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Intaglio - Hand pinching an ear

Hand pinching an ear

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    150-200 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone; Translucent deep red carnelian, set in silver-gilt ring

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. This Roman imperial intaglio depicts a hand, reaching out to pinch an ear, and would have been intended as a gift to a loved one as a memento.
The motif of the hand pinching or touching the ear as a stimulus to memory, thought to derive from the writings on natural history by Pliny the Elder, is fairly common in Roman gems, and the Greek inscription translates as 'Remember'. Such inscribed gems were popular, and other mottos such as 'Good Luck', 'Unity', or 'Farewell' also exist. Occasionally gems with longer messages are found, such as that on a cameo in the British Museum, bearing the surprisingly modern-sounding, devil-may-care words, 'I do not love you, but that does not bother me at all, I look around and laugh'.

Physical description

Horizontal oval intaglio. Depicting a hand pinching an ear, with an inscription. The hand faces to the right, the thumb and forefinger pinching the sketched outline of an ear.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)


150-200 (made)


Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone; Translucent deep red carnelian, set in silver-gilt ring

Marks and inscriptions

Greek inscription


Height: 9 mm, Width: 7 mm

Object history note

Ex Waterton Collection. Bought by the Museum following inclusion in Christie's Sale (undated, not held), possibly lot 109. Edmund Waterton (1830-87) is referred to as one of a group of 'pioneer collectors' by Diana Scarisbrick, 'C.D.E. Fortunum as a collector of rings and gems', C.D.E. Fortnum and the collecting and study of applied arts and sculpture in Victorian England, Ed: Ben Thomas and Timothy Wilson, 1999. His collection of approximately 760 rings, formed with the aim of illustrating the history of rings of all period and types, was acquired by the Museum in 1871 and 1899. Waterton, in 1868 'of Walton Castle, near Wakefield, in the county of York, but now residing at Ostend in the Kingdom of Belgium', got into financial difficulties, and was later to be declared bankrupt. The collection of rings was held as security against a loan by the jeweller Robert Phillips for two years from March of that year. The loan was to be repaid by Waterton by March 1870, but the deadline was not met. Phillips having first contacted the Museum regarding the possible purchase of the rings in 1869, the purchase was recommended by the Board of the Museum in a minute of 20 April 1871. The majority of the rings are held in Metalwork Section, a small number in Sculpture Section.

Historical significance: Can be compared with Martin Henig, Classical Gems. Ancient and Modern Intaglios and Cameos in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1994, no. 384, p. 176. See also Marjon van der Meulen, 'Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and Antique Glyptic' in Engraved Gems: Survivals and Revivals, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997, pp. 202-3.

Historical context note

Engraved gemstones of all dates were widely collected in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.

Descriptive line

Intaglio, oval carnelian, set in a silver-gilt ring, depicting a hand pinching an ear, Italy, 150-200

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1871, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 46
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 2, pp. 298-9

Production Note

Attribution note: Translucent deep red chalcedony


Carnelian; Chalcedony; Silver-gilt; Gemstone; Microquartz


Gem engraving

Subjects depicted



Jewellery; Sculpture; Gemstones


Sculpture Collection

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