Sitting with his sketchbook in front of a collection of ancient engraved gems — some carved from jasper, others from gold, onyx, amethyst and carnelian — is the French jewellery designer Marc Auclert.
The grandson of an antiques dealer, Auclert caught the collecting bug when he was young, working the flea markets of Paris before going on to establish a successful career in the jewellery industry at De Beers and Chanel. Eight years ago he launched his own boutique in Paris, which specialises in repurposing museum-worthy ancient jewellery.
Read more: Guide to engraved Classical gems
‘I use antiques remounted on modern settings — I basically re-employ jewellery,’ explains the designer, who sources his ancient material from dealers and auction houses before resetting it in unconventional designs, such as diamond-enclosed brooches or ruby-studded rings.
Marc Auclert holding a Roman black chalcedony intaglio portrait of Antinous, Circa 130-138 AD. 1⅜ in (3.4 cm) long. Sold for $2,115,000 on 29 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York
The 40 ancient gems Auclert is examining span the second millennium BC to the 4th century AD, and come from the collection of the Italian art historian, collector and dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi. Most are no bigger than two to three centimetres long, and all of them display exquisitely engraved portraits of mortals and gods, battle scenes or constellations, carved using tiny iron tools by virtuoso craftsmen.
‘You have to put yourself in that time — no electricity, no lights, no motor,’ remarks the designer. ‘Everything is hand-made, hand-drilled. They are more than artisans; they are artists.’
A Greek mottled yellow jasper scaraboid with a grasshopper, attributed to Dexamenos or a close follower, Classical period, circa late 5th century BC. 7/8 in (2.1 cm) long. Sold for $519,000 on 29 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York
In our film, the designer highlights the breadth of imagery the engravers employed: one 2,400-year-old mottled yellow jasper scaraboid depicts a grasshopper at rest and is thought to have been made by a Greek named Dexamenos, while a candy-orange carnelian lozenge from circa 20-10 BC depicts the moment described in The Iliad when Protesilaos becomes the first Greek warrior to leap onto Trojan shores. ‘They are like little stories, little comic strips,’ says Auclert.
A Greek carnelian scaraboid with Protesilaos, Classical period, circa 4th century BC. 7/8 in (2.2 cm) long. Sold for $325,000 on 29 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York
The art of working with Classical Greek and Roman jewels — in particular miniature engraved gemstones — is nothing new, explains Auclert. In medieval times they were often set on book covers and chalices, and during the 17th and 18th centuries they were collected and worn by aristocrats.
‘We love things that are old and that give us roots and give us purpose,’ he explains. Indeed, many of the ancient gems in the Sangiorgi collection come on much later mounts.
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‘We mustn’t forget that those pieces were actually meant to be worn as jewellery,’ the designer goes on to say. ‘On one hand they are very antique, they are very precious, very rare, and they are worthy of being in the best museums of the world. On the other hand, let’s put them in the light, let’s put them back on a piece of jewellery — where they were to begin with.’
Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection is on 29 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York