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The Old-Fashioned Art Of Cameo Carving

Updated on March 8, 2018

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 - .

Other Hubs about the art of crafts -


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you!

      We are having an auction on February 8th, 2014 at It begins at 10:00 AM

      No reserves! Lots of one of a kinds!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Runohmuck - Your work is beautiful!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Not bygone at all! We are still making Cameo glass! It is still a labor of love, an art of adoration...The vase with the Azalia's and the woman shown above is ours! This is one of a newer style of Cameo Glass called "New World" is made with powdered frit glass.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Once again, suziecat, I marvel at your ability to bring bygone arts and crafts to life in your nimble hands. Brilliant!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Nellieanna - I do believe he had something to do with it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 

      9 years ago from TEXAS

      My beloved George gave me an exquisite AntiBellum (you'll appreciate that, szsiecat) cameo before we married. Lovely classic figure and set in white gold. I'd somehow misplaced it but we were going back & forth to the ranch & I had little occasion to wear it, so I hadn't searched beyond the oblious places - a large armoire in my walk-in closeet, where there are 2 drawers and the big shelf where I guess ladies would have stored hats or bags - but these were all dedicated to my jewelry, mostly non-precious. He had lined a lovely broach box with velvet for the cameo, so it was bound to be in that container. I even had searched in sock and underwear drawers, in case I'd tucked it in.

      The bottom line is that I wished so to be able to wear it to his funeral, suzie. And of all things, I opened the armoire door where the shelf was and it was in its box, lying right on the front edge of the shelf!!!!!! I'll never be able to not believe he had something to do with that!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      ReuVera - thanks for reading. Cameos are still fascinating to this day.

    • ReuVera profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      Very interesting and informative hub. It reminded me of my childhood. My mother had a very nice cameo, a gentle image of a Roman woman. She let me play with it and I was fascinated by this little thing.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Rose - glad you enjoyed.

    • Rose Kolowinski profile image

      Rose Kolowinski 

      9 years ago

      I have always loved cameos. I have one in my jewelry somewhere. I'll have to dig it out. I loved reading the history and the pictures are great! Thanks for a fascinating hub!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Prasetio - I'm thrilled that you stopped by. I agree cameo carving is a great art.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      This is great art. As an art lover, I really enjoy all the information you gave to me about cameo carving. I wish I could one of this art. I think it would be valuable art. Thank you very much, suzie.

      warm regards,


    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Jsyjay - you're welcome.

    • jayjay40 profile image


      9 years ago from Bristol England

      Lovely hub, I never knew there was so much to know about cameos, thanks for sharing

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Teresa - Thank you for stopping by. No - my hobby is the history of things - I enjoy finding out about them.

    • Teresa Laurente profile image

      Maria Teresa Rodriguez - Laurente 

      9 years ago from San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.

      It takes imagination to produce art. These are beautiful timeless pieces that last generations of lifetimes. How to make it, you added here! impressive. Thank you; are these your hobby or business as well?

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all - cameos are quite beautiful and timeless.

    • nancy_30 profile image


      9 years ago from Georgia

      This was a very interesting hub. I loved the pictures of all the cameo art. They were all beautiful.

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      9 years ago from Philippines

      I love this hub! It reminded me of my grandmother who used to wear a cameo around her neck. She looked so elegant every time she wore it.

      Thanks for the history too!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      9 years ago from Georgia

      Cool! My grandmother had a couple of these.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Really nice job of featuring old fashioned cameos. They should always be appreciated for their art form.

    • Ann Nonymous profile image

      Ann Nonymous 

      9 years ago from Virginia

      Beautiful hub and beautiful work! Thanks for putting it all together I want some of my own!

    • Mystique1957 profile image


      9 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela


      Very interesting hub! I have a fascination for these little pieces of Art. Nice you brought this up! I truly enjoyed it!

      Thumbs up!

      warmest regards and infinite blessings,


    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      It is a wonderful art. Thanks to all for reading.

    • Michael Shane profile image

      Michael Shane 

      9 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

      Very interesting topic & nice hub! good job!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Terrific hubs you got here! I've never been good at anything like this. This is surely a real talent to carve. Definitely, I enjoyed reading your hubs. =)

    • hypnodude profile image


      9 years ago from Italy

      I love them, especially the ones carved in deer's horns. Cameos are really a great example of art. Very good hub rated and stumbled. :)

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 

      9 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      I love this stuff.. so intricately done!! Beautiful!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for reading. Cameos are always in style, old-fashioned or not.

      BP - nice birthday present - somebody loves you.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 

      9 years ago from Washington

      I love cameos and I think there is nothing 'sexier' than wearing one on a band (like velvet) around your neck - come to think of it, I need to do that! Very interesting article though and all the history is great.

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 

      9 years ago

      I also like cameos, but find that young people think of them as old fashioned.

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 

      9 years ago from Southern California

      Oh I love Cameos... very interesting hub!

    • breakfastpop profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating hub. I adore cameos and I am getting a large beautiful cameo ring for my upcoming birthday. I learned something and I thank you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Beautiful hub suziecat7. I have always loved cameos without thinking of the work that went into them. Very informative.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for stopping by. It always amazes me at how much of history doesn't change.

      Lorlie - yes, I was pleased about the artist's hand as well.

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 

      9 years ago from Grizzly Flats, Ca

      Suziecat-this is such a fabulous hub! I particularly love the cameo with the African Queen(?). Astounding stuff, and beautifully researched.

      It's also good to know that the artist's hand is needed when achieving perfection!


    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Awesome hub, they are so life like and I had no idea this history art went back so long ago. Thumbs up and thanks

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      This are really cool. Nice hub.


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