One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity. They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses. Like a stone fingerprint, like the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, these rings were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax. Their designs were usually carved intaglio into the ring’s stone, so their impressions left a raised relief design. Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the little carved stones tossed aside having little value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.
These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring. The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic. Signet rings still retain the suggestion of authority, whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest, or at its most minimal describes a heavy ring with a large flat stone.
The origins of the signature seal are very ancient, many thousands of years. Ancient Mesopotamia preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates. Historians describe an ancient Babylon where not a person was without a cylinder seal on a ring or hanging around their neck.
In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose. A scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat. Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – maybe the rotating scarab-heart served to ‘cover’ the name. They are so abundant each of has likely seen one. A person can find these small signatory scarabs in any history museum, while little cast replicas in colored glass and simulated blue faience are easily found in bead shops all over the world.
The signature stones were widespread among many cultures, from Persia to Phoenicia, Greece to Egypt, while seals in general were in use throughout the world. Their function in business affairs create specialty shops, with gem carver being an encountered occupation in the Classics A skilled carver’s quality and style enhances the security by being easier to authenticate visually. The best seals were elaborate works of art, but many were cut in glass. Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic counterfeits and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.
Signet rings then can provide a more personal glimpse of economic activity that coins alone can provide. They show that during the same period of heightened trade, a variety of amulet stones also appear, and this is where the story grows interesting. During the syncretic time period of Alexandrian Egypt, where many cultures lived side by side, familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to take on colloquial, magical and cult themes. We see numerous soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, symbols that display chimeras and magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes. There were also symbols of newly forming religions, and hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity. It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, while also serving as a statement of membership to a group. Or it may simply be the continuation of an Egyptian customary identity.
One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘abrasax’, sometimes ‘abraxas’. Its origin remains unclear, and frequently it depicts an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any modern religious context. From the inscription the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers, and the large numbers of these mysterious stones were scattered across the world, and into the ring fittings and curio cabinets of many fascinated admirers who had heard the legend that they bestowed supernatural powers. Stones with this word have some of decorative art’s most mysterious characters engraved on them: a rooster headed figure with a flail and snakes for legs, or the lion or Apollo headed snake (‘the good spirit’), or Harpocrates, the child-god of silence and secrecy, later confused with and immortalized as the common garden cherub. Scholars group these together as Gnostic gems after a religious movement that has largely vanished from historic record. Perhaps they relate to the legendary libraries and schools, the orpheums and museums, which were destroyed repeatedly. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.
The signet stones continued to be in use for centuries longer. At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving. Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from Mughal India to North Africa. The Mughals took gemstone carving seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.
Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but generally declined in regular trade use in the form of signet rings. Beginning in the renaissance ancient intaglios, which were widely collected as curiosities, became an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets. Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets.
Even as professional habits and modes of expression changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use. It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.
The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry. It is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year place among ornaments.
When an insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.
A living artisan that completely bridges the divide between sculptor and jeweler, and whose work crackles with intelligence. After working for several years, she started gaining notice and has become justifiably successful. With her growing acclaim, she shows complete independence. Rather than devolving into a designer’s role creating redundant wealth-objects of increasing expense, she demonstrates a continued devotion to working the materials personally. Her latest series, Vestige, is breathtaking, and instead of gold she creates complicated formulations out of ordinary bone. Eclectic carvings are fused with the metaphoric bones of antique picture frames. The mark of a brilliant materials handler, the essence of gold retains its contemporary spare inkling through the remnants of gold leafing on old wood; the wealth on display is skill and the devotion of time. It generates a feeling of gratitude in me that the artist has chosen to direct her success towards a deeper pursuit of artistry, providing us with a living example of real creative integrity.
Something that comes to mind: for an artist who has reached the level of magazine articles and museum collections, you’d think she was ready to start her own design house. This is the curious place of an artist and creative labor in today’s economy. It’s simply not enough, even with full recognition. Trask’s name should be well known and collected among people who enjoy jewelry, as was Lalique, Tiffany or Jensen in their day. Trask should be raking it in and changing the way we look at ornament. However, any sensible placement as top market and the pride of the region where she works is prevented by the mean average of the global market. Though she should be able to ask anything she likes for her work, the scale of the market – its ability to import matching manufacturing but from a differing relative economy – controls the ceiling of prices, limiting recognition and reward for artistry in jewelry. Today top market jewelry, regardless of genius, is based primarily on the raw value of materials and somewhat in the perceived value of branding. In order to see natural innovation and real creativity surround our lives again, we would start choosing our local artisans for every service possible, a priority shift of buying less and paying higher prices for better goods. This would transform the way work is done overseas as well. Encouraging regional development – anywhere in the world – is accomplished by using one’s good taste and sensibility to choose goods that exhibit the human touch and essentially benefit the growth of culture.
One of her artist statements, for ‘Unnatural Histories’:
“This work arose from my unending fascination with the material world.
Deliberate arrangements of flora and fauna, mineral and vegetal, side by side, delineate multiple subjective taxonomies. One defines a personal aesthetic; catalogs texture, color, and light in a formal and intuitive manner.
Another system, one of sly, unnatural histories, is derived from a curiosity about the material world and conceptual relationships; associative meanings and actual elemental materiality. By abstracting particular materials my intent is to create an impulse to pause, and look again. To consider. The results are oddly metaphoric arrangements on an intimate scale that invite examination.
In that moment of engagement, perhaps one might reclaim a sense of wonder, visceral delight, or simply curiosity as to the purpose of such meticulous arrangements.”
Artist’s Website: http://www.jennifertrask.com/