient China (carved jade).

Engraved glyptic gems were used as personal signets or seal-stones which could be impressed into wax or clay to create a signature. The examples above are of early Roman gemstone cuts using the pre-renaissance cabochon cut with several variations of cameo and intaglio styles.

A "lapidary" (edelsteinschneider in German) is an artisan who works with stone, minerals, or gemstones, forming them into decorative or functional objects. The term "lapidary" is derived from the word lapidaries, which were medieval treatises on alchemy, mineralogy, chemistry and other sciences.


Carved Beads

The humble and ubiquitous bead was the must-have accessory of the ancient world. Throughout human history, beads came in all shapes, colors, sizes and materials. Beads were carved from bone, stone and wood, or man-made in the form of glass wound-bead flamework. Ancient "crumb beads" were made from a mixture of faience, soapstone particles and cement [4]. So-called "eye beads," or "stratified eye beads" were carved from banded/stratified agates, giving the illusion of a staring eyeball with a dark pupil against a white background.

The sensation of beads swept across the ancient world like wildfire, beginning with the Egyptians, the Sumarians, and the Indus Valley civilizations. Their beadwork was spread across the western world by Phœnician traders, ending up on the finest Mycenaen and Roman jewelry. Long before the first money appeared in 600 BC, beads were the only currency, traded for barter.



Carved Carnelian Beads

Carved carnelian beads c.200 BC

   Carved Glass Beads

Carved glass beads c.100 BC


Ancient beads were made from agate, chalcedony, carnelian, chrysocolla, feldspar, so-called "greenstone" (chlorastrolite, chrysoprase, greenschist, omphacite, or serpentine), jade, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, obsidian or man-made glass, rock crystal, sardonyx, soapstone, terra cotta and turquoise.

Organic, or "zoogenous" materials are also popular bead materials. These materials might include bone, coconut shell, copal (an amber-like resin from the Copaifera tree), fire coral, so-called "African amber" (polymerized copal resin), ivory, shells, and mother-of-pearl. In tribal jewelry from Asian, Indian, and Persian cultures it is typical for most of these bead materials to be embellished with elaborate glyptic carvings that are representative of local motifs.


Ancient & Medieval Lapidary Techniques

Perhaps the best documentarian on the subject of medieval gem-cutting was Theophilus Presbyter (c.1070 - 1125), a German Benedictine monk with a fascination for the applied arts. In Theophilus' "On Divers Arts" De diversibus artibus (c.1125), his treatises on the polishing of gemstones goes into great detail in describing various techniques. For the polishing of "onyx, beryl, smaragdus (emerald), jasper, chalcedony, and the other precious stones" you would make a very fine powder from "fragments of crystal" or "emery" and then work the stone on a "smooth flat limewood board, wet with saliva."



Etruscan Agate Scarab

Etruscan agate scarab c.550 BC (photo: Jastrow)

   Parthenos Bloodstone Intaglio

Athena bloodstone intaglio c.50 AD (photo: Jastrow)


Theophilus also describes the method for using a "dop stick" by attaching the gemstone to a "long piece of wood of comparable thickness" using "chaser's pitch," then rubbing the stone on a wet "piece of hard sandstone," and decreasing the grit of the abrasive until the stone "becomes brilliant." Then, using "tile dust moistened with saliva on a goat skin," you would rub the stone until it is "completely clear."

To create intricately carved cabochons, cameos, and intaglios (photo above) out of sapphire, early Roman engravers may have used 'adamas' (diamond) fragments as carving tools, given that they are the only material that is harder than corundum.


The Cabochon

A cabochon (cabouchon) is a gemstone which has been rubbed and polished into a simple rounded shape, as opposed to a facetted cut. Up until the 1400s, gem cutters were constrained to cabochon style cuts and odd asymmetrically faceted cuts due to the limited technology at hand. The resulting shape has a convex top with a flat or concave back. The term cabochon is used to describe any gemstone cut shape that is not facetted.


Gemstone Cutting History - Cabochon Variations

When a gemstone is cut en cabochon, the miniscule amount of light that is able to enter, and exit through the stone is due primarily to its crystalline structure and optical properties, and has little to do with the gem-cutter's expertise.



Today, cutting a stone "en cabochon" is usually applicable to opaque gems, although transparent semi-precious gemstones are also cut as cabochons. Variants of the cabochon include the cameo and intaglio cuts shown below.


On To:

Lapidary & Gem Cutting History - Faceting

Italian & Flemish Renaissance Gem Cutters

Old European Gemstone Cuts

Fancy Gem Cuts & Fantasy Cuts

Gem Cutting Technology, Equipment & Techniques





History of Jewelry
History of Jewelry Books




Bibliography & Suggestions for Further Study on Gem-Cutting and Lapidary


1. Gemstone Artists, The Gem Cutting Process . www.gemstoneartist.com

2. Rock Hounds, Faceting By Hand . www.rockhounds.com

3. Victoria Finlay, Jewels: A Secret History . Ballantine Books

4. Dartmouth Math Dept., Paul Calter, The Circle, The Wheel & The Rose Window . www.dartmouth.edu

5. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, The Six Voyages.

6. Bowers Museum, The Art and Nature of Precious Stones . www.bowers.org

7. Lapidary Journal, Lapidary Journal Gem & Jewelry-Making Magazine . www.lapidaryjournal.com

8. Lisbet Thoresen, Gem Archaeology . ancient-gems.lthoresen.com

9. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

10. History of African Tribal Trade Beads . www.ezakwantu.com

11. Lapidary Journal, Lapidary Journal Gem & Jewelry-Making Magazine . www.lapidaryjournal.com

13. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, The Six Voyages.

13. The Bead Study Trust . www.beadstudytrust.org.uk



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