Cameos have been a popular and unique form of jewelry throughout history. Every cameo is a miniature work of art. Cameos have been valued for both the skill and beauty in the carving and as a momento.
Earliest cameo representations have been dated back to ancient civilizations. The first cameos appear to have been inspired by petroglyphs, documenting religious and symbolic icons.
As jewelry it was during the Hellenistic era that women first wore cameos depicting a dancing Greek God of love, Eros, as a display of their willingness to engage in intimate relations with men.
Cameos enjoyed a revival in the early Renaissance when Pope Paul II became an avid collector. It is said his love of cameos and his wearing of so many contributed to his death due to the metal of the rings keeping his hands cold.
In the 18th century Elizabethan period wealthy women wore carved gemstones as a display of their prestige. This is also the time period in which a portrait profile style became the most popular for cameo subject matter.
Napoleon was a cameo enthusiast and began the Neoclassical revival. He brought skilled artisans from neighboring European countries to France to create cameo jewelry for both men and women. Napoleon wore a cameo to his wedding and his coronation crown was decorated with cameos.
Lava cameos were introduced in the 19th century. Pompeii lava provided colored lava that was favored in this time period. These cameos became a memento of travels wealthy Europeans typically took as they came of age. The amount and range of these collected cameos indicated the status and wealth of the collector.
Queen Victoria's popularity and style supported a cameo trend in Britain that became so popular the last half of the 19th century began the first mass production of cameo jewelry. This is the time period in which the less expensive shell cameos became the most common as they were the most accessible.
Authentic cameos are a great was to collect a truly unique piece of jewelry as each is carved by a jewelry artisan by hand. The range is enormous in terms of skill. But each is the artisan's detailed interpretation of the person or artwork (as in the Three Graces, a very popular subject for cameo artists). Just as in other forms of artwork different collectors may enjoy difference styles.
Authentic cameos are made from a hard gemstone or other durable natural material such as coral, shell or lava. The subject is carved in relief giving the artwork dimension. Earliest cameos most commonly depicted a face profile portrait, landscapes or a mythological creature.
Typically the natural material is two colored so that the finished subject is in a different color or tone to the background.
The most valuable cameos are carved from semi-precious stones and are known as hardstone cameos. These cameos last thousands of years while shell cameos deteriorate much more quickly.
Agate is commonly used as it's easy to carve and a greater amount of detail can be achieved. Agate is available in a large color range and has a translucent quality that is appealing.
Turquoise is also used in cameo jewelry but is softer than agate and will lose it's detail as it ages.
Lava cameos are available in shades of white, gray or brown. This was a common material used in Victorian times.
There are many jewelry companies who produce glass cameos produced in a mold.
When trying to determine whether a cameo is made of a natural material or of plastic a simple test is to place a hot needle against the cameo material in a hidden area. If plastic, it will melt. If it doesn't melt it is most likely a natural material.
The temperature of a cameo will help determine whether it is stone. Authentic stones are cool to the touch. Plastic quickly warms to the heat of your skin.
When trying to distinguish the material between Shell and Coral if the back is concave it is Shell, if it is flat it is likely Coral.
The center of the shell cameo industry is in Italy, Torre Del Greco, which largely creates cameos as a memento for travelers. Shell cameos are typically brown, red or pink.
Sardonyx shell cameos have a brown background with white motifs. This is considered the top end of shell cameos. When carved Sardonyx shell resembles the look of marble.
Mother of Pearl cameos have an opalescent quality and are blue gray in coloration.
Carnelian shell is the least expensive shell. Carnelian shell cameos have an orange red background and a yellowed white motif.
Coral is also a popular choice for cameo carving. The coral is a deep red shade and historically has likely been harvested from the Italian or North African coast in the Mediterranean. Present day coral cameo material is more likely sourced from Japan or China. Coral should be harvested responsibly as coral reefs are endangered and so if the cameo is a recently produced one that should be noted by the manufacturer.
Not surprisingly, age has a direct impact on the value of a vintage cameo. Age may be determined by the metal. If the metal is gold toned it was likely made between the early 18th century and mid-19th century. Gold plating wasn't patented until 1840.
The back of a cameo brooch may also assist in determining it's age. A T-Bar with a C-clasp was indicative of Victorian era cameos up until the Art Deco period. A trombone tube clasp as used around 1910-1950s but was not the universal clasp of the time period. A locking rolling safety C-clasp became the norm in the 1960s. The pins were also longer in older time periods and became shorter throughout time.
It is important to examine the vintage cameo and make sure it is not cracked. Viewed held up to a light will allow you to see the material most easily.
Cameos with layers of color, with a detailed background or with multiple subjects are of a higher value. Colored stones such as lapis lazuli, opal or emerald are uncommon and therefore more collectible.
Cameos are most valuable when in it's original setting. The original setting will assist in determining the age. Victorian era cameos had frames that were more simplistic while later decades favored jeweled and pearled versions.
The more detailed and the more delicate the hand of the artisan, the more valuable the cameo will typically be. Simply because the time taken to create cameos is greater for larger pieces than smaller pieces, size also indicates value.
Cameo Cleaning & Care
Shell cameos commonly crack when they become dry with age. Stones are more durable as time passes.
Cameos should be wiped for dust often to avoid build up. Store these pieces away from other jewelry which may scratch the cameo surface. It is recommended to use a mineral oil on cameos every few months. This should lessen cracks. Wipe the oil off completely after cleaning.
Cameos should be cleaned with warm, soapy water. Soak for 30 minutes. The detergent should be mild. Wipe the cameo with a soft cloth. Ultrasonic jewelry cleaners may affect the color of your cameo.
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Invaluable. 2021. "Cameo-Jewelry." https://www.invaluable.com/blog/cameo-jewelry/.
The Jewellery Muse. 2021. "Five Tips On How To Date A Vintage Brooch...With Pictures
Love To Know. 2021. Finley, Amy. "Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs."
My Modern Met. May 6, 2020. "A Brief History of Cameo Jewelry and How It's Still
Popular Today." https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-cameo-jewelry/.
Portrait Cameos. 2021. "Buyers Guide to Cameo Jewelry (Custom, Antique, Fashion)."
Wikipedia. 2021. "Cameo (Carving)." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameo_(carving).