For a great many people, a single gemstone alone is enough to provide the highest and most perfect aesthetic experience of the wonders of nature.
              —Pliny the Elder, Natural History, pre A.D. 79
The beauty of carved gemstones has captivated craftsmen, collectors, and connoisseurs since antiquity. Precious markers of culture and status, gems were sought by Greek and Roman elites, and are still valued by modern monarchs and aristocrats. Ancient intaglios (gems cut below the surface) and cameos (gems with stone cut around a figure) inspired not only post-antique gem carvers but also artisans working in other media, from illuminated manuscripts to porcelain vases, demonstrating the enduring allure of these stone masterpieces in miniature.

How were gems used?

In antiquity, engraved gems served as seals, amulets, or ornaments, as described below. However, the primary objective of an engraved gem was to serve as a seal for identification, much like a signature.
In the mid-500s B.C., the scarab design was introduced. A scarab is a gem with a curved back side, carved to resemble a dung beetle. Its other side has a flat surface with an intaglio carving. This beetle was considered sacred in ancient Egypt; it was associated with the divine manifestation of the early morning sun.
Scarab gems were pierced and worn as rings or pendants. When worn as a ring, the curved side faced out, and the flat intaglio side rested against the finger (see images below). When used as a seal, this gem could be swiveled, and the intaglio side pressed into soft clay or wax, leaving an impression to identify and secure property. A Greek house owner would place his seal, the imprint of the gem, on doors and boxes of valuables.
Gems used in ornamental jewelry were valued not only for their distinctive carving but also for the beauty of their stones. They were also worn as amulets, which were believed to have magical and mystical properties to ward off evil, harm, or illness, or to bring good fortune.
Elite individuals possessed multiple gem seals for the various roles they played in society, but wealthy collectors gathered gems as works of art in their own right. Mithridates (ruled 120–63 B.C.), the king of Pontus (in present-day Turkey), amassed a fine collection that was brought to Rome by the general and statesman Pompey the Great, and was offered to the god Jupiter in 61 B.C. Later Julius Caesar dedicated six gem cabinets in the Temple of Venus. A gem cabinet was called a daktyliotheke.

Who were the gem carvers?

Some ancient gem carvers signed their works, but the majority of classical gems are unsigned. With careful examination, anonymous intaglios and cameos can be attributed to some known masters based on characteristics they share with signed gems.
Epimenes was a Greek carver active around 500 B.C. He did not sign this cornelian (or carnelian) intaglio scarab, Youth Adjusting His Sandal Strap (at the left), but the pose of this figure and other details are so close to a gem he did sign that we can be confident that he carved it.
Dioskourides (active 65–30 B.C.), a Greek master from Aigeai in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), is one of the few gem carvers recorded in ancient literature. He is mentioned by several Roman authors as the carver of the personal seal of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.–A.D. 14). Several high-quality intaglios and cameos bear the signatures of Dioskourides and his sons, Eutyches, Hyllos, and Herophilos, who followed him in the trade. Dioskourides' fame led later carvers to copy his works and forge his signature.
The ancient Greek gem carver Solon (active 70–20 B.C.) worked in Roman imperial circles, fashioning idealized portraits of the emperor Augustus and his sister, along with images of mythological figures. Solon's signature is preserved on five ancient gems. His carvings gained great popularity in the 18th century due to their outstanding quality.
Although he signed his gems in Greek, the ancient carver Gnaios (active 40–20 B.C.) had a Latin name, Gnaeus. This does not mean that he was Roman, for Latin names were sometimes adopted by Greek artisans. Four gems bearing Gnaios's signature have survived from antiquity—all stunning intaglios of rulers, such as Mark Antony, and mythological figures.

Additional Resource