The figure in the gem appears to be floating. The tiny incisions blend into smooth stone colored a delicate shade of honey amber, holding a mythical sea-nymph in its yellow water. This is just one of the many engraved gemstones on display at the Carlos Museum depicting figures and scenes from myth and antiquity. The new exhibit, “Making an Impression: The Art and Craft of Ancient Engraved Gemstones,” opened Aug. 27 and will run until  Nov. 27. The exhibit is curated by Ruth Allen, the Carlos Museum’s Greek and Roman art curator. 

A label strategically positioned at the very beginning of the exhibit proposes a contrasting thought attributed to the Roman author Pliny the Elder: “While gemstones exemplify the beauty and creativity of nature, man’s desire to mine is an abuse of nature.” This quote serves as a prod to consider the stories of the gemstones beyond their aesthetic appeal.

The entrance of the “Making an Impression” exhibit at the Carlos Museum (Mitali Singh)

The exhibit provides glimpses into antiquity, the lives of its people and their religious and political beliefs. Aiming to educate visitors about the creation and uses of the gemstones, the exhibit also displays panels of informative text and excerpts from writers of the time. Maps trace the sources of gemstones to help visualize the influence of different regions and cultures. With its roots in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, the practice of gemstone carving flourished across the ancient Mediterranean, gaining prominence in the first century B.C. under the Roman Empire. 

The gems feature depictions of animals, rulers and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. Their uses are multifold — from sealing stamps to amulets and jewelry. In ancient Rome, gemstones embodied an interplay of the public and private life and were symbols of social status and wealth, plaques at the exhibit informed viewers. Underneath this exterior, gemstones also acted as personal emblems, their qualities forming associations with the owners. 

In this way, wearing a gemstone was like donning a mask, and with it, a temporary new personality. The exhibit links this idea to Aphrodite in “Intaglio Gem Depicting An Armed Aphrodite” in which she can be seen wearing a mask, in place of a helmet.

For example, gemstones featuring images of deities would be worn to embody their traits. Gems featuring images of the goddess Aphrodite were used to draw on her beauty and seductive appeal and amplify the wearer’s own desirability.

Many images bridge the political and the divine. Popularized during Augustus’ rule, the god Apollo signified wealth and success, forming an association with power. 

Hercules embodied strength and protection, lending those qualities to the wearer. This exercise in manifestation is what makes the gems sparkle; their magic lies in their ability to transport the wearer into a different reality.

The showcase also explores the uses of gemstones as protective and medicinal amulets. These gems feature deities like Hekate, the goddess associated with magic, and mythical monsters like Medusa to ward away danger. 

The amulets were also used in spells to bring luck or healing to the owner; imagery of the god Chnoubis was thought to cure abdominal ailments, and stones made of red jasper were protective against colic.

Engraved gemstones fell into two types: intaglios, which displayed images created by incisions on the stone and were used as wax or clay sealings, and cameos, which had images carved in relief and were more ornamental in their use. 

Gems used to impress clay sealings onto official documents symbolized luxury, as literacy was a rare sign of high social status. Social class was so crucial that glass gems, a more affordable option for the non-elite, rapidly gained popularity in the Hellenistic period, promising deceptive grandeur. 

The exhibit highlighted that miners were enslaved, imprisoned and often underage individuals who worked under “life-threatening conditions” — an important factor to note while celebrating the historical significance of the gems.  I wondered about what we might learn about the period through the stories of the gems’ makers instead of their owners. I wish this element was explored more in the exhibit. However, the exhibit notes that the gems do not have “documented archaeological provenance” and their history cannot be traced beyond the dealers’ acquisition. 

The gemstones are small and encased in circular grooves within larger square cases. Magnifying glasses encourage you to inspect their delicate carvings and miniature images in detail. Each display of gems has a label with a brief description of its image and QR codes to scroll through a more detailed analysis. With the set up, viewers could immediately have their questions answered or learn more about symbolism that may not be noticeable at first glance. 

I took my time with the displays, flitting back and forth between the easy-to-follow numbered signs and the allure of a gleaming crystal. In particular, I was struck by the emeralds and amethysts, discovering them both to be coveted: the former for its rarity and the latter for its rich color and role in love spells.

In “Finger Ring with Intaglio Gem depicting Hermes Seated at an Altar,” the powers of amethyst as a love elixir combine with the image of Hermes, who uses underworld forces to bind two people together.

Color and the interplay between light and shadow were important qualities in the gemstones. In “Intaglio Gem depicting a Satyr Hunting Game Birds,” the chrome chalcedony stone appears to move when turned in the light.

I found myself engaging with the exhibit through the questions ruminating in my mind. Are the gemstones pieces of nature worn as a memory and reminder? Are they luxury in excess? Are they symbolic of oppression?

Although the carvings create lasting, physical snapshots of a historical period, their images resist being suspended in time. “Making an Impression” places the stories embedded in and around the carvings in conversation with our changing context and beliefs.