Book Review Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Book Review: Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present

Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present
By John Boardman and Claudia Wagner, hardcover, 304 pp., illus., publ. by Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2018, US$72.00.

Gemstone engraving, also known as glyptic art, is considered to be one of the oldest crafts. Engraved stones were used to record ownership and signature as seal stones, a practice that continues today. Their use eventually extended to adornment within jewelry and decoration. The ancients valued engraved gems, both in intaglio and cameo forms, and recorded important events, people, and mythical and religious scenes on them. The artistry and skill required for the production of engravings were exceptional, considering the ancients did not have magnification. Later, during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, the appreciation and almost obsessive collection of these gems was a trend of the European elite. This resulted in the revival of engraving art, which typically copied the classical subjects and added the engraver’s interpretation. These collections of the 16th and 17th centuries are the basis of significant museum collections today.

Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present presents an exquisite private collection of engraved gems assembled almost a century ago by a notable ancient art expert. The pieces are derived mainly from older, previously unpublished European collections. The book covers a wide range of engraved gems, from the Greek Bronze Age to the Classical, Hellenistic, Graeco-Roman, and Roman eras, and then delves into gems engraved as late as the 18th century CE. The last chapter includes 12 engraved metal rings. The book was written in association with the Beazley Archive of the Classical Art Research Centre, Oxford University, which offers a large selection of resources for ancient gem studies.

This volume is beautifully illustrated and superbly written. In clear, scholarly language, the preface explains the history and challenges of glyphic art and unfolds the materials, geographies, and cultural aspects of engraved gems era by era. The preface gives excellent insight and necessary education before the reader indulges in the detailed images and backgrounds of the 251 pieces.

The reader will appreciate the authors’ examination of the subject from both academic and collector perspectives, as would a modern gem collector or gemologist. However, from a research gemologist’s point of view, the book provides great examples of the nomenclature issues we face on a daily basis that are ingrained in the historical studies, and it will take some time for scientists in history and archaeology to embrace modern gemological terminology. To be precise, a number of engraved gems are identified with old terminology, such as “plasma” or “hyacinthine [sic] garnet,” where they could easily be identified more unambiguously by a trained gemologist. It is even more puzzling, yet pleasing, to see identifications of “chromium chalcedony,” a term specific to chromium-colored chalcedony that requires particular gem-testing methods to identify. Very few gemologists conduct research on ancient gems, but the number is increasing. A noteworthy publication such as this one would benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to attract and fascinate more readers with different backgrounds.

Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present is a masterpiece itself and highly recommended to any gem enthusiast, even those not previously captivated by ancient gems. Collectors, historians, and connoisseurs alike will be delighted by this volume.

Cigdem Lule is a research gemologist and mineralogist who specializes in the identification of geologic and geographic origin of ancient gem specimens through modern techniques.