People have loved wearing jewelry in different
designs, materials, and styles for thousands of years. One of the more popular
and treasured pieces of all time is the cameo.
What Is It?
Cameo is a carving method or an item made using this technique. The carvings are raised from their background (as opposed to intaglios, which are carved into the material). They are usually made from a single material such as stone, coral, glass, ivory, mother of pearl, lava, shell, and even plastic or latex.
A true cameo is carved from a single piece; those made from two materials and glued together are considered fakes among collectors and antique dealers. So how do you get the two (or more) colors from a single piece? By taking advantage of the variations of color in the stone or shell you are carving.
For example, a Sardonyx shell has a cream colored surface and a deep brown interior, which in the right hands results in a beautiful mahogany brown base with a white image. And Agates have many multicolored layers, which means the carver can create a piece with several different colors. Once you realize how these are made, you can truly appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry of the carvers.
Cameos have quite a rich history - stone cameos were
carved in Greece as early as the 3rd century BC. As the power shifted to Rome,
many parts of Greek art and culture came with it, and the art of cameo carving
was among them. During the Renaissance, Italian artisans started using shells
instead of stone for their carvings, and the new material was an instant hit
both with craftsmen and their customers. It was an abundant material, and much
easier to carve than stone. To this day, the main source of shell cameo cutting
is Italy; more precisely a town called Torre del Greco.
But cameos were popular everywhere: Napoleon loved them, he wore a crown decorated with cameos during this coronation, and even founded a school for cameo carving in France. On a side note, when Sweden’s crown princess Victoria got married last year, she wore a tiara with several large cameos rumored to have belonged to Empress Josephine-Charlotte of France (a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte).
Queen Victoria of England was also a huge cameo fan, and their popularity reached new heights during her reign. She wore them often, and the women of England followed suit, creating great demand and a thriving cameo “industry”. The delicate pieces of jewelry also eventually made their way to the US. They had become very popular as souvenirs, and wealthy Americans who visited Europe during this time brought them back home.
The portrait or image of a person, either known or
imaginary, is the most common cameo motif. Other popular images are religious
themes, scenic cameos depicting animals, leaves and other figures, romantic
scenes between couples and/or cupid, and portraits from Roman and Greek
Collecting & Buying
Many people are passionate collectors of cameos, and there are many available online. As is the case with all vintage fashion jewelry, when buying antique cameos, you have to consider several factors: materials used, quality of carving, age, condition, and the subject matter. Make sure it is carved from a single piece. Don’t forget to look at the setting. Is it original? Re-set pieces are less valuable. Values also depend on the quality of the carving and the material. As one would guess, the more intricate the detail of a design, the rarity of the piece, and the finer the material, the higher the value. Prices for vintage cameos can range from shell cameos in the low double digits to several thousands for a rare, well-preserved gemstone pieces.
When shopping online, make sure to purchase from a reputable seller who is responsive to questions, willing to send pictures, and know what they are talking about. Do your research and read seller reviews. Ask about their return policy, and for a certificate of authenticity.
Cleaning & Care
To make these pieces last for a long time, you have to
take good care of them. Always remember to store them in a cool, clean, and dry
place (not in a plastic pouch or tightly closed container). Aging, dryness, and
exposure to harsh elements can cause discoloration and cracks. To clean, use a
brush with very soft bristles to remove dust (which can cause scratches), and
if needed, rinse the cameo in warm (not boiling hot) water. Do not use
cleansers, or even mild soap (those made from mother-of-pearl can tolerate
soap), and make sure to wipe all water off immediately with a soft cloth. To
preserve the shine, once or twice a year, apply baby oil sparingly with a Q-tip
and let sit overnight. Carefully wipe off the excess oil the following day.
Cameos - whether as rings, charms, brooches, bracelets or pendants - are both tiny pieces of art and jewelry at the same time. They make great heirlooms and are good investments that you can wear every day, and will most likely last you a lifetime, especially when well taken care of.