A cameo is a bas-relief carving, in which the image is raised higher than its background—really a work of sculpted art in miniature. Most often depicting a portrait or scene, cameos have been used in the decorative arts since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Originally, the term “cameo” referred only to pieces with contrasting colors—layered stones that were carved in a way to expose a deeper layer of color for the background of the piece.
Cameos can be carved from nearly every kind of gem material. In fine jewelry, cameos are made of so-called ‘hardstone,’ including layered varieties of agates like onyx, sardonyx, and jasper. Other non-layered gemstones, like coral, amethyst and malachite can be carved into monochrome cameos. Shell became an important material for cameos in the early 1800s, and costume jewelry cameos were later made from much cheaper materials like molded plastic or glass.
The Earliest Cameo Jewelry
Cameos from ancient Greece and Rome were occasionally used as jewelry, though most cameos from antiquity are found on cups and vases, as well as famous ‘state cameos’ like the Gemma Augustea and Gemma Claudia. Some early cameos were worn as large earrings, but a far more common type of cameo jewelry was the signet ring. Signet rings were usually made from carnelian or sardonyx, and used to press an authenticating design into sealing wax on important documents.
Georgian and Victorian Cameos
Although some cameos were produced throughout the Middle Ages, and the technique was briefly revived in the early Renaissance, cameo jewelry later became fashionable thanks in part to the neoclassical revival during the reign of King George III. By the time his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, ascended the throne in 1837, cameo jewelry was wildly popular, and many thousands of cameos were produced for markets throughout Europe.
Cameos were worn in a number of ways, including brooches, bracelets, pendants, tiaras, and rings. Mountings were varied as well, depending on how the piece was to be worn and the discretion of the artist. A variety of archeological styles were employed, including Etruscan revival, as well as everything from plain gold bezels to ornate, gem encrusted frames.
Shell occasionally had been used to make cameos in antiquity, but its use became prevalent by the early 1800s. By the middle of the 18th century, helmet shells from the West Indies and queen conch shells from the Bahamas had arrived in Europe, and artisans carved cameos out of them for the fashionable ladies of the day. Helmet shells had excellent contrast and depth of layers, and could be carved in high relief with great detail.
Georgian and Victorian cameos were fashioned out of both hardstone and shell, and the techniques used for carving each were specific to the material. Hardstone required a specialty lathe with steel wheels and drills, and could take months to complete. Shell was both lighter and much easier to work with, and cameos could be carved from the softer material with hand tools in just a few days.
The Grand Tour and Cameo Markets
The Victorian tradition of the Grand Tour—a traveling rite of passage for upper class Europeans—directly influenced the production of cameos. As Victorian women traveled to Italy to absorb the art and culture of Italy and Greece, they would often return with a cameo necklaces, rings, or even lava stone cameos made from the colored lava from the base of Mt. Vesuvius. These souvenirs served as keepsakes, as well as proof that they had traveled abroad. Torre del Greco, near the remains of Pompeii, remains the cameo capital of the world to this day.
As the market for these keepsake cameos grew, imitations of ancient gem carvings became popular. Victorian gem carvers had access to catalogues and line drawings of many cameo collections, and these were widely circulated. Plaster casts of earlier cameos were also shared between artisans, and resulted in many copies and replicas being created. Eventually, carvers began to sign their work in an effort to keep unscrupulous dealers from selling their works as antiques. James Tassie, the Scottish gem engraver, made molds of famous cameo collections and made glass-plate cameos that could often pass as carved jewels.
The earliest depictions in cameos were scenes from Roman or Greek history and mythology, but in jewelry, the portrait became the most common subject by far. In keeping with the neoclassicism of the day, Georgian and Victorian cameos also featured classical sculpture, Roman and Greek mythology, Renaissance art, famous paintings, and even official portraits.
As engravers capitalized on the tourist trade in Italy, thousands of cameos were produced, mimicking the artwork and sculpture of Rome, both antique and contemporary. Tourists on their grand tour would often take home a wearable, miniature version of a full sized work of art they had seen in person.
As shell became the preferred medium and artisans could carve cameos relatively quickly, it became the fashion for some craftsmen to use live subjects as models for personalized cameos. These portrait cameos were sometimes created after a marble bust of the subject had been made. In order to distinguish between a piece carved using a live subject from one taken from a marble bust, the artist would sometimes make the notation “from life” on the back of the cameo.
Commemorative cameos for weddings and other events became popular as well, especially after photography became more widely available. The subject was no longer required to sit for long periods of time, and the carver could create as many identical cameos as one might order.
Cameos are still produced today using traditional carving methods, but many lesser quality pieces are constructed by setting a carved relief onto a background of contrasting color, resulting in what is known as an ‘assembled cameo.’ Alternately, some modern cameos are made mechanically by using an an ultrasonic mill. With this technique, a master design is carved, and multiple copies are made by pressing the master onto the agate cameo blank. The die then vibrates vertically and a diamond slurry cuts the image into the stone.
The finest cameos are still hand carved from both hardstone and shell, and designers like Stephen Webster and Amedeo Scognamiglio are keeping the ancient art alive with modern interpretations.
Where Can I Sell My Cameo Jewelry?
If you would like to sell antique cameo jewelry for a generous cash offer, please contact Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers for a free appraisal today. We deal exclusively in rare and expensive antique cameo jewelry, as well as modern cameos by world-renowned fine jewelry designers.