The Art of Carving

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The act of carving a gemstone is relatively simple, but the art of carving a gemstone is much more complex. Just ask artist Naomi Sarna who has won over 30 international awards for her gemstone carvings. She will tell you that anyone can carve. “I taught my grandchildren how to carve when they were about three- or four-years old. But what I can’t teach is the artistry; that has to come from within.” Sarna has spent the past twelve years perfecting her art and traveling the world to find material to carve. She seldom starts a carving with an idea in mind, instead she connects with the stone and lets it tell her what to do and where to go next as she carves. A classically trained sculptor, Sarna draws upon her artistic background to create her carvings, which may take about 500 hours to complete.

As she readies for her group show “Gemstone Masterpieces”,  which runs at Wilensky Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea District through February 21, Sarna took some time out to talk about one of her favorite subjects: Carving.

Amber Michelle: What is the difference between carving transparent, translucent or opaque material?

Naomi Sarna: I started as a marble carver and I thought of form. When I started carving gemstones for jewelry, I became aware of light and color return. At first, I worked exclusively with transparent materials — Rutilated Quartz, Rose de France Amethyst, Topaz — that way I could see the light and color. When I am carving transparent or translucent material, I can watch how the color develops. Bad angles can take away color, so I ask myself “what can I do to make the color and light more interesting?”  

Now I carve jade and that has a completely different paradigm. I like jade because it can be carved down to a half millimeter, so the light transmission becomes interesting once again. When I carve opaque material, I think more about the line. Is the line flowing the way that I want, is the line graceful, does the eye continue to follow the line beyond the piece?

AM:Tell us some more about the importance of the line.

NS: To me the line of the piece is the whole point. The line is what makes it beautiful. What makes one painting really beautiful and a similar painting not so great? It’s the line. Any classic painter will use lines that form a triangle. The direction of the line helps to tell the story of the painting. The line takes your eyes to another place in the piece, lines force you to see the message.

AM: What are the biggest challenges of carving gem material?

Winter Bird, Spring Green – 222.50-carat Jadeite
Winter Bird, Spring Green – 222.50-carat Jadeite carving

NS:  Carving a larger stone has certain challenges. Just holding the stone becomes a challenge because it’s heavy. Every declivity in the carving increases the amount of surface to be polished.

AM: What is the difference between carving and polishing?

NS: Carving is a very aggressive way of removing material. Polishing is a way of refining the surface.

AM: How important is polishing to a carving?

NS:  Carving is wild and wonderful. Polishing is terrifying because I know that I am about to spend hundreds of hours doing the same thing over and over. I use the last stages of polishing to tweak angles. If I’m looking for light and color, I carve the back of the stone in opposition to the front so they interact. Sometimes it gets more color and sometimes it doesn’t work. As a classically trained artist, I was encouraged to have a beautiful mass, the surface is not so important. When the surface is highly polished light bounces off of it. Sometimes standards for polishing interfere with an art carving. In competitions judges can look at a piece with a 5X magnifier, they are looking for a perfect finish. It then becomes a technical issue, not necessarily an artistic issue.

AM: What makes your work different from that of other carvers?

NS: When I carve, I dig in. Other carvers tell me not to carve so much because I’m wasting valuable material. I’m more interested in design than saving material. To me design is paramount. I pierce many of my pieces because it makes them more interesting. It decreases the value by gram or carat weight, but it increases the value as art.

AM: What guides your carving?

NS:  I see what is inside a lump of rough. I use fissures inside the stone as directions on where to carve. Some stones don’t want to be carved. It doesn’t feel right. One Tanzanite that I carved did not want to be carved and it cracked as I was carving it. Other times stones leap into my hands and carve themselves, like my River Wind carving. I didn’t have to think, it just presented itself. When it feels right there are no words for it.

AM:Many of your carvings rest on beautiful bases, they flow as one with the carving. How do you create that harmony between the carving and the base?

NS:  The base must rise to meet the curve. Sometimes I have to make a base several times to really extend and follow a line. I’m continually improving my bases as I learn more about beautiful lines.

River Wind --- 735-carat Blue Topaz
River Wind — 735-carat Blue Topaz carving

AM: What is most important about a finished carving?

NS: The minute you see a carving you should say “wow”, or “I’ve never seen anything like it.” What are we looking at, how has the light been distorted; does it have a nice line? Ultimately, what is most important, is that the carving is beautiful and moves you.

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