Classical gems


Classical gems of the 5th and 4th centuries BC reflect the new realistic styles of Classical Greek art, typified in sculpture, but they also embody a new approach and new usage, being regarded as much as jewellery as for the more practical purposes of sealing. The Archaic scarab shape is not forgotten but the commonest shape is larger, with a plain domed or low back (scaraboid), the patterned border is usually abandoned and the subjects are often single-figure, carefully placed at centre-field. The simplicity disguises some extreme technical competence in rendering of form and detail, typified in the work of one artist, Dexamenos, who has left his signature. The stones are still pierced, as for suspension or fitting to a finger ring, but on some it is the convex back that is decorated, not the flat base, and this presages the usage of the Hellenistic period. The influence of the classical style is felt also in the rich series of Greco-Persian gems. The materials used are mainly chalcedony, notably the pale blue which is also favoured for the Greco-Persian series, jaspers, and for a while multi-coloured jaspers which are attractive for their variegated appearance although this seriously interferes with viewing the subjects engraved, except in impression.

Abbreviations used in this section:
GGFR: J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970, 2001)
Walters H.B. Walters, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems ... British Museum (1926)

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