A Guide To Cameos

Think of cameos and you are likely to picture a brooch with the profile of a woman carved in shell. Did you know that this style of cameo is only one of a broad array of carved miniatures considered cameos? Indeed, the very popular profile cameo is largely a 20th century creation. To understand more about cameos – miniature wearable works of art – let’s take a brief look at the different types of cameos and their history.

A Few Definitions

The word CAMEO literally means “raised above.” A cameo is a raised relief carving in stone, shell, coral, glass, or other gem material. A design is engraved on the top layer of a layered stone or shell, with the remainder of the material carved away to create a background. An INTAGLIO is the opposite of a cameo, with the design carved into the surface of the stone.

A Brief History of Cameos

Engraved stones have existed since ancient times, when the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians practiced the art of glyptography by engraving stone cylinders with symbols and figures for use as amulets or seals. The Egyptians continued this craft; carving stone scarabs and engraving the reverse side with symbols that formed a seal for documents.

The art of stone carving evolved into the creation of both cameos and intaglios, and reached its first era of popularity when the master carvers of the Imperial Roman Empire, with their superb craftsmanship and attention to detail, elevated the work to an art form of high standards. Their favorite subjects were family portraits, gods and goddesses, animals and erotic fantasies.

The art of stone carving faded with the decline of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century, and continued for the next 900 years primarily because any form of idolatry was forbidden by most religions. The art form experienced a revival during the Renaissance, when art for the sake of beauty - embracing the ancient classical idea of art – replaced the idea that art should be committed to promoting religious concepts. Members of the Medici family and other notable wealthy people became collectors of cameos and helped to fuel the revival of the art form. Cameo production soared when banded agate was discovered in Germany in the 16th century and continued well into the early Victorian period. Shell carving was first popularized in the early 19th century and Queen Victoria herself was an avid collector of shell cameos.

A resurgence in the popularity of cameos occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century when Italian shell cameo carvers began creating the now-familiar ladies in profile. And while portrait cameos created from live subjects were popular among ‘Victorians on the Grand Tour’, the early 20th century saw the advent of portrait cameos created from photographs. The cameos of the later time period appear wildly out of place with their portraits of young woman with bobbed hair set in this classic medium.

Types of Cameos

Cameos may be carved from shell, lava, coral, hard stone such as agate, or even glass. The subjects frequently found in today’s market are portraits of ladies, soldiers, Bacchantes (maidens with grape leaves in their hair) and gods. Also seen are landscapes, animals, floral bouquets and allegorical scenes. There are also the rare metamorphic cameos in which a single carving reveals two subjects such as a man and an eagle.

Beginning in the Victorian era and continuing through the Edwardian age, carvers created Cameos Habille. These are cameos in which the figure is adorned with it’s own jewelry. This jewelry is often of precious metal set with tiny diamonds.

Banded agate, also known as sardonyx or “hard stone”, cameos are the rarest of antique and vintage cameos and those most highly prized show three or four different colored layers. Skilled carvers can use the different bands to create hair in a slightly darker shade than the face; lace collars in white that contrast with clothing in taupe and the background in a deep brown.

Lava cameos were created from the stone of the Vesuvius volcano as early as the 17th century and became very popular during the Victorian era among women traveling to Italy. Because lava is relatively soft, it was easier to carve than shell and when originally made, these cameos were generally less expensive than those of shell. Ironically, they are now as highly prized as shell cameos of the same quality and age because the softness that made lava easy to work also made it easily damaged. Simply put, fewer lava cameos have survived.

Shell cameos are the most commonly available, as many Italian cameo carvers continue their craft today.

What to look for when Buying or Collecting Cameos

In judging cameos, it is important to consider factors usually associated with vintage and antique jewelry, such as the quality and condition of the overall piece, and the content of the metal mounting. However, because gemstone carving is an art form, cameos must be evaluated as art. It is important to consider composition, proportion, subject, detailing, finishing and craftsmanship.

To properly evaluate a cameo, examine the piece with 10x magnification under strong light to reveal any cracks or breaks.

Consider the following points when valuing a cameo:

Material – Hard stone is generally more valuable than shell. Check the material for signs of dyeing, common in both coral and contemporary agate cameos. Avoid two-piece “cameos” in which a subject carved from one stone has been glued to another color background. With careful examination with a loupe, you will usually be able to see the line between the two parts of the assembled piece. Composite cameos are generally less valuable than those carved from a single piece of material.

Detail – Study the engraving closely. The combination of composition, subject and carving should result in a cameo of true artistic quality – the finer and crisper the detail, the more valuable the cameo. Collectors do not desire cameos with broad carving or with subjects with unattractive or ill-defined features. Be especially cautious of cameos that have lost crispness due to wear. Both shell and coral are relatively soft materials and details can be lost by decades of wear. Hand carved cameos will show some tool marks. New laser crafted cameos will often appear “perfect” to the naked eye, but the background surface will appear “snowy” under magnification.

Signature – The finest quality cameos often will have the carver’s signature prominently displayed or hidden within the folds of clothing or curls of hair.

Depths of Carving – Deeply carved cameos are the most desirable.

Period of Origin – Extensive study of cameos will provide a collector with knowledge of the themes and subjects popular in different eras. Studying vintage and antique jewelry generally will provide clues for dating, based on the style, the material used, and the construction of the mountings.

Subject – Cameos with scenes, full-face and full-length figures, identifiable portraits, children and men, are considered rare finds, and are generally more valuable.

What to Mention When Selling Cameos

As with any jewelry sold online, the size, shape, material, approximate age, and if known, the provenance should be included in the description. Because cameos are easily damaged, careful attention should be given to any faults, such as cracks found in the shell or stone, and this information should also be detailed in the item listing. The fit of the cameo in the mounting should be checked carefully because the mountings of many antique cameos have been replaced over the years. If the fit is less than perfect this information should be noted, as this will also affect the value of the piece.

Molded cameos in porcelain, glass, resin, Bakelite, celluloid or other plastic are considered faux cameos and cannot be evaluated in the same manner as true cameos. However, their condition, size and material should also be accurately represented.

Faux cameos are an attractive feature in many types of vintage and antique jewelry, and many, such as the Wedgwood jasperware.


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