In Praise of Cameos

by Monica Beth Fowler

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1998

Carved Helmet Conch Cameo Brooch/Pendant
Lovely museum-quality carved helmet
conch cameo brooch/pendant, 14k yellow gold ornate filigree bezel, circa 1915.
All photos from the author.
Perhaps the timeless beauty of antique jewels is best exemplified by the lovely cameo. Whether classic profile, biblical or mythological scenes, the artistry of cameo carving truly approximates bas-relief sculpture in miniature.

A cameo, simply defined, is a single medium, usually layered, on which a design is carved in relief. The lighter colored layer or band was used for the figure of the cameo, the remainder carved away to expose the dark layer, thus providing desirable contrast. The earliest cameos have been traced back to 6 BC in Rome. Their original purpose was utilitarian, as seals, as well as decorative adornment for the ceremonial garb of emperors.

These early cameos were impressed or incised in a variety of Mediterranean stones, most commonly chalcedony, sardonyx, carnelian, jasper and vari-colored agates. The themes depicted were mythological, drawn from both Greek and Roman histories. Called intaglios, they were the reverse of the carvings in relief we identify as cameos.

During the Renaissance in Europe, cameos were worn only by royalty and members of the clergy. Regal finery was enhanced primarily with brooches and rings, turquoise being the preferred cameo medium. Archaeological excavations of Pompeii by the French under Napoleon re-awakened interest in the artistry of the cameo during the first decade of the 19th century. About that same time, the first public school for the study of cameo engraving was opened in Rome. The school was funded by the Vatican through Pope Leo XII and met with much success.

The popularity of the cameo was most enhanced during the lengthy reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Her penchant for wearing cameos and often presenting them as gifts also inspired Italian artists to create carvings in her likeness.

The crescendo in demand for these lovely sculptures in miniature elevated cameo carving to an art form as well as a thriving cottage industry largely centered in southern Italy.

Sardonyx Conch Horizontal Cameo Pin
An impressive sardonyx conch horizontal cameo pin with eight distinct figures, 14k yellow gold simple bezel with braided border, circa 1910.
The use of hard stone and banded agate as the preferred cameo mediums was soon replaced by a variety of shell material, most notably helmet, queen and sardonyx conch, coral, abalone and mother-of-pearl. By 1850, Italian craftsmen were exporting their wares to France, England and America. Increasing demand at less cost could be met by using the plentiful Mediterranean shells to carve.

Conch shell is perhaps the most prevalent medium in antique cameos currently available for purchase and is still utilized in the cameo factories of Italy, where this art survives.

The conch medium is characterized by a light-colored layer on a pale-pink to deep orange-brown background and is, when carved, most easily identified by the layperson as a “cameo.” Graceful ladies in profile, minutely detailed, as well as biblical scenes were the most popular themes.

Coral is, technically, the calcerous skeleton of small marine animals. Coral was found in abundance in the Naples area of Italy which became a primary center of cameo carving in the mid-19th century. Coral, being relatively soft, is easily carved and a favored medium of local artisans.

The presence of iron oxides produced the variation of colors in the coral polyp; oxblood red to apricot to pale pink. The most highly prized were the pale pink shades, often referred to as “angelskin” coral, a term derived from the similarity in color to the pink hue popularly believed to be an angel’s complexion.

Abalone and mother-of-pearl were other, though less popular, cameo mediums. The inner lining of the shell of a variety of Mediterranean mollusks offered a smooth iridescent surface suitable for carving and in plentiful supply. The abalone tends to exhibit a deeper gray tone and iridescence than its counterpart.Cameos carved of lava are distinctly Italian in origin and Victorian in period. In the middle decades of the 19th century, well-to-do Americans and Britons embarked on the “Grand Tour” of Italy, featuring a visit to the ruins of Pompeii. Cameos skillfully carved from the lava of Mt. Vesuvius were offered to visitors as mementos of their journey.

Angelskin Coral Medium
Three fine examples of the angelskin coral medium. Left: Maiden combing hair, Russian, silver bezel, circa 1900. Above right: Art
Nouveau nymph, 14k yellow gold bezel with fresh water pearls, circa 1910. Below right: Victorian profile, gilded silver bezel with Italian glass micro-mosaic inset border, circa 1880.
This medium, readily available to area artisans, was soft and quite porous, thus easily carved into classical figures in high relief. The color range included black, dark brown, gray-green, red, tan, cream and less commonly, white.

Mountings or bezels were hand-fashioned to the custom specifications of each cameo stone or shell. Karat gold, gold-filled, silver, pinchbeck (emulating gold) and brass were all utilized in bezels, often with filigree and piercework, minute gemstones, seed pearls and (later) marcasite accents.

Jasperware cameo jewelry, most often associated with the Wedgwood porcelain factories of England, has achieved collectible status during the past few years. An opaque porcelain, the cameo form is effected through a molding process, in contrast to other mediums which are hand carved. Wedgwood jewelry featured white, primarily mythological figures, on shades of blue, sage-green and black.

Cameos maintained a high degree of popularity through the Art Deco period. Victorian profiles and biblical themes gave way to portraits of lovely young girls with bobbed hair and well-proportioned features, often with diamond necklaces or tiaras. These cameos, adorned with jewelry, were called habilles–a French term translated as “ornamented with jewelry.”

Selecting a cameo is a most personal decision. It is important that the prospective cameo buyer inquires as to the age, authenticity and any other information available on the piece being considered.

Examine the stone or shell for cracks and chips, preferably with the aid of a magnifying glass or 10x jeweler’s loupe. Unlike other cameo mediums, conch is translucent when held up to the light, thus revealing flaws in the piece. A damaged shell cannot be repaired and thus is substantially decreased in worth. Value is determined by the medium and artistry of the cameo carving as well as the precious metal content and workmanship of the bezel. Age and original condition (unrepaired) are also factors contributing to desirability and cost.

Most cameos found in antique shops today are of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras (1880-1910) and are carved in conch shell. Hard stone and lava in original pristine condition are quite limited and are highly valued by collectors.

Although quite fragile in appearance, antique cameo jewelry requires minimal care to retain its original beauty. Each item of jewelry should be stored separately in a soft cloth or cotton-lined box.

Stone cameos are the most durable, while lava is the most porous and fragile. The conch and coral varieties may tend to become brittle and dry over time, more so if exposed to temperature extremes. This condition can be remedied by applying mineral oil or glycerin to both sides of the cameo. Let absorb for several hours or overnight before rinsing in warm water.

Perhaps because the majority are figural, cameos seem to have an identity and energy all their own. They seem to enjoy being worn and admired!


About the author:
Monica Beth Fowler, who never tires of her interest and passion for cameos, is the owner of "Delectible Collectibles" in Historic Downtown Micanopy. She is always available for questions and appraisals as needed. (352)466-3327.

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