A brief history of engraving

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The practice of cutting grooves into a hard surface – either flat, cylindrical or oddly shaped – is known as engraving and has been practiced since ancient times. Engravings can be either purely decorative, such as intricate designs on crystal, glass or metal objects, or printing plates used for the printing of images onto paper, like in the production of banknotes.

An ancient tradition

Evidence of engraving can be traced back as far as 60,000 years ago to South Africa, where the remains of ostrich shells, thought to have been used as water carriers, have been found with engraved patterns around the edges. Then, around 3,000 years ago, engraving on jewellery was starting to appear in the form of shallow grooves, as was the art of engraving on semi-precious stones and gems. This was still common right up to the 19th Century.

By the 1st Century A.D., the practice of engraving scenes onto glass vessels, an emulation of hard-stone carvings, was proving popular. Illustrations involved a host of subjects such as Greek mythology, hunting scenes, circus performers and the depiction of religious festivals and stories. Cut either free-hand or by lathe, the engravings could also include gold leaf highlights. After the discovery of several workshops, it is believed that the makers of the vessels were not the engravers, and that this was done by separate craftsmen.

Making an impression

It was after this period, and in the European middle ages, that metalwork and gold objects started to be engraved and inscribed as well. It is also thought that the goldsmiths started to take impressions of individual designs as a way of recording and indexing designs. A natural progression from this became the practice of engraving copper plates and reproducing the images on paper. This became known in Germany, around the 1430s, as ‘old master prints’, and was the beginning of a surge of masters following this procedure, such as Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Leiden.

The 19th Century saw engraving becoming increasingly important for commercial purposes. With photography yet to be invented, engraving was able to be used for many purposes, such as paintings and illustrations in books and newspapers. It was still thought to be the cheaper option (as opposed to photography) well into the 20th Century.

A skilled art

Master engravers can produce engravings with microscopic details unable to be copied or counterfeited. The level of detail that can be achieved cannot be emulated by normal printers or scanners, and therefore, even today, banknotes, bonds, cheques and any other important or sensitive documents and papers are still printed from engraved plates to make them all but impossible to replicate.

Hand engravers concentrate not on copper plates, but the decorative embellishing of jewellery, trophies, engraved crystal vases, knives and even firearms. The artistic expression of engravings has always been just as important as its commercial value, yet it should be acknowledged that both types of engraving require a high level of skill, experience and craftsmanship.

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