I first discovered the value of a cameo when I was given a pair of screwback cameo earrings that belonged to my grandmother. Sentimental value, that is. I had recently started my repurposing business, turning heirloom pieces of jewelry that were handed down to others by their loved ones into one-of-a-kind, sentimental rings.
Now, I have a younger sister who treasures heirlooms from much-loved relatives as much as I do. The best solution I could think of for us both to be able to wear and enjoy this single pair of cameo earrings from our grandmother was to make them into two rings. I think of my dear grandmother every time I wear mine and I know my sister appreciates having her own special cameo keepsake as well.
After being given this treasure, it prompted me to find out all I could about cameos because I knew nothing about them. With a little research, I have discovered that they are truly an amazing piece of history.
History of the Cameo
What exactly is a cameo? It is a small, sculptured work of art with an image carved out of a material such as stone or shell with a contrast of dark and light. The background is dark and the raised image, also called a “relief” from the Latin verb relevo (to raise), is carved out of the lighter color.
Some of the most ancient cameos, traced as far back as the 3rd century BC and often used as signet rings, were called hardstone cameos. They were carved from semi-precious gemstones such as onyx, agate, and carnelian. Cameos were later carved from the shell of a mussel or tropical mollusk.
Carvings included religious themes such as prophets, saints or angels, nature, romantic themes with couples or cupids, and portraits. In most portraits, the head will be facing to the right. Left-facing cameos are less common, such as the one pictured above that was given to me by my grandmother.
During the Elizabethan Period, women began collecting cameos to prove their cultural status. This was considered the golden age of poetry, music, theater, and literature which took place during Queen Elizabeth’s reign from 1558 – 1603. Tourists started traveling frequently to the ruins of Pompeii near Naples, bringing home shell cameos as souvenirs.
During the mid-18th century, explorations uncovered new shell varieties such as Queen Helmet and Conch shells from the Bahamas and West Indies. Once they arrived in Europe, it sparked a huge increase in the number of cameos that were carved from shells. Men purchased these cameos to indicate their prestige and cultural status.
Periodically, cameos went through revivals during the 18th and 19th centuries. France had a revival when Napoleon’s coronation crown was decorated with several cameos. In Britain, the revival first occurred during the reign of King George III as his granddaughter Victoria, who became Queen in 1837, was an avid collector and promoter of the cameo trend. During the Victorian era (1837-1901), she popularized cameos that were carved in seashell. By the second half of the 19th century, they were so popular that they became mass-produced.
After 1850, there was an even greater demand for cameos as they became popular souvenirs of the Grand Tour among the middle class. The Grand Tour was the traditional trip of upper-class European young men who would travel throughout France and Italy in search of art, culture, and the origin of Western civilization. After the large-scale rail and steamship made the journey less of a burden in the 1840s, the tradition was extended to include more of the middle class.
A valued souvenir for a Victorian woman was a cameo made with her own image by an Italian carver. While commissioned portraits were the trend, another kind of portrait started to appear with the mysterious, unidentified woman.
The world center for shell cameo carving is Torre del Greco, Italy. Before they are carved, the shells are marked with a series of ovals which is a process called signing. Next, they are cut into oval blanks for the carver. The cameo is then primarily cut with a bulino, a metal scraping tool invented by a Jewish artisan named Antonio Cimeniello. Deeply carved cameos are the most desirable.
Additional metal gravers are also used which include those that are flat-faced, rounded, and three-cornered. To increase production, grinding wheels are used as well for removing the excess material. Once it is finished, the shell is soaked in olive oil, cleaned with soap and water, and polished with a hand brush.
In the 19th century, cameos were made from other materials including ivory, lava, plastics, and glass. Cameos that are created using a mold rather than carving are considered faux (fake) cameos but are still collectible as costume jewelry.
Mother of Pearl Cameos
Mother of pearl, or nacre, was also being used for carving cameos. It is a strong, resilient and iridescent composite material produced by mollusks as an inner shell which also makes up the outer coating of pearls.
Here is a cameo pendant from the Victorian era carved out of mother of pearl with a twisted ribbon border that I recently found during one of my successful treasure hunts:
Queen Victoria’s son Edward VII reigned from 1901 to 1910, marking the Edwardian Period. King Edward VII was the leader of a fashionable elite that established a particular style influenced by the art and fashions of Europe, perhaps because of his love for travel.
The image of a woman wearing a choker portrayed in a cameo became extremely popular. Machine-carved cameos allowed for them to be mass-produced which led to a serious decline in quality.
Woman wearing a cameo at her throat on a high lace collar in the Edwardian style
Queen Helmet Shell
The most highly prized shell for carving is the Emperor or Queen Helmet shell, a very large sea snail found in Caribbean waters. It has white and dark brown layers and is also known as sardonyx shell because it looks similar to the agate known as sardonyx. When carved, it can resemble marble. Cameos carved in sardonyx shells are usually more expensive because these shells are quite rare.
Cameo carved on Queen Helmet shell by Ascione manufacture, 1925, Naples
Carnelian Shell Cameos
The carnelian shell is most frequently used for carving cameos. These shells are a light peach or orange color, providing good contrast between the foreground and background.
Here is an example of a carnelian shell cameo, also handed down to me from my grandmother. It functions as a pendant and locket, holding a cherished picture of my grandparents on their wedding day in 1941:
Caring for Your Cameo
Shell cameo jewelry is prone to discoloration and cracking from drying out with age. If you own a cameo, care for it by dusting it gently and moisturizing it with baby or mineral oil a couple of times a year.
Apply the oil with your finger or a cotton swab and then let it sit overnight. In the morning, wipe off any remaining oil from the cameo using a soft fabric cloth. Store your cameo jewelry separately in a fabric jewelry pouch to protect it from being scratched or chipped.
And wear it often. It has an incredible history that you can now share with anyone who asks!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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