The Old-Fashioned Art Of Cameo Carving
Cameo carving is an old art. The first documented cameo carved was as far back as 332 BC. Cameos are defined by contrast. They almost always feature a raised relief image (the positive) combined with intaglio which is the negative image. Throughout history, cameos have been carved into rock, stone, shell, coral, and gemstone. Their purpose was varied from acting as a good luck charm, sealing documents, and declaring loyalties and faith. The artistry involved in cameo carving cannot be denied. Each cameo contains a history in itself. It is the history of hard work, devotion, creativity, and fantasy. The carver's hand gives life to the mundane. It is no wonder cameos often become family heirlooms and are greatly treasured.
The History -
Cameos were present in much of the world's history. Their original purpose was utilitarian. They were mostly used as seals but sometimes they were used as ornamental additions to the ceremonial robes of Roman emperors. Early cameos were mainly carved in different types of Mediterranean stone. Carnelian, jasper, chalcedony and a wide variety of colored agates were common choices. Cameo artists often borrowed from both Roman and Greek mythology when choosing themes. Much of the earlier work was in the form of intaglios, the reverse of the relief carving we normally identify as cameos.
For many years during the European Renaissance cameos were only worn by royalty. During this period they were usually carved out of semi-precious stones like onyx, agates and turquoise. Cameo brooches were placed against black velvet for emphasis and cameo rings were popular as regal and clerical finery.
But no time in history saw the cameo experience a revival more than during the long reign of Britain's Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Her love of jewelry and particularly the cameo enhanced its popularity and brought it to the attention of the general public. No longer were cameos exclusively carved in the images of mythological figures. Flowers became a common motif. A perfect gift would be to have your own portrait carved in cameo.
At this point, cameo carvers were beginning to be appreciated as true artisans. As the desire for this type of jewelry grew, means were found to produce them more quickly and inexpensively. Eventually it was found that creating a cameo on shell or lava offered an alternative that brought it into the mainstream by making it affordable.
The Technique -
Cameos are all about layers. The carver selects the medium to be carved, sketches an outline in pencil of his chosen theme and begins the process. Very sharp steel gravers are used. These usually have a handle that fits the hand of the carver to ensure precision. Usually the lighter layer of the stone or shell is used for the cameo figure, the remainder carved away to expose the darker area. This provides the contrast. Once the desired intricacies are attained, the piece is carefully polished with oil and wiped clean.
Cameos come in all shapes and sizes but the oval was and still is the most popular. The finished piece is often framed in gold. A gold metal ribbon or bezel is wrapped around the perimeter and folded over the edge of the cameo. Some are further decorated with filigree patterns or gems. Creating a unique and individual work of art is the desired goal.
Of course today cameos are often made with lasers in their initial stages. But the more intricate details can only be finished by hand maintaining the art as a labor of love.
Dating A Cameo -
One way to date a cameo with accuracy is to examine the frame. Simpler frames are common to the Victorian pieces while more elaborate jeweled and pearled surrounds indicate a later period. Older cameos were usually set in brass. The motif on the cameo can also suggest a timeframe. Classical themes may have originated in the 18th and 19th century and anonymous female portraits are usually Victorian. Another clue to the age of a cameo is the medium used. Shell was used in the Victorian Era. Lava was used in the 17th century and again in the 19th century from Mount Vesuvius. Glass was used during the Roman period.
The best way to date a cameo is by consulting a professional jeweler. A jeweler's loupe can determine the medium and whether the piece was machine made.
Historic Cameos -
GEMMA AUGUSTEA - It is generally agreed the Gemma Augustea Cameo was carved by Caesar Augustus' favorite gem cutter, Dioscurides. It is cut from double-layered Arabian onyx stone. It is a beautiful piece that stands 7 1/2 inches tall, 9 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick.
FARNESE CUP - The Farnese Cup is the largest existing cameo in the world. The scene on the cameo is set in Egypt and includes the Sphynx. It is 20 cm, wide. It is thought to have been made in the 2nd century BC in Hellenistic Egypt. It is carved in four-layered sardonyx agate.
PORTLAND VASE - Many copies have been made of this famous vase. It is a Roman glass vase generally dated between 5 and 25 BC. It is 56 inches in circumference and made of violet blue glass. The white glass cameo on it depicts both humans and gods.
GONZAGA CAMEO - The Gonzaga Cameo is a Hellenistic engraved gem made out of three layers of Indian sardonyx. It is generally thought it dates back to the 3rd century BC. It features a side by side portrait of a man and a woman. The male and female profiles contrast in color and are thought to suggest images of Zeus and Hera though there is some argument here.
Cameo carving is not only a historical art, it is still relevant and treasured to this day. Here is a link to all things cameo - . http://www.cameojewelry.com/index.php?p=page&page_id=history
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