History of Cameo Carvings

Cameo carving goes back to 15,000 BC (!). Cameos were initially known as Petroglyphs, which simply means figures carved into rock/stone. A bit later shells began being used, their multi-layers allowed for contrast as the background and relief could enable many wonderful depictions and scenes to be created. Often they were used to symbolize events or even used for luck charms.

Other time periods, such as the Hellenistic era it was said young women would adorn cameos to express desire. An example being a woman could wear a cameo of Cupid/Eros to show that she was looking for love.

Pope Paul II was an avid collector of cameos~ Yes, Men too would adorn such carved treasures during the mid 1800's it was common practice for Gent's to wear them as a symbol of their culture and place in society! Even the Great Napoleon was smitten with cameos. He actually started a school for cameo carving in Paris. Occasionally, cameos were used in the military and to decorate swords as well!

During the Elizabethan era, Ladies collected and wore cameos to show status. The Wealthy often acquired pieces while traveling abroad. Pompeii was one of the popular tourist places, known as the grand tour!

The actual Carving process is an interesting and tedious one! Artisans would often, themselves, dive into the seas to collect specimens to be carved. Most popular was the conch shell carvers used the cup ( the outer coating) and the part of the shell that leads to the interior (the lip). The shell is then cut into oval forms and eventually sanded and sculpted to obtain a perfect oval which will become the carvers masterpiece! Then the artisans will use a pencil to stencil their creation prior to the actual carving process. Then the first layer is sometimes removed, depending on how much contrast and color they want for a particular piece. This would be done with sanding~ After the carver uses many tools depending on the need for detail or just bulk removal of the excess shell to work his/her magic! Lastly the shells are oiled and cleaned. Of course today machine's are often used to carve, however 'back in the day' and still frequently in our era tools are still used to make these wonderful wearable works of art by hand. The final step is, of course, to mount the finished product.

Subjects can range from the classic profile, Mythological subjects, Religious themed pieces to floral designs the later which could have private hidden meanings.

Gold, silver, gilt, brass or on occasion Jet, tortoise shell or ivory were and are popular choices to frame cameos. These mounts can be used to help date cameos depending on the pin and clasp, general style and also the materials that cameos were framed in. As my fellow enthusiasts realize there are many strict trade bans in effect which makes some of the above frame types no longer legal to use. The actual style of the carving can help date pieces as well.

I hope this little tutorial was an easy and fun read to help explain a bit about the history and steps in creating these wonderful works of art.

Written by Joy Korzenko

Joy's Tiny Treasures on Ruby Lane

Byline for article:

Joy's Tiny Treasures on Ruby Lane is run by Joy Korzenko and has just Re-located from Long Island, New York to Fort Mill, South Carolina. Specializing in Antique Cameos & Portrait miniatures I strive to offer Top-Notch customer service and a Fresh selection that is ever changing. I pride myself on keeping inventory that suites all Collector's taste's and budgets too~ Something for everyone! Layaway's are encouraged, so please do come browse~ Open 24-7 for your shopping convenience.