British Museum
Great Russell Street
WC1B 3DG London
United Kingdom

Rediscovering gems

Gems were the picture book of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Depicting deities, famous individuals, animals, objects, and scenes from myth or daily life, these small artworks have made a significant impression throughout history.

Classical gems have been highly prized by collectors from the Renaissance onwards, but never more so than in 18th-century Europe. Collected by royalty, aristocrats, artists and antiquarians, such as Charles Townley (1737–1805), their designs reflect – and serve as a record of – personal tastes and aesthetic preferences. Yet, their popularity meant they were widely reproduced and faked – and distinguishing between the two is still contentious.

Used as seals, worn as jewellery, or collected as objects of beauty in their own right, these miniature designs required phenomenal skill to carve and became sought-after luxury objects and status symbols. With a typical 18th-century gem cabinet, housing gems and impressions, as well as a collector's magnifying glass and drawings, this display captures the fascination that gems have inspired over the centuries. Michelangelo (1475–1564) is even thought to have based the figure of Adam in the Sistine chapel on a Roman cameo of Augustus on the capricorn.

Some of these remarkable objects have had a more difficult recent history. In August 2023 the Museum announced that a number of items from the collection had been stolen, were missing or damaged. It became apparent that the collection of engraved gems was among those to have been targeted. The British Museum is committed to recovering all the stolen items and to preventing thefts from happening again. Hundreds have already been recovered, and ten of these can be seen as part of this display.

A dedicated team within the Museum is working with the Metropolitan Police Service and with an international group of experts in gems, collection history and art theft, to recover missing items. The Museum has also embarked upon an ambitious five-year plan to complete the documentation and digitisation of the entire collection.

Find more


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