Carved Gemstones: It’s All an Illusion

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“What you see in one of my finished gemstone carvings is really an illusion,” comments Naomi Sarna, whose award-winning hand-carved gemstone sculptures and jewelry is prized by both art collectors and jewelry collectors. She goes on to explain that what you see in one of her carvings is an interaction between the front and the back of the piece so you see something that doesn’t actually exist.

Now a widely acclaimed gem carver and artist Sarna has always had a passion for working with her hands. As a young child in nursery school, she found that she enjoyed playing with clay and transforming it into something else. “It wasn’t that I was so thrilled with the horse or cow that I made, it was the process of making it that was thrilling to me,” she recounts. “The process of making something with my hands is an elemental part of my character.”

Indeed, Sarna has done a lot with her hands. She is a master knitter and is also skilled in tatting and lacemaking. As a child, Sarna learned basket weaving and how to make pottery. “If I can do something with my hands, I’ll be good at it. Working with my hands gives me an undefinable and exquisite  pleasure.”

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Gemstone Carving

Becoming an award-winning gemstone carver was a long and winding road. It all started when Sarna studied sculpting with Evangelo Frudakis in Atlantic City, many years ago. “He suggested that I go to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study sculpture. I spent three years studying there.”

When she was at the Academy, Sarna thought that she would become a stone carver. She soon realized that stone carving was really hard work. The constant hammering needed to carve marble hurt her hands and the noise from the process was hard on her ears.

Fade to Purple Variegated purple amethyst set in a silver base. 90 x 52 x 30 mm 84.8 grams/424 cts.
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After a few years at the Academy, Sarna took a decades-long break to raise a family. During that time, she had a few other careers — caterer, psychoanalyst, medical hypnotist and doula — before finding her way back to her art.

Sarna got back into her art when she began taking jewelry making classes at the 92nd Street Y and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)  in New York City.  Her next big step was the purchase of a gem faceting machine. “I went to Beacon, New York, and studied faceting with Stephen Kotlowski. I got bored with the flat planes of faceting, so I bought a simple point carver — it’s like a stationary electric screwdriver. I started carving with an understanding of ideal angles from faceting and I began to apply that to carving. Carving came very naturally to me.”

Carving Fine Art

While the vast majority of carvers work in a traditional, naturalistic style of realism, Sarna’s creations are abstract. Her work is characterized by flowing lines and sinuous curves.

“To me, carving is a very sensuous experience,” says Sarna. “Seeking out the beautiful line and finding out how the front and back of a carving interact with each other is very sensual.”

The actual carving of a gemstone is only part of the process. Once Sarna is satisfied with the form and play of light in a carving, it has to be polished. “I found polishing to be odious. I thought I was doing something wrong. Then I spent several weeks in Boulder, Colorado where I worked with another gem carver, Lew Wackler. Lew confirmed that polishing takes an unbelievable amount of time and that I was not doing anything wrong. Polishing an important carving will take 400 to 500 hours to complete and if the carving is for a competition it can take up to 2,000 hours to polish.”

A number of Sarna’s gemstone carvings have a piercing or open space somewhere in the carving. Piercing is unique to Sarna’s style. Most gem carvers want to preserve as much material as possible because of its high value. For Sarna design is paramount and piercings are an integral part of the design. “There is a center or a deep hollow in many of my pieces. A lot of my pieces have ins and outs where I have carved deeply into the gemstone to create the illusions that are vital to my pieces,” explains Sarna.  “Deep carving and piercing allows for a manipulation of lines, color and light return. They create a distortion with the interaction between the front and back that can’t be done any other way. It’s more challenging to carve deeper. I’m very interested in how I can distort lines and how that changes the ebb and flow of a carving.”

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Sarna admits that carving a gemstone with a particular artistic point-of-view can be more challenging. “Carving an imaginative piece takes more time,” comments Sarna. “Sometimes I have to stop and put the carving aside until I’m ready to work on it again. That can be hours, weeks, sometimes even years. It takes a great deal of thought to create a well-carved work of art.”

Advice for Fine Art Collectors

If you are a collector looking to add a unique piece to either a fine art collection or jewelry collection, Sarna offers the following suggestions for purchasing a gemstone carving. Her first piece of advice: Look for something you love.

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She suggests considering the value of the material used in a carved gemstone sculpture. Is it quartz, aquamarine, sapphire? Is it imperial Jade or Jasper? How precious is the material?

The next consideration, says Sarna, is how the carving is produced. Is it a mass-produced piece using CAD (computer-aided design) or is it hand-carved? A mass-produced piece will be less expensive. A hand-carved piece will cost more because the value of the carver’s training and skill will be incorporated into the worth of the carving.

“With a master carver you have to give credit for the learning, refinement of the skill of carving, and the price of the material,” concludes Sarna.

By Amber Michelle

*Cover Photo: Paisley Citrine Gemstone Carving.

Naomi Sarna will be exhibiting at Gemworld Munich, October 22-24, 2021, booth B6.121. Visit her there to see the full collection of Art Jewels and Gemstone Sculptures.

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