The sea-green gemstone sat in Gerd Dreher’s Idar-Oberstein, Germany, workshop for three years while the sculptor, who specializes in creating animal forms from such stones, pondered what to carve from it. The rare specimen of Ukrainian heliodor posed artistic limitations because of its odd size: The top surface of the 5-inch-tall, octagon-shaped stone measured 4 inches long and 31¼ inches wide, making it too wide for Dreher to transform it into a single animal subject, yet too small to be cut in two. However, he finally concluded in early 2004, it could become a pair of lovebirds.
For months thereafter, Dreher, a stocky, balding 65-year-old with forearms as muscular as Popeye’s, studied the images of lovebirds in his photo archives and those from his library of animal books. (He long ago lost count of how many thousands of volumes he owns.) Dreher also visited zoos and purchased a pair of birds from a local pet shop to perfect his understanding of the creatures. “I look for what is natural in the animals, what is typical,” he says, in fluent English. “It is a feeling that comes with time and only after much looking.” Once he felt confident that his hands could shape what his imagination could see, Dreher hefted the 5-pound, 6-ounce green stone onto his workbench and began carving. Ten hours a day, six days a week, for a total of 350 hours, he worked on the heliodor until it resembled the delicate, cowering lovebirds he had envisioned.
Dreher’s one-of-a-kind creation, which is priced at $70,000, will go on sale in September at the Silverhorn gallery in Santa Barbara, Calif., the only American gallery that is licensed to sell his work. The lovebirds are among the dozen or so new Drehers that appear annually and are claimed, often in a matter of hours, by collectors. Dreher’s career reached a pinnacle last year when the Houston Museum of Natural Science hosted an exhibit of his works. During the opening, museum president and collector Joel Bartsch called Dreher “the finest carver of animals in semiprecious stones ever to have lived.”
Dreher might take issue with that sweeping statement, because he represents the fourth generation of carvers in his family. His great-grandfather Karl and grandfather Hermann produced animal figurines for Fabergé and Cartier, but it was his father, Paul, who inspired Dreher to pursue the craft. Dreher, whose 35-year-old son, Patrick, now works with him, was impressed when he learned that what Paul, who served as a soldier in the German military in World War II, wanted most after gaining release from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp in 1949 was to return to his lathe. “When he started working again,” Dreher says, “I saw everything that carving animals could be.”