A short history: the delicate art of carved opal jewels

Because it’s so tricky to cut, we usually see opal in simple cabochon form. Yet when sculpted, its iridescent rainbow calls up all kinds of things – dragonflies, peacocks, the eery beauty of glow-in-the-dark waves (bioluminescence).

Carving opal is like trying to sculpt stained glass. Not only is the material itself glass-like – fragile and unpredictable – its color is its glory. A sculptor has to let the stone dictate form. It takes a certain kind of artist to take this on – one not only skilled at three-dimensional form but blessed with infinite patience and a taste for living on the edge. One crack and there goes your time and investment.

“It’s such a gamble to work in opal,” studio jeweler Angela Conty once told me. Conty has carved it herself and designed around opals carved by others, including Daniela L’Abbate. While they weren’t the first to master this art form, women lapidaries are proving particularly adept at it.

"The Jellyfish (Octopus) brooch of opal carved by Daniela LAbbate, pearls and gold designed by Angela Conty, sold for $5,937 at Bonhams Los Angeles in November 2014

“The Jellyfish (Octopus)” brooch (36mm) of 21.55ct opal carved by Daniela L’Abbate, pearls and gold designed by Angela Conty, sold for $5,937 at Bonhams Los Angeles in November 2014

“Carving in opal or sunstone or other multi-colored stones is like knitting a sweater,” gem artist Robert Chaplin once told me. When you’re carving gems, he said, “you can make a color pattern or a texture pattern. If you’re making texture patterns, you don’t want color to interrupt that.” Opal will interrupt you with color at every turn.

No wonder carved opal is so rare in jewelry. Yet some amazing examples have appeared at auction in recent months, produced over the past 150 years.

One early master of this art form was German carver Wilhelm Schmidt (1845-1938). Bonhams sold off a fascinating collection of late-19th-century work attributed to Schmidt in April, including this cameo carved – front, side and back – from opal on matrix, set in a gold brooch.

Opal cameo brooch, late 19th century Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 12.13.28 PMBrooch back, carved in opal matrix by Wilhelm Schmidt, set in gold brooch, late 19th centuryOpal cameo brooch (front, side and back views), late 19th century, probably by Wilhelm Schmidt, sold at Bonhams London in April 2015 for $17,497

“Opal cameos, if rare, were not unknown (in the 19th century) but Schmidt had invented a novel technique,” Gertrud Seidmann wrote in her 1988 book Wilhelm Schmidt: The Last Neo-classical Gem-Engraver. Instead of carving the whole cameo from precious opal, he used rough with a thin layer of precious opal overlaying the matrix, the same way contrasting layers of agates were traditionally used in cameos, to set off the background. As you can see, Schmidt often carved the matrix as well – even the backs.

Born in the gem-carving haven of Idar-Oberstein in 1835, Schmidt began training in the art of cameo carving at age 15. Settling in London, he engraved cameos from quartz, sardonyx, jasper, labradorite, and moonstone, but became known for his highly-unusual carvings in opal matrix. This quirk accounts for why we know his name at all. Even though Schmidt produced for top jewelers of his day, including John Brogden, Child and Child, Guilliano, he never signed anything. Cameos attributed to him are now in the British Museum and Natural History Museum in London.

Following in his wake, another German carver Wilhelm Lucas Von Cranach (1865-1918) took to carving faces in opal too, making a name for himself in a far less classical style.

Stickpin (detail) of opal, ruby, diamond and gold by Wilhelm Lucas Von Cranach, c. 1900 (courtesy Tadema Gallery, London)

Stickpin (detail) of opal, ruby, diamond and gold by Wilhelm Lucas Von Cranach, c. 1900 (courtesy Tadema Gallery, London)

Von Cranach took advantage of the opal craze in Europe at the turn of the century, when Art Nouveau took off. While most Germans were working in the more geometric Jugendstil style, Von Cranach, a portrait and landscape painter, was attracted to the mystical symbolism and female forms of the Parisian school led by René Lalique. But unlike the ethereal creatures French jewelers were making, Cranach’s females were strong and forbidding, like this Medusa that appeared at the Tadema Gallery.

You can see the influence of Art Nouveau jewelry on contemporary designer Angela Conty’s work, in the fluid lines and focus on nature. By carving her own gems, then fabricating the gold around them, Conty learned to create very organic pieces. In her case, the opal absolutely dictates the design, and that’s part of her creative journey.

Brooch of black opal, pearl, gold carved and set by Angela Conty

Brooch of 16.75ct black opal carved by Angela Conty and set with South Seas keshi and freshwater pearls, yellow sapphires, and peridot briolettes in 18k gold by Angela Conty. Sold for $3,965 at Bonhams San Francisco in 2010.

While she has carved and set many kinds of gemstones, opal has become her signature, as it was for Schmidt more than a century before. I first met Conty at the Tucson Gem Shows years ago, when she was showing her jewelry at the AGTA show. You don’t meet many designers who produce every aspect of their jewelry by hand, right down to carving the stones, and the fact that she was doing this with opal got my attention.

“I’ve always loved opal,” Conty told me. “It’s not too hard, but it has its own problems.” Early on, she turned to opal expert Paul Downing, who was “very generous” about sharing information.

“Picking rough was a real challenge from the beginning,” she admitted. “It’s such a gamble to work in opal, because there is no guarantee where that vein is. The rough may be covered in pocks or common opal. You may see a vein on the edge of it, but don’t know where it goes.”

Opal amethyst brooch by Angela Conty

Brooch of amethyst and Lightning Ridge opals carved by Angela Conty, set by Conty in 18kgold with diamonds, sold for $9,375 at Bonhams New York in May 2012

Then there’s the problem of setting the delicate carving so it can actually be worn. “The structure has to be strong enough to protect the opal, so I try to put enough gold around it that no matter where it’s dropped, the gold will hit first,” Conty said. “But that’s the way I like to work – very three-dimensional and solid and fluid.”

Her work has been showing up at Bonhams’ auctions for at least five years now. It doesn’t always meet the reserve and often goes for prices that make me cringe, knowing how much handwork goes into these pieces. But the butterfly brooch above, sold around the time those JAR butterflies at the Met were getting major press, shows there is still demand for labor- and gem-intensive one-of-a-kind pieces, even when they’re designed and made by the not-yet famous.

You can find more amazing opal jewels on my Opal Fever board on Pinterest.

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1 comment for “A short history: the delicate art of carved opal jewels

  1. August 6, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Jewellery itself is a very interesting piece of art which needs a high level of expertise in order to produce a stunning result. Some pieces are easy to shape whereas others need a little bit more time and effort before achieving that desired intricate design. At the end of the day, all that effort will definitely pay off.

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