Carved gemstone bust of Mars reigns at Bonhams, Dec. 1

Boulder opal, gemstone and hardstone bust carved by Wilhelm Schmidt, estimated at £70,000-£100,000. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Boulder opal, gemstone and hardstone bust carved by Wilhelm Schmidt, estimated at £70,000-£100,000. Image courtesy of Bonhams

LONDON – Bonhams New Bond Street will hold its London Jewels sale on Thursday December 1, featuring an exquisite and unique single boulder opal, gemstone and hardstone bust of the Roman god Mars by gifted Victorian cameo engraver Wilhelm Schmidt (1845-1938). Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers. It was believed Schmidt never signed his work and the one on offer is the only fully signed piece known to exist; Schmidt himself regarded it as one of his most important and exceptional works. The bust carries an estimate of £70,000-£100,000.

Wilhelm Schmidt was born in Idar-Oberstein, the European center of the mineral, gemstone and lapidary trades. At the age of 15, he served as an apprentice to cameo-cutter Arsene in Paris, who trained him in the neo-classical tradition. Schmidt later settled in London where he set up an engraving business in Hatton Garden, trading alongside his gem-dealing brother Louis. Schmidt went on to carve cameos from unusual materials such as labradorite, malachite, tourmaline, crocidolite, moonstone, zircon, tourmaline, malachite, lapis lazuli, sapphire, amethyst, topaz and, most unusual of all, opal, which was to become his trademark. He sold his work for use in ornamental jewels produced by prestigious jewelry firms such as John Brodgen, Tiffany & Co., Child & Child, Giuliano, and Marcus & Co. These carvings were unsigned, and the retailers did not credit Schmidt in their finished jewels.

Bonhams Head of Jewellery, UK Emily Barber commented: “Opals are perilous to carve. Formed from hardened silica gel with an unusually high water content, they can crack and spoil if the temperature conditions fluctuate or if handled by unskilled hands. It is even more astounding to realize that Schmidt, who was able to work this fragile gem with such dexterity, sensitivity and delicacy, did so using only rudimentary, manually operated equipment and with the use of only one good eye.”

Detail of boulder opal, gemstone and hardstone bust by Wilhelm Schmidt, estimated at £70,000-£100,000. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Detail of boulder opal, gemstone and hardstone bust by Wilhelm Schmidt, estimated at £70,000-£100,000. Image courtesy of Bonhams

The bust on offer dates from circa 1890 and depicts the Roman god Mars wearing an Ajax helmet surmounted by a vulture. The bust is sculpted from a single boulder opal, a pioneering technique that Schmidt invented in 1874, reflecting a scale of ambition setting it apart from his other known works. The bust is a uniquely important example of Schmidt’s opal-carving technique rendering Mars’ bearded face, neck and vulture in the dark brown ironstone matrix that resembles deeply patinated bronze. The winged helmet and the vulture’s plumage are highlighted by utilizing the thin layers of precious opal within the single boulder and backed in gold, while the torso is covered in delicate chased gold armor with the helmet and vulture’s eyes inlaid with brilliant-cut diamonds. The opal boulder is mounted on a gem-set agate pedestal featuring four cameos on each side.

Wilhelm Schmidt’s great-grandson said: “It was a joy to see the carving of Mars by my great-grandfather at Bonhams. From the first glimpse it felt familiar, so totally typical of his style and yet of a different order of magnitude. I had never seen a work by him on this scale with this level of intricacy before. I had the pleasure of living with his crystal bust of Christ, now in the V&A Museum, and thought that it was his ‘magnum opus’ – it was so highly regarded that it he was granted the Freedom of the City of London, of which he was intensely proud. This piece, however, seems to far surpass that masterpiece. The craftsmanship is quite remarkable, especially when you consider that there were no power tools and that he worked with only one eye. There is a spirituality that emanates from the opal, particularly in the three cameo goddesses of the pedestal. Then, in contrast, there is a powerful sense of character and battle-worn experience in the carving of the face of Mars. As his great-grandson, I could not be prouder!”

 

The current rate of exchange is £1 = $1.18.

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