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Jaali: The ancient art of gem carving

During a trip to India, jeweller Anna Loucah fell in love with a pair of carved blue sapphires, leaving with both the gemstones and a desire to learn more

October 17, 2019 By Anna Loucah


 

India will always have a very special place in my heart, after spending several months there as an apprentice at the very start of my goldsmithing career. However, it wasn’t until my latest trip when I came across an exquisite pair of intricately cut blue sapphires that I heard the term jaali for the first time.

 

These large opaque stones were given such lightness and intrigue by the hand-carved detail they displayed that the fact they were precious gems paled into insignificance when marvelling at the complex art work etched into their surface. I was instantly hooked and wanted to learn more about this fascinating miniature world.

 

More often used in architecture, the term jaali refers to the ornamental patterns constructed through the use of calligraphy and geometry. Perhaps the most ambitious example of this technique can be found in the window screens of the majestic Taj Mahal. Its marble corridors are kept cool by the diffused passage of air provided by this geometric perfection.

 

Whilst historically rooted in the vast Islamic empires of India, the dynastic rulers of China also held a similar passion for this technique, naming it ‘open work’ and taking a more fluid approach to design.

 

As with many classical forms of beauty, contemporary design houses have eagerly drawn inspiration from it, tapping into its historical storytelling and translating it for luxury-loving modern audiences.

 

The grand houses of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels first began exploring the so-called glyptic arts in the early 20th century, creating some now iconic art deco pieces that have since easily entered into artistic antiquity.

 

Fine jewellers, such as Parisian brand Verney and London-based David Marshall, are just a couple of contemporary designers who hold a passion for this seductive artform, using discs of jade cut into intricate designs. Indian fine jeweller Farah Khan established her commitment to this process by consistently designing her one-of-a-kind pieces around each individual gemstone.

 

“I like the grandeur and age-old feel that carving imparts in a design,” Khan explains. “It provides a more regal and vintage appeal.”

 

It almost seems that designing around the stone is the only way to go if one is aiming to truly unravel the mysteries the gemstone holds. Layers of crystalline structure, variations in colour, texture and natural inclusions demand a sensitivity that goes beyond what might be termed skill. It calls for something that can only be described as intuition.

 

Despite the incredible level of skill required to carry out such work, the identity of the glyptician is hardly ever known. Rarely do they sign their work, and their identity is often a closely guarded secret kept by those who commission them.

 

However, one man breaking with this tradition is master jeweller Wallace Chan, who carves his own stones and has talked in great detail about what is involved in this art form. “You need to forget about your own breathing,” he says of the carving process. “It is when you have concentrated and forgotten to breathe that you realise what you have been able to do.”

 

Fortunately for me, the breath-holding glyptician has already woven his story into my sapphires. All I need to do now is ready them for their next chapter, and ideas for the jewels that will hold them are already flowing onto my sketchbook, inspired by my hypnotically beautiful hand-carved gemstones and the rich history of jaali.

 

 

Anna Loucah is an award-winning ethical jewellery designer based in London, and founder of Anna Loucah Fine Jewellery

 

An illustration of how Anna Loucah plans to use her jaali sapphires

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Despite the incredible level of skill required to carry out such work, the identity of the glyptician is hardly ever known. Rarely do they sign their work, and their identity is often a closely guarded secret kept by those who commission them

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