The art of carving small stones originated in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago, when soft stones were engraved to make seals. Today glyptics—from the Greek word for carve—includes the carving of seals, signets, cameos and other objets d’art using noble materials: precious, semi-precious and ornamental stones, coral, mother of pearl, amber and exotic woods. The method is usually abrasion, using a tiny diamond-coated drill point, and the work can be intaglio (concave), in low or high relief, or in the round. In nearly 40 years as a glypticien, Claude Delhief has practiced every aspect of the art. A slight, gentle man with twinkling eyes, Delhief came to his artistic métier naturally—the son and grandson of painters and sculptors, he studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, with sculptor Paul Belmondo as his mentor. There he met the head of the glyptics workshop—a pupil of glass designer René Lalique—and his future was decided. Named a Maître d’Art in 1998, Delhief works in a wonderfully cluttered Paris atelier creating unique pieces for collectors and jewelers. He begins with a detailed Plasticine maquette—“like children’s modeling clay”. he says, “Because once you start on the stone, there is no room for error.” As he delicately carves a face on a translucent Bolivian ametrine—a gemstone of mixed amethyst and citrine—he explains that the head is positioned so that the pale vein of citrine gives the hair a golden glow. Position and scale are all-important in the miniature world of glyptics. “The design must be visible to the naked eye, but it must also be perfect under a magnifying glass.” Art schools no longer teach glyptics, so Delhief currently has two apprentices. “The stone is a gift of nature,” he says, “and it’s man’s duty to give it all its beauty.” But that’s not the only reason he’s a glypticien. “I love doing it,” he grins. “I love it.”

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Originally published in the December 2009 issue of France Today

 

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