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The art of gem carving

Since antiquity, gemstones have been engraved using the same methods. Watch the process from start to finish as a gem carver recreates an ancient image. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

Narrator: The process of gem carving is the same today as it was in antiquity, although modern tools are slightly different. It begins with finding the right stone. Here, the carver chips off a piece of carnelian. He selects the color and layer of stone that suit the project. After cutting the gem further, he grinds the stone to the rough shape desired, leaving it slightly larger to allow room for carving. (machine running) Water flows continuously to cool the stone to prevent overheating and fracturing. The carver creates a slurry by mixing olive oil with an abrasive powder. Emery or corundum was used in antiquity, while diamond dust is used today. A metal drill is dipped in the slurry and holds the abrasive particles as they cut away tiny amounts of stone. The slurry turns brown from bits of copper ground off the tool. Using a hollow tip, a whole is drilled through the gem from both ends. The core is broken off with gentle pressure. Now the gem can be mounted in a ring, or suspended on a cord as a pendant. The color of the gem can be enhanced by soaking it in a solution of iron compounds. Here, from rusted nails. Heating the gem further intensifies the color. Using differently shaped tools allows the carver to cut various shapes into the stone. On the back of the gem the artist sketches the rough form to be carved. In this case, a scarab, or beetle. The modern carver uses an electric drill, while ancient craftsmen used hand-powered tools. For the final stages, he uses tools made of softer materials, such as wood or leather, and a slurry made of a finer abrasive. The result is a smooth, polished surface. On the other side of the stone the carver sketches the image of a young man adjusting his sandal. The lines are bright enough for the carver to follow through the slurry, although some of the engraving is done blind. The carver relies on the vibrations of the tool to feel when it is cutting or not. The carver engraves the forms of the body with a a variety of tools, which decrease in size as he carves the finer details. Lastly, the carver adds a decorative boarder and signes the gem. This work is a copy of an ancient Greek gem in the Getty's collection that was carved by Epimenes around 500 B.C.