Chester Martin Remembers Medallic Sculptor Irving Mazze

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

This story will not seem to relate much to Chattanooga, but I promise you it should interest all local collectors of art objects, and each and every aspiring young Chattanooga artist. I hope it will trickle back to that latter group through their parents who read this on coffee-break at work, or on vacation! John Wilson and I first got acquainted when he graciously asked to use one of my paintings on the dust cover of his book, Chattanooga's Story, now in re-print.

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Back in the 1970's my art career took a sudden turn away from the more common field of "painting" and "sculpture" to a totally different art-form from what is normally taught in most high schools and universities. Seems that one day I opened a magazine (then called the National Sculpture Review) where they had a most interesting article on Medallic Sculpture. I was immediately smitten, because it depicted a wide range of ART medals about the size of an Olympic medal, meaning around three inches in diameter. Most were cast or struck in bronze - beautifully designed and executed by some of America's greatest sculptors. I was amazed at the variety of subject matter, for these were all Art medals, which had nothing to do with the more common "cut and dried" religious, military, or commercial medals.

There was a new business that had only recently opened up near Philadelphia about the same time called The Franklin Mint, and medals were their specialty. They were advertising in all the art magazines for sculptors who worked in Relief, a highly specialized field. More than just mildly interested, I contacted them about the possibility of employment and was replied to by their OWNER, Joseph Segel, himself, (and who later founded MANY other successful businesses, including QVC!) He was ready to hire me if I could pass the practical test he requested: to sculpture the head of George Washington found on the dollar bill. I bought some clay and a bag of plaster, and passed Mr. Segel's test, but regretfully shied away from the employment opportunity in so distant a place, as I had a young family at the time, and a major move would have been too risky. I felt very let-down for having to forego that opportunity.

Later, I stayed in touch with this new-to-me field of medallic art by the fortuitous appearance of three competitions that were announced - separately - in Medallic Design: One for the FAO (Rome) World Food Day Medal, 1982; a second for Brookgreen Sculpture Gardens in South Carolina (their official 50th anniversary medal); and, third, for the American Society of Medalists, surprisingly winning all three! This whetted my appetite further for working in that field - which ultimately led to employment by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Somewhere in that time framework I also attended a 3-week workshop on Medallic Art, arranged by Professor John Cook of Penn State University's Fine Arts Department on the main campus. This helped me immensely!

Meantime, before leaving for Philadelphia, I had become involved with a new organization in NYC, called the American Medallic Sculpture Association (AMSA). AMSA had ties to the much older and larger European medal association, called FIDEM, which is a French acronym for Federation Internationale de la Medaille, as FIDEM was started at the Paris Mint back in the 1930's. It was through AMSA that I met Irving Mazze and his lovely wife, Beverly. AMSA usually held their meetings at the American Numismatic Society's building on the former Audubon estate, upper Broadway, in NYC, adorned by the majestic sculptural "Don Quixote" grouping by Anna Hyatt Huntington.

By association with both AMSA and FIDEM, I was thrown in with a truly amazing class of international artists who welcomed the boy from Chattanooga as an equal! I never once was required to "show my papers", and I never once experienced any sense of being labelled inferior, or never once detected a disdainful glance! FIDEM had meetings in a different European city every second year - providing an opportunity to meet and socialize with a dynamic group of artists, entrepreneurs, scholars, collectors, researchers, curators, mint directors, etc., from all over the world! The venues were incredible and included the Medici Palace (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi) in Florence, Italy, in 1982, and the British Museum, in 1992. All were held at their countries' 5-star locations. The public literally flocked to their exhibitions. I was fortunate to attend most of the FIDEM congresses for many years as my work was always accepted by the juries. I met Irving Mazze first at the Medici Palace - that great stony building in Florence where the Medici family first commissioned the young Michelangelo to sculpture figures out of snow!

Irving Mazze was always a faithful U.S. contributor to those international shows, and I admired his work for its skillful execution, tiny as it might be. For Irving was believed to be the last American engraver of gemstones in the U.S. who used old-world techniques to achieve the desired beauty in each engraving. No machine would ever be capable of reproducing the uniqueness and quality achieved only by hand/eye co-ordination. From his workshop in the jewelry district of New York City, Irving Mazze received commissions from throughout the entire country. Yearly trips to a tiny village in Germany - Idar-Oberstein - gave him the opportunity to "talk shop" with the only enclave of other classically trained gemstone engravers of the world. (Modern gemstone engravers are usually fathers and sons working together, and are at present found primarily in Germany). During Irving's yearly trips to Germany he could purchase or barter for the next year's supply of carving stones.

A warm and friendly man, I regret that I never got to visit Irving Mazze's actual studio. As an engraver of medals in gemstone, he used soft-steel "wheels" of many sizes - some only as big as a pin head. A wide variety of wheel sizes is needed, of course, to incise the large number of shapes required. Diamond dust as an abrasive is applied to each wheel by a quill dipped in oil. Only "experience" can then take over to tell the artist which wheel should be used - and Beverly Mazze advises me that it took her husband a lot of practice. While a "large" 1/4 inch wheel might best be used to engrave a cheekbone, a "much smaller" wheel would then be best for an earlobe. Irving told me that at Idar-Oberstein a 10-year apprenticeship was required, though Irving, through diligent effort, was able to do it in a lot less time.

My earliest introduction to Irv's actual work was through the two hand-engraved intaglio portraits in moonstone, on the couple's respective engagement rings: Beverly wore a portrait of Irv, and vice versa. (See picture). And I can attest to the fact that he got all their facial features exactly right! Beverly continues to wear both rings as a memento of her life with Irving. A few examples of Irv's work remain available, and any unsold works will eventually be donated to a museum.

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Irving, the Practitioner, and Bev, the Proselytizer, made a truly great team! I remember how easily Beverly could give an impromptu talk about Irv's work, or Medallic Art in general. She gave a more formal talk at the British Museum regarding our American work. In everyday conversation she liked to tell how her husband had earlier been a successful photographer of NYC street life. One day he opened a Sculpture magazine (perhaps to the same article that attracted me!) which forever changed his life. It showed beautiful Art medals by noted sculptors, both past and present - Benvenuto Cellini, Pisanello, Augustus St. Gaudens, Donal Hord, etc, His photographic subjects, he realized, would fit beautifully into his newly selected career as gemstone engraver. A story in the New York Times informed of the newly formed AMSA (American Medallic Sculpture Association) organization. That clinched his decision and he quickly became a member. Irv's engraving of, "The Old Woman", pictured, is 30mm in diameter. It is carved in very hard rock crystal, and the subject was taken directly from one of Irv's earlier street phtographs.

Several years later I became a "Sculptor/Engraver" for the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and was able to attend AMSA's monthly meetings in New York City. In that sociable group I found myself fraternizing with prominent sculptors whose names I heretofore had only read in magazines - as judges for major national art shows, or recipients of truly great commissions! These people were absolutely down-to-earth workmen who showed no traces of snobbery, and were welcoming to strangers and newbies- like ME!. Their works were in collections of world-class museums such as the Smithsonian and British Museums, mine now included! I soon became a VP of AMSA, and am told that I was a "mover and shaker" - which makes me laugh!

Textbooks on "Art" are frequently stingy with their discussions of the "Minor Arts" - and Medallic Art certainly qualifies as one of those. I can assure you, however, that those arts are very much alive and well. There is probably no other artform that puts the Collector in closer proximity to the Artist's hand - as witnessed by all of Irving Mazze's work. And be advised that, although "Coins and Medals" may both be classified as "Minor Arts" in your textbooks, or in your classroom, they are both held in high esteem by our Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum in London, and ALL the great National museums of every country. Sweden even has a "Royal Coin Cabinet", housed in a large building in central Stockholm, which includes a wide variety of art medals specially maintained and overseen by their monarchy. Medallic Art (including Gemstone Engraving) is a field for new artists to consider. Even YOU (or your son or daughter) might be able to follow in the footsteps of our friend, Irving Mazze.

And it can easily be done in a tiny space - perhaps even on one corner of your breakfast table -right here in Chattanooga, Tennessee! That is how I started! And the materials needed to start your new career are also very cheap - just clay, plaster of paris, and a bit of Imagination. At Penn State U., one of the invited professors, Ron Dutton, of Wolverhampton Institute in England, insisted that we pick up a small rock from the ground and use it as the ONLY tool to model our clay for the entire three week workshop! You can't beat that for economy, folks! You first "learn the ropes" by practicing with these simple materials, before graduating to somewhat more sophisticated methods and materials. But it never gets very complicated and might just provide you with hours of pleasure.

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If anyone has a question about art medals, AMSA, FIDEM, coining, casting, or any other related subject, please contact me at the e-mail address given. Questions pertaining to Mr. Mazze's work will be forwarded to Beverly Mazze.

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The five pictures that accompany this story are: (1) - The 3 inch diameter commemorative medal made upon Irving's death by Eugene Daub. (2) - the two Betrothal rings carved from Moonstone by Irving Mazze. Both are 19mm x 17mm. (3) - "Toulouse Lautrec", Black Onyx, 61 x 81 x 8mm. (4) - "The Old Woman", 30mm in diameter, rock crystal. (5) - "Street Musician", 69 x 67mm, smoky quartz.

Be advised that 1 millimeter is about equal to the thickness of a normal paper-clip wire, and 30 millimeters = about 1 3/16th inches.


Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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