Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)
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.
Minoan Signet Ring
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.
Assortment of early seals.
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.
Egyptian Scarab Rings
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.
Assorted Roman gold signet rings.
Silver Roman signet ring
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.
Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.
Early Christian Intaglio
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’.
Islamic Signet Rings
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.
Intaglio collection remounted
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.
Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn
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.
Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring
Everyone knows what a brooch pin is. But what is it? For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece. It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand. All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.
Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe. A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans. The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe. We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense. Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing. It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.
Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors. From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone. At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform, a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.
This is a story about humility. And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes. I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information. This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture. Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.
Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem. Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another. It was unbelievable. Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs. I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.
In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice. Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling. I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels. I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential. Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral – as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.
Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent
This wasn’t far from the truth. Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered. The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned. One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth. Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them. Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith. The gold work is expertly enameled in a champleve manner. In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.
Sword, signed "Scott"
This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing. As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how. Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work. In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp. It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own. Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer. Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools. And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.
Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches. Barbarians? Hardly.
Born into a prominent Belgian silversmithing family, Philippe entered his father’s shop to apprentice at 17. He clearly was a rebel son, embracing the “new art” that resulted from the revitalizing impact of Japanese aesthetic on European culture. Pieces that he created outside the family shop’s aesthetic are fairly rare, and clearly imitating the master Lalique. His early works in jewelry and smithing do not quite possess the harmony of other artists, but in these mature works the result of his enterprise are plain.