Métiers d’art: preserving glyptic is at the heart of one man’s life work: Philippe Nicolas invites us inside his artistry and his atelier
The art of carving stones and gems in the words of glyptic Maître D’art, Philippe Nicolas
In any high jewelry atelier, pieces are brought to life by experts, each with a responsibility to play their part. If it were not for high jewelers like Cartier, some métiers d’art would completely disappear.
Glyptic or the art of carving is one specialty that Cartier is determined to save and promote. This commitment means that collections include a few pieces showcasing a carved or sculpted stone. How difficult is it to carve a stone? Are they all the same when it comes to carving? What actually is glyptic?
Many questions, and one man can answer them all: Philippe Nicolas, the head of Cartier’s in-house glyptic atelier. In this interview, Nicolas explains his art, giving us an insight into the creation of high jewels.
From student to glyptic master
In 2010, Cartier entrusted Nicolas to open a workshop to train a new generation of experts in glyptic. This was to ensure the continuation of the art into the future.
Now in his sixties, Nicolas defines himself as an engraver, carver and sculptor of both hard and fine stones. His story began when aged sixteen, he wavered between studying a nature-driven profession or one of the applied arts.
«In the end, I enrolled at the École Boulle, followed by the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris», he says. «While at the École Boulle, I studied in the carving atelier. For four years, several hours per week, I learned how to engrave glass. This was followed by a stint at the Paris Beaux Arts School».
«There, in the workshop dedicated to carving hard and fine stones, I learned that the techniques for glass and stone were identical». Soon, he realized that making a living by sculpting glass would not be sustainable. «The development of industrial processes (engraving with acid or screen printing) made the option to work as an artisan unviable». Sculpting stones appeared therefore as the best choice.
After leaving the Beaux Arts, Nicolas applied to high jewelry houses, while teaching applied art and drawing. «I understood that the only way I could pursue my art was to work for high jewelers», he adds. All along, his ambition had not been to become a designer, but rather an artist / sculptor.
Passing on the craft is Philippe Nicolas’ mission
He started making pieces with hard stones for the Place Vendôme houses in 1981. «It was not easy to say the least. I had to quickly learn the ropes. Especially abiding by the exacting rules of high jewelry. As a self-taught sculptor of hard stones this was quite daunting». From 1985 to 2005, he exclusively worked for one house. He credits those twenty years with enriching him on personal and artistic levels. «There I learned precision whilst perfecting my technique».
In all those years, Nicolas never lost sight of the importance of passing on the craft. It appeared that high jewelry houses did not value the importance of preserving it. Glyptic masters at the
time would not readily share their expertise. In 2005 Nicolas opened a workshop close to the Place Vendôme. Working on-site, hand-in-hand with a jeweler meant that the workshop: «quickly drew most of the high jewelers who wanted me to work for them».
This led to his appointment as a ‘Maître d’art’ (Master Craftsman) in 2008. It categorizes artisans who excel in their art and are committed to passing it on to the next generation. In 2007-2008, the financial crisis hit. One afternoon in 2009, it all came to a stop. «I started to receive calls from all the high jewelers, one after the other, canceling their orders».
An in-house atelier spearheaded by Cartier
«In 2010, I met Mr Fornas, Cartier’s CEO at the time. It was proposed that I should open an in-house atelier in order to help ensure the continuity of glyptic». In 2015, he was promoted to ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ following Cartier and Comité Colbert’s recommendations.
Including Philippe Nicolas, the in-house atelier at Cartier consists of a staff of four including three women. One is a Sicilian who studied at a medal and coin making school in Roma. «I cannot explain why but this is a line of work that has become feminized. It is quite difficult to find young people who, beyond their interest for the technique, are willing to become glypticiens. It is hard work and requires self-sacrifice. They all come from art schools. Some have mapped out a business plan for their careers which explains the slight turnover in our team for the past three or four years». Nicolas’ first requirement for any applicant is a sense of creativity. A quality that cannot be developed, but is inherent.
«It is difficult to retain staff. It would be wrong to rely just on the fact that we are part of a prestigious house. This fact alone is not a guarantee that the work will attract applicants. It means that the continuity of our team is fragile». He is grateful that one of his ex-protegees has been working with him for the past fifteen years. «She was my student when I was appointed Maître d’art in 2008».
Glyptic, a rare art form
Can he quantify how many glyptic craftspeople are currently in the trade? «I actually have no idea how many carvers/sculptors there are. Making a living from glyptic is quite challenging so you get many manifestations of the profession: ones that work on commissions, lapidaries or proper sculptors. That said, in the high jewelry world, there is no similar atelier to mine».
The region of Idar-Oberstein in Germany also has a rich history in stone cutting and carving. «The difference resides in the location of the workshops. In France, it is in Paris, close to the high jewelry houses and the French kings who developed an interest in this craft. This means that French glyptic may be more creative, whereas in Germany, it is more ‘artisanal’».
Glyptic is the art of directly engraving fine and hard stones. There was a time when glyptic meant the art of carving on stone as opposed to the art of sculpting. «The name is a sort of neologism that came about in the eighties. There was a push to index each technique within the realm of the art. Personally, I don’t really like this clinical separation. It reduces the craft to a technique». Nowadays the name encompasses both sculpture and carving.
UNESCO has cataloged the art of carving in the Intangible Cultural Heritage. As far as one can trace back the history of humanity, mankind has been carving stones. Ancient Greek and Roman works are testament to the importance of stone carving. In French culture, it was prevalent in the 18th century. It has always been a staple of high jewelry collections, especially those of Cartier.
Self-sacrifice and patience
It is typically a fine arts specialty since it is identified by the unique artistry that emerges through the process. «The culture of stones is not taught at school. Not least in a gemology course. It is learned by experience alone».
It has been described as the most difficult technique of all. A historian of the art of carving, Ernest Babelon, while describing antique cameos, even said that they were «monumental works of art».
It is time consuming, laborious and often requires intense dedication from the carver. «Nadel, an 18th century expert, pondered that ‘the level of success of a piece is dependent on the level of exhaustion of its creator’». The technique is at its greatest when it is least apparent in the work. «L’art c’est de cacher l’art», the art is all about hiding the art that goes into it.
An ancient craft that has survived through the ages
Nicolas is interested in the language of the heart and mind, the duo of perception and interpretation.
Glyptic has served all modes of expression; from cave art to the Sumerians or the Romans through to the present day, be it for objects or jewels. «When it is applied to jewelry making, it conjures our natural, almost primal, sensitivity for stones. It is also true that jewelry is a natural area for glyptic». He considers himself as a sculptor, who creates objets d’art more than jewelry. Between the main collections and the special commissions, time is of the essence. «We are a small atelier and deadlines can be a challenge. Private commissions take time to make, they require patience, which is at the core of our discussion with clients».
Stones and tools
It is the stone with its specific attributes that guides him and the team. «Let me just say that after many years of practice and personal development, one approaches each stone with great humility. So, there are things we are able to achieve, others that are not and never will be able to achieve».
He likes to say that although he chooses each stone, each stone also chooses him. «I can think of black jasper as one stone that particularly resonates with me. Overall, the connection with a rough stone is instinctive and something that I try to instill in my students».
Since stones are generally harder than metal, it is necessary to use abrasive tools. «The idea is to remove some matter by erosion; it is all about subtracting or as I often call it: learning how to renounce».
Traditionally Nicolas works on a fixed wheel equipped with rotating tools that he manufactures according to his needs. «I am a Homo Faber», he quips, «who is yet open to new technologies». They can be made of steel, copper, brass or wood, to which they apply abrasive materials. The size of those tools varies according to the scale of the work.
«For a work using intaglio carving, we use binocular loupes since the tool is no bigger than a pinhead». He asserts that diamond-coated tools and the micro motor constitute the best advances of the past fifty years.
With a fixed wheel, one brings the stone to the tool via the micro motor, which is handheld. There are no set rules: each carver is looking for the best solution according to the outcome they want to achieve. «It takes great expertise to be able to enhance a stone, while overcoming the difficulties faced along the way, and still preserve spontaneity. I must say that I only remember the successes, and my most difficult piece is probably one that I have not yet started».
Full autonomy in the creative process and choice of stones
A characteristic of Nicolas’ atelier is that they source their own stones, for which they create the design. «When opening the workshop, I made it clear that I wanted to control the creative process as well. In many ways our atelier is independent from Cartier’s creative studio. It is a highly unusual arrangement in the industry. That said, we naturally take on projects brought in by the studio».
They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be gemstones or composed of several minerals of varying hardness and inclusions. «Our job is to make the most of them despite these variations. What is essential is to overcome these hurdles whilst making them invisible».
From time to time, other material comes into play, like petrified wood. «Petrified materials have become one of my trademarks since I was the first to introduce them in high jewelry. We are not necessarily into precious stones; rarity is more appealing. A chalcedony with an unconventional blue hue for instance».
The difference between a hard stone and a precious gem is the price. «Between an emerald valued at €350,000 and a stone priced at 25 euros the kilo, the stake varies. But this initial difference is transformed thanks to our expertise and the resulting carving».
The process that goes in carving a stone
First one needs to study the stone: are there cracks? The more micro-cracks in a stone, the more complex the carving. Is the stone transparent? Is the color following a direction? How can one neutralize the inclusions through carving or sculpting?
«It is also key to assess how the light affects the material in terms of how it will be worn or how the eye will catch it. It is all about evaluating how much volume one can extract, and it takes trials so as to check first how the material reacts. Once this is all under control, and only then, can one forget about all the above and start free flowing, as though drawing on a blank canvas». The diamond is the hardest material with a grade of 10 making it one of the most difficult to sculpt.
The margin of error
Is it possible to retouch a stone if need be?
«The margin of error depends on your assessment of the stone since at any moment there can be a surprise. When it comes to direct carving it is always possible to modify or rectify a piece, and of course this could change the final outcome». Is it possible to control the life of a piece?
«As soon as it is produced, it takes on a life of its own (as a fantastic gemstone) for its new owners or in the emotion it triggers. Observers have a role to play in the sense that they are the ones who extend the creation’s initial role. I am delighted and proud whenever a work exists in its own right».
Special commissions and human stories
Each piece that he has worked on carries a memory. A middle eastern collector wanted the portrait of her father to be carved on a garnet. «We never met her, yet working on her ring has created a dialogue, an intimate connection with that client. Carving a portrait is a difficult task. Her husband liked the outcome so much that he then ordered stone carving portraits of each of their children».
Another project dear to Nicolas’ heart is a bracelet made of petrified wood. «I bought a piece of wood in America. It was dated as old as 20 million years. I designed a pattern of oak tree leaves so as to in a sense resuscitate the material to its old life. This bracelet will survive us all».
Capturing facial expression
According to Nicolas, the facial expression in an animal sculpture could be the expression of our own humanity. It makes it distinct from a still life. «Nature inspires us, and it is our task to translate the inspiration whilst avoiding caricature or trivialization. As long as my figurative creations are honest and sincere, I enjoy creating them». Maturity and experience are crucial to the ability to know when a piece is finished. «There is always a risk of doing too much. That said, one learns how to identify when a creation is complete».
Due to the evolution of tastes and the development of new techniques, no one can predict what these arts will become. «So, in order to guarantee the future of glyptic, we have to start by passing it on in order to make it evolve. There is a risk that we could lose the art due to the increase in reproduction by machinery and modern technologies. Of course, the latter can help in some instances. However, we have to keep hand making unique pieces with unique stones, the only ones that are truly sought-after and desirable».
By opening an in-house atelier, Cartier has demonstrated that it understands the value of preserving this art. The only company to do so.
In 2010, Cartier proposed that Philippe Nicolas open an in-house atelier, with a privilege of autonomy (direction, creativity, stone sourcing). He is now interviewed about his life, expertise and vision.
A Maître D’art in the artform of stone and gem carving, Nicolas prefers to be referred to as a sculptor. ‘Glyptic’, a modern neologism, may be reductive, he says, when it comes to the artistry, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, and team-work involved.
Master of Art engraver and stone sculptor from The Maison Cartier. Philippe Nicolas runs the Glyptics workshop, which is the art of engraving hard and fine stones.