Nicolai Medvedev and the Art of Intarsia
Master of Intarsia
Nicolai Medvedev is widely acclaimed for creating intricate and detailed intarsias, using gem quality minerals such as malachite, rhodochrosite, lapis lazuli, sugilite, turquoise, quartz, and opal. He was born in 1950 in Ashkhabad, in the Republic of Turkmenia, a city near the Iranian border. This colorful area is renowned for producing beautiful carpets and ornamental jewelry. Medvedev studied in the Russian Art School system, graduated from the Soviet Art College, and attended the prestigious Art Institute of Moscow. While training as an impressionist-style painter, Medvedev visited the Hermitage and was inspired by the vast rooms and furniture inlayed with stone and the opulent malachite and lapis urns and column facades, leaving a lasting impression that would form the basis for his work. In 1980, Medvedev emigrated to the U.S. and transitioned from painting to stone inlay, and mastered the lapidary art form of intarsia.
What sets Medvedev’s work apart is his selection of fine quality gem material, meticulous craftsmanship, precise engineering, and exquisite intricate designs. Inspired by the geometric patterns and bold colors of his homeland, as well as from his new home in the American southwest, Medvedev’s designs are dictated by the nature of the material. When he cuts a stone, he brings to life the wings of a butterfly, the petals of a flower, a gentle landscape, or an intricate geometric pattern. He never destroys a perfect specimen; he buys rough that is slightly damaged either from natural imperfections or from the mining process. Medvedev believes in preserving the beauty of nature and revealing its beauty by utilizing the shape of the material. He believes nature is the best artist.
Medvedev uses the intense colors of green malachite, blue azurite, pink rhodochrosite, purple sugilite as well as phenomenal opal, and gold in quartz. He also works with jasper, pietersite, dinosaur bone, copper in matrix, and ruby in zoisite. He uses only natural untreated material. The juxtaposition of the stones make his one-of-a-kind masterpieces come to life. Mevedev uses opal and quartz, for example, to frame and breakup the bold colors of other materials like lapis and malachite. It is labor intensive and physically and mentally exhausting. His mastery of the tools and materials has enabled him to reach a level of perfection in his craft. Medvedev credits Art Grant with teaching him the secrets to polishing and the basic “tricks of the trade,” but largely, he is a self-taught lapidarist.
Medvedev has accumulated a large selection of fine rough. He examines each piece, selects what will be cut into slices, and pieces not suitable for large shapes, he cuts into small geometric forms or slivers to be used to outline larger pieces. All of the slices and slivers are highly organized and stored meticulously to ensure they are safe from damage, as well as kept in order so that the natural patterns from pieces cut from the same rough can be recreated in the finished piece. And of course, there is considerable waste, no matter what the material – either through natural imperfections, unevenness in color making it unattractive to use, damage from hardness issues, or just loss as dust from the cutting process.
Medvedev creates intarsia boxes, jewelry, and objects of art, but he is best known for his boxes. He begins by selecting a gem to feature at the center of a box and works outward allowing the design to evolve as he creates – adding complimentary shapes and colors to complete the design - sometimes he even surprises himself. He appreciates all gems, but one of his favorites to work with is malachite, as he loves the swirling circular patterns and the flower-like designs from slices of stalactites. He calls this the “secret beauty” of a mineral – the ability to bring to life the pattern that is hidden in the stone is his gift.
As each box can take months or years to complete, he takes great care during the final polishing, as the entire surface is polished at the same time. This is obviously one of the most difficult stages. He must pay special attention to temperature so that the more delicate materials, like opal or rhodochrosite, are not damaged while polishing a harder material like lapis lazuli. Any damage at all, and he must start all over again. With gem intarsia, the cut pieces are glued to a base, as previously mentioned; it could be marble, granite, jade, onyx, or other hard durable material, to form the box. Then the inside of each box is accented with exotic wood veneers that are sealed with beeswax to preserve the color and protect from moisture, and finally a slice of picture jasper or other gem material is added to highlight the inside of the lid.
Medvedev is constantly creating new works and is planning on an important large box to incorporate the gold in quartz that he has been collecting for many years, some of his favorite rough. In the future, Medvedev also plans to do a major masterwork – perhaps a table, wall art, or fireplace - using all of the large material he has collected overtime. He hopes that someday it will end up in a museum.
Nicolai Medvedev is recognized worldwide as the Master of Intarsia. His boxes, clocks, jewelry, and objects of art are sought after by collectors and connoisseurs. His work is also found in museums such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, and the Gemological Institute of America, to name a few.
The information provided came from interviews with Nicolai Medvedev conducted by Smithsonian staff as well as from the following sources:
- Berk, M., 1998. "Nicolai Medvedev." Lapidary Journal, Dec. 1998: 22-39
- Elliott, J., 1986. "Contemporary Intarsia: The Medvedev Approach to Gem Inlay." Gems & Gemology, Winter 1986: 229-234
- Stripp, D., 1999. "Nicolai’s Mineral Medley." Rock & Gem, Jul. 1999: 48-51
- Thoresen, L., 2012. "Master of Intarsia." The Pegmatite, Dec. 2012: 18-24
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