Intarsia is the art of inlaying hard stone, wood, or any other fashionable material. In the jewelry industry, it’s specifically a method of creating and displaying gemstone mosaics. Intricately cut, polished, and fitted together into patterns or scenes, these gem designs are then set as jewels in either objets d’art or jewelry.
History. Lapidaries are following in the footsteps of woodworking artisans, who have been creating wood mosaics for six centuries. Gem intarsia is thought to have originated in Florence, Italy, four centuries ago. Items such as snuffboxes made from thin slices of agates were probably the first gemstone intarsias.
Today, using technologically advanced cutting tools and polishing machines, along with some of the finest gem materials, lapidaries trained in fine art make intarsia that is both art and jewel.
Choice of gem materials. One can use any gem material, but the more beautiful, rare, or unusual, the better. Gemstones commonly used in intarsia include the more affordable chalcedonies (including agates, bloodstone, carnelian, jaspers, and onyx), semi-transparent quartzes (such as amethyst and aventurine), azurite, azurmalachite, calcite onyx-marble, coral, jade, serpentine, translucent to opaque grossular garnet, hematite, lapis lazuli, malachite, mother-of-pearl, rhodocrosite, sodalite, sugilite, tiger’s-eye, and turquoise. Among the pricier gem materials used today are gold-in-quartz and precious opal.
Slightly imperfect mineral specimens make perfect intarsia candidates, since they cannot be sold as the ultimate specimen. Intarsia allows the gem artist to take the almost-perfect specimen and expose its beauty as the mosaic’s centerpiece.
Qualities. The value of intarsia is based not only on the rarity and quality of the gem materials used but also on the artistry, quality, and size of the final creation. To find the best gems, gem artists will slice through pounds of rough looking for that perfect piece for intarsia. Working with opaque gem materials can be a mysterious process, as the artist doesn’t know what lies beneath the surface of the rough. One slice may show excellent color, whereas the next slice may not. Patterns in the gem material can make for some spectacular intarsia design.
As for size, “large” is anything above 6 in. “Large” can also refer to weight. Remember, we’re talking about solid slabs of rock, so the jewels and boxes can be quite heavy.
Uses. Intarsias can be featured in pendants, earrings, brooches, or boxes. Intarsia boxes are typically lined with exotic woods such as birch, cherry, mahogany, rosewood, walnut, or zebra wood, which are then polished and attached to the gemstone intarsia. Table tops, large boxes with drawers, candlesticks, and sculpture are other examples of fine gemstone intarsia available in the market.
Prices. Intarsia values are only partly determined by the cost of the raw material and the amount of labor involved in creating the piece. The value is ultimately determined by the beauty of the piece itself. And beauty, of course, is in the eye of the creator and the beholder.
As an example, while fine opal rough can cost anywhere from $75/gram to $150/gram, this is just the base price for what comes next. Sawing, grinding, and shaping will eliminate more than 50% of the material. Then there’s the labor of polishing the final piece—preventing undercutting and breakage yet giving the piece the best finish possible. All of this must be added into the cost.
Enhancements. Each gemstone may have been enhanced for color and/or stability. Since this is important for you and your customer to know, the gem artist should be able to furnish this information in writing. The most noted gem artists use only unenhanced natural materials.
Bench care and cleaning. Intarsia—composed of solid rocks—is heavier than a normal piece of colored-stone jewelry. Intarsia should be handled carefully, with both hands. Allowing the top of an intarsia box to drop closed can do irreparable damage to the piece. However, if properly cared for, intarsia can last forever and should never change color. One caveat: Intarsia should be kept indoors.
Handling intarsia will leave skin oils on the gems, which most artists believe is actually good for the piece. Therefore, the most-recommended way to keep intarsia jewelry beautiful is to wear it all the time. There is one exception—turquoise. Turquoise is porous and will eventually turn green over time from absorbing skin oils. The most problematic pieces are those left in safe deposit boxes. Heat and low humidity will crack most opals, which cannot be repaired or replaced. The entire piece must be scrapped, and a new piece of jewelry intarsia created.
Fingerprints can be removed by wiping with a damp, soft cloth or damp paper towel for more extreme cleaning.
Recommended reading. For more information, see “Contemporary Intarsia: The Medvedev Approach to Gem Inlay,” by James Elliott, Gems & Gemology, Winter 1986, pp. 229-234; and “Leigha: The Creation of Three-Dimensional Intarsia Sculpture,” by Arthur Lee Anderson, Gems & Gemology, Spring 1998, pp. 24-33.
Special thanks to gem artists Nicolai Medvedev and Jim Kaufmann, as well as Idaho Opal & Gem.