Engraved Gemstones in Ancient Rome

roman gold ring with nicolo intaglio

Mesopotamian Traditions and Roman Craftmanship

Intaglios – carved gemstones – usually mounted in rings, were a popular style of Roman jewellery for their aesthetic and practical uses. The technique was established well before the Roman period, most likely in Ancient Mesopotamia. Drill cutting techniques established by the Greeks, allowed the Romans to create intricate intaglio designs in precious and semi precious stones.

Roman Gold Ring with Zebu Intaglio

Each One is Unique

The engraving of gemstones brought potential for greater personalisation of jewellery, meaning that many intaglios are entirely unique. As a result, while some intaglios display common motifs such as specific gods who are easily identified, others combine obscure imagery, perhaps in reference to a certain family or individual, that is almost impossible to interpret today. The ring on the left depicts a humped oxen, or zebu, a most unusual motif.

Intaglios as Seal Rings

Intaglio rings often functioned in the same way as writing your signature in the modern day, as personalised seals used to authenticate important documents and letters. The intaglio would be pressed into wax, impressing the shape of the image carved into its surface. As a result, it was important for the engravings to be clear, finely carved and easily distinguishable, in order to prevent, or at least reduce, the possibility of forgery.

Roman Gold Ring with Mars Intaglio
Roman Gold Ring with Intaglio

Popular Intaglio Designs

Gods and goddesses were presented with one or more of the symbols or attributes connected with that deity. Some common examples include Mars depicted in helmet and with a sword, Diana with a bow or a stag, or Cupid, distinguishable by his winged child-like form. Other popular designs include busts – of important figures such as the emperor or of the recipient of the ring themselves – and animals, both alone and in various combinations.

Precious Gemstones

The earliest intaglios utilised soft stones, as they were easiest to carve, however, they often resulted in rough and unclear designs. By the Roman Imperial period, gemstones, both precious and semi precious, were well established as the preferred medium for intaglios. Popular choices included garnet, carnelian and amethyst, favoured for their strong colours and captivating translucence. Chalcedony, onyx and lapis lazuli were also highly prized, again for their bold colours and high quality.

By Francesca,

  Filed under: Ancient Rome, Buying & Collecting, Imagery & Symbolism   Tags: , , , ,
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