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In the hands of talented jewelers, age-old techniques can yield surprising results. From etchings and carvings to metal piercings, we bring you the three finest and most unique jewellery making techniques, and the jewellers who have devoted their lives to mastering them.
1. Reverse Intaglio
On paper, Sevan Bicakci is a jeweller, but really, he should be considered a sculptor, storyteller and visionary. The talented Turkish artist is known for his execution of reverse intaglio, which he uses to carve realistic miniatures of Istanbul’s famous landmarks into precious gems.
The technique is believed to have originated in mid-1800s Europe. Traditionally, it involves etching designs into the back of clear cabochon rock crystals, and then painting over the etchings with enamel to create a coloured scene. Bicakci’s interpretation takes the technique up a notch. Instead of clear rock crystal, he favours faceted coloured gems, and instead of etching, he carves deep into the gems, sometimes taking more than half the carat weight off, to create three-dimensional mini worlds.
Bicakci’s use of reverse intaglio is mostly found within the Hagia Sophia collection, which is inspired by the monument of the same name in Istanbul. The distinctive domed roof of this historic mosque is replicated in the huge domed gemstones that sit atop all Hagia Sophia rings. It was these domed gems that prompted Bicakci to take up the technique – he had felt that they were too empty, and wanted an interesting way to fill them up. The cityscape of his hometown, Istanbul, and animals are his favourite subjects to render in stone.
Because he aims to achieve as realistic a representation as possible in his sculptures, Bicakci’s version of reverse intaglio is more time- consuming and requires more skills than it traditionally does.
To achieve a better sense of height and three-dimensional effect, he carves very deep into the gems, sometimes to the point of cracking the gem’s surface.
This means discarding the ruined gem, going back to square one, and starting all over again with a new gem – an expensive endeavour indeed.
2. Jade Carving
Jade has been revered in China since 9500 BCE, the year from which the earliest examples of carved jade ornaments are dated. Although jade is the single commonly used term, it really refers to two distinct minerals: nephrite and jadeite. The former is the more affordable option with high opacity and a hardness that is slightly lower than quartz, while the latter is harder, higher prized and has a captivating translucency that makes it popular in jewellery.
Traditionally, jade isn’t cut – both varieties are harder than steel – but is worn away gradually in a time-consuming process using a bamboo lathe containing quartz, garnet, or corundum sand and water. With improvements in technology, rotary tools and diamond bits are also commonly used on the stone today.
One of the most respected jewellers working with jade is Edward Chiu. The brand is known for its museum-quality jade creations that can command millions. Edgy bracelets in black jade, floral brooches in ethereal pastel lavender jade, and white jade paired with pearls and diamonds are some of the brand’s signature.
Because imperial jade – quality jadeite of a very strong green hue – commands such a high price, jewellers prefer to use it for smaller earrings or pendants in conventional designs in order to achieve better yield and profitability. Black, white, lavender and even yellow jade not only spark the imagination with their various hues, they also allow artistic risks to be taken with less financial consequences.
3. Metal Piercing
Metal piercing involves cutting shapes into a sheet of metal with a fine saw. An outline of the shape is first drawn on the metal, then a drill is used to create a hole in the centre of the outline before a fine, needle-like saw is inserted into the hole. The saw is held taut and secured on both ends so that it almost twangs like a guitar string when plucked. Using this saw, the craftsman deftly traces the outline he had made until the start and end points of his cut meet, and the material within the outline can be detached from the main piece of metal.
Step into Chavana’s workshop and one will see craftsmen still working with this painstaking process. Metal piercing, although considered by Thai jewellers to be an essential part of their repertoire of skills, did not originate in Thailand. It is believed to have been brought to the country from Russia following the establishment of diplomatic ties by King Chulalongkorn and Tsar Nicholas II in the late 19th century.
Traditionally, the artisans at Chavana used the technique in pieces featuring Kranok, a recurring motif found in Thai temple architecture, art and royal regalia. The motif resembles a stylised version of a flame and is often used alongside stylised leaves and flowers as well as depictions of gods and characters from folklore.
The saw, with its fine blade, is ideal for carving out the many minute spaces that occur between the kranok’s ‘flames’.
Today, with Chavana’s global clientele, metal piercing is also used to create more universally accepted designs, such as the lace-like openwork pieces set with white diamonds.