the guy ladriere collection

Engraved Gems

One of the most elusive forms of adornment from Antiquity are engraved gems. They existed in large numbers and many have survived to this day, but as these were eminently portable objects, they often lack context. Stones were taken out of rings and pendants to be fashioned into another jewel, and endless cycle that continues until today. By studying engraved gems carefully however, there is a lot to be learned about the world they come from. L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, exhibited a large private collection in 2022, accompanied by the book Engraved Gems. Cameos, Intaglios and Rings from the Guy Ladrière Collection.


This large and beautifully designed book starts out with an interview with the collector himself. The choices and preferences of the collector are a most important element of any collection, as they are imperative to our understanding what the collection represents. Where the major and important collection of cameos by Derek Content for example was built specifically to be representative and show the full range of quality found across the Empire [1], in the interview with Guy Ladrière we learn that his choices were based on beauty and personal preferences. That results in a different selection, and I enjoyed the passion shining through in the interview: many collectors will relate to his anecdotes of having, holding, missing out on, and wearing.

The first chapter takes us along in the world of words: what exactly is the difference between cameo and intaglio again, how were they created and from which stones? The treaty on terminology used for a variety of gemstones is particularly useful as it presents an overview of the convoluted history of these terms, and clearly states which terms will be used throughout the book. Now as terminology is notoriously complicated, I’m sure gemmology experts will have their own opinion of these choices, but specifying what is meant by ‘agate’, ‘carnelian’ etc. in the present volume does provide clarity for the understanding of the contents.

One thing that struck me as odd in this chapter is the statement, regarding garnets, that the trade routes to the East disappeared in the early Middle Ages, and so garnets were collected from Bohemia and Portugal. (p. 31). Research has shown that these trade routes did not disappear completely. Garnets in early medieval jewellery from various locations across The Netherlands have been examined in 2011. The results were fascinating: most of the garnets in these jewellery pieces came from India and Pakistan, and a single piece of jewellery could even contain garnets from several geographic locations. [2] It would be certainly interesting to examine why Portuguese and Bohemian garnets were preferred for engraved gems in this period!

Next, we dive into the collection itself. This is presented largely chronologically. Themes recur in several chapters, and where necessary, younger gems are discussed in the same chapter as older ones when it serves the theme at hand. The chapter ‘From the Phoenicians to the Sassanids: a brief history of glyptic art’ does not actually provide a brief history of glyptic art, because the earliest forms of seals like those from Mesopotamia and Egypt are not represented in the collection. What you will find here is an essay on how pre-Classical forms found their way into later pieces, such as the Egyptian scarab. This Classical-centered point of view is also present in the description of Sassanid glyptic art, of which is stated that they ‘…raised it to levels sometimes equal to the most beautiful Greek engravings’. (p. 46) Sassanid seals do obviously reflect the Hellenistic history of the region under Alexander the Great and his successors, but also draw upon older regional forms. [3] This approach tells us a little more about the collection itself: it has been compiled with loving eye for beauty, and notably Classical beauty.

Before continuing into the Classical world, the choices made by engravers in using the properties of stones, such as material and colour, are explored. Here, we see several examples of cameos created by employing the natural properties of a stone to their fullest advantage. The diachronic composition of the collection provides splendid examples of cameos from multiple timeframes, and it is interesting to see how new forms of playing with colour and structure continue to emerge through time. Intaglios as well have on occasion been selected for their colour, notably when it comes to magical gems: the present chapter mainly deals with cameos, and a later chapter in the book presents protective gems.

Graeco-Roman Egypt is represented with several beautiful cameos, of which a sardonyx piece with three superimposed portraits of Ptolemaic rulers is a remarkable piece. The discussion in this chapter highlights the pluriform culture of Graeco-Roman Egypt, where Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods merged into new deities and foreign rulers identified themselves with Egyptian gods and goddesses. Roman emperors, Alexander the Great and Medusa are presented in the next chapters in both antique and more modern gems. As classical Antiquity continued to fascinate in later centuries, these portraits were popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as well. A noteworthy chapter is that on replicas, pastiches and copies: here, we learn about the blurred lines between original and reproduction. The detective work involved in tracing the original or model for a later reproduction reveals a little of the larger world behind these miniature masterpieces. Original pieces from Antiquity, but also paintings and prints served as blueprint for carved gems.

Apart from individual carved stones, the collection also holds many rings. We see a selection of these in the chapter in icons, rings and seals in the Byzantine Empire, as well as in the chapter on two thousand years of rings. Both show absolutely stunning examples of rings, which are discussed in depth in the accompanying texts. The ring theme continues with a chapter on protective gems, which were often worn set in a ring, and a chapter on the very personal nature of engraved gems. Notably rings were gifted as personal jewellery, and may contain inscriptions that wished the wearer well or spoke of love. An example in the collection is catalogue nr. 306, a Roman ring, which carries a cameo inscription (see image included above). Of this, the author writes that it is ‘not very legible here, but speaks of sweetness (dulcis, suavis)’ (p. 170). I would propose the reading ‘dulcis vita’ – a sweet life. The thing with these particular texts is that the composition pays more attention to the even display of individual letters than to how we would separate words. Add to that that the execution of the letters themselves is crude, and they do indeed become difficult to read. Here, the division of letters over the gem is 2 sets of 2 letters on each long side, and 1 letter on both short ends. The spelling, starting from the upper right corner and reading counterclockwise, would thus seem to be DU-LC-I-SV-IT-A, wishing the wearer a sweet life. [4]

The journey through time continues with gems from the Renaissance, the 17th century and Neoclassicism. Individual artists, the significance and meaning of forms and the echoes of Antiquity are all discussed and placed into context.

Each chapter in this book is well referenced and as such provides an excellent starting point for further research. The references contain not only relevant literature, but also parallels: an absolute necessity and an invitation to explore further. In that respect, I was however surprised to see the collection mentioned above, of the Content cameos, missing from the bibliography. The photography is beautiful, and I really appreciated how much space is allocated for images: rings are shown from several angles and cameos from different perspectives so as to take in as many details as possible. The structure and organization of this volume are also wonderfully clear: each image in the main chapters refers to a catalogue entry. The full collection is included in the last section of the book, where details of each piece are provided, referring back to the discussion in the main text.

This is a beautiful book that illustrates the long history of engraved gems from the Classical period and their reception, imitation and emulation in later times. It contains a massive amount of information that is well written and easy to digest: I have learned quite a few things while reading this book. As substantial private collections of engraved gems are rare, this book is a valuable addition to the shelf of any researcher and a beautiful introduction into the world of gems from past to present for the interested reader.

Engraved Gems. Cameos, Intaglios and Rings from the Guy Ladrière Collection. By Philippe Malgoures, Mare & Martin/L’Ecole, School of Jewelry Arts 2022.

304 pages, full-colour, in English. Available through the publisher

The book was received as review copy by the publisher.

[1] Henig, M. and H. Molesworth 2018. The Complete Content Cameos, Brepols, Brussels, p. 7

[2] Willemsen, A. 2014. Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld, ca 400 – 700 na Chr. Walburg Pers, Zutphen, p. 150-151

[3] Gyselen, R. 1997. L’Art Sigillaire Sassanide dans les collections de Leyde, National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, p. xviii, or see Gyselen, R. 2017. Sasanian seals: owners and reusers, in: Bercken, B.J.L. van den and V.C.P. Baan (eds), 2017. Engraved Gems. From Antiquity to the Present, Sidestone Press, Leiden pp. 85-92 for an iconographic discussion of their owners’ identification

[4] See a comparable crudely executed gem from Nijmegen, with a similar pattern of 1-2-2-1-2-2 letters that reads SI VIS VIVAM presented in Van Roode, S. 2019. Geheimen uit Gelderse Bodem. 10.000 jaar archeologische sieraden. Blikveld Uitgevers, Zandvoort, p. 50-51