A multiform deity

Classicist shell gem of Zeus in gold setting, Italy circa 1820

Gems of the 19th century are in a class of their own. Whereas in previous centuries gems were kept in cabinets and could only be admired by a privileged few, they were now made to be worn. As transportable sculptures, they were visible to all and testified to the taste and education of their wearers. The unusual shell gem here shows us the most powerful of all the gods of Olympus, the god Zeus. As proof of his power he holds a bundle of lightning bolts in his hand and is enthroned on his throne in muscular nudity. His bearded face is classically beautiful, with a Greek profile and full of masculine charm. However, we actually see the ruler of Olympus depicted twice here, for one of his characteristics is the changing of his form: the mighty eagle next to the male figure is none other than Zeus himself in a different appearance. The eagle also holds a bundle of lightning as a sign of his dominion over the weather, the rain and the violence of nature. The Neapolitan gem engraver who created this work of art in the 1820s obviously based his depiction of the father of the gods on models found in large numbers in the city's famous collections of antiquities. In the various legends we encounter Zeus sometimes as a bull who abducts Europa, sometimes as an eagle who is strengthened by Ganymede with nectar and ambrosia, or also as a golden rain or swan in order to impregnate Danae and Leda respectively. A multifaceted personality! At the same time, the cameo surprises with a richness of detail that we have rarely seen. So finely graduated are the figures, so meticulous the perspective, so delicate the engraving in the area of the finely graduated heights, that one could believe one was looking at a drawing. An astonishing work in relief on the only small material depth of the shell. The setting of the shell, which makes it wearable as a brooch, is forged of yellow gold and elaborately decorated. Probably made in Italy, its design and fine workmanship allow us to date the piece to the years around 1820. It was during this period that cannetille goldsmiths' work such as this reached the height of its popularity. A museum-quality, beautiful piece of jewellery in very good condition, which should enjoy a place of honour in every collection!

To possess antique cameos and gems was the claim of almost all great collections for centuries: We find spectacular pieces as well in the Green Vault in Dresden, in the treasury of Rudolf II, up to the great private collections like that of Baron Stosch in later times. The 18th and 19th centuries produced numerous large imprint collections of antique seal stones and gems, which represent the antique imagery of glyptic almost in its entirety. Thus they were not least an expression of a humanistic education. Of particular importance for the transmission of stone and shell carvings north of the Alps have always been travellers to Italy, who brought home impressions and carved stones as well as engraved shells from their educational journeys in order to enjoy the stories that the shells could tell. The art of gem cutting has survived to this day in Italy, especially in the Bay of Naples, where it has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, the Scuola dei Cammei in Torre del Greco is the only professional training centre in the world for gem-cutters, although unfortunately the mythological theme has almost been lost as a subject.

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We want you to be 100% satisfied! That’s why we examine, describe and photograph all our jewellery with the utmost care.

If for any reason you are still not satisfied, contact us and we will find a mutual solution immediately. Regardless, you can return any item within 30 days and we will refund you the full purchase price.