How to Buy Antique and Vintage Cameo Jewelry

Cameo can be defined as a method of carving that creates a raised or positive design. Intaglio is the opposite.

Cameos can be done in stone, gemstone, amber, coral, ivory, bone, lava, glass, or shell.  Very early cameos (before 1800) were nearly always done in stone, particularly banded agate (also referred to as ‘hardstone’) which creates the contrast in colors between the raised part of the design and the background.

Other stones used in cameo are cornelian, malachite, jet, sardonyx, and onyx. Black Helmet and Queen’s Conches are the kinds of shells traditionally used for a cameo. Italy has long been associated with the cameo.

Castellani Cameo of Medusa, c.1870.  Sapphire.

Trustees of the British Museum.

When discussing antique and period jewelry, the term cameo normally implies that there is a contrast in color between the relief portion of the design and the background. However, the term cameo is also used to describe this style of carving even when the raised portion and the background are the same color.

Cameo carving is an ancient technique that has experienced many revivals throughout the ages.  A new interest in cameo came about in the early 1800s, inspired by all the archeological discoveries.  Around 1805, the Pope of the time opened up a new cameo school in Rome, and Napoleon I had initiated a ‘Prix de Rome’ to encourage cameo.

By the year 1850, cameo had reached a new height of popularity and people flocked to have their portraits, or those of a loved one, carved as a cameo.  The best cameo artisans came from Italy and when the Victorians went on their Grand Tour, they often brought back these treasures much to the delight of their friends and families back home.

Italian cameo artists, often struggling sculptors, soon moved across Europe to open up small businesses to supply the demand. Cameo work was painstaking and slow.  A stone cameo could take many months; shell cameos were faster to produce and therefore were less expensive.

Neoclassical themes, particularly busts and figures, were very much in style and many cameos of the Victorian era have this motif.


Christie’s Sale 7853
Jewels – The London Sale
9 June 2010
London, King Street
A VICTORIAN MOONSTONE AND DIAMOND CAMEO BROOCH, circa 1890.  Cupid with bow and arrow.


Christie’s Sale 2390
Rare Jewels and Objets d’Art: A Superb Collection
21 October 2009
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Centering upon a carved agate cameo depicting a Greek figure, within a white and red enamel and gold foliate surround, enhanced at the cardinal points with an old mine-cut diamond and scrolled white enamel detail, suspending pearl drops, mounted in gold, circa 1870

Cameo; carnelian breccia; the 'Flora of Pistrucci'; part of head of Flora to right in high relief, wearing wreath of roses, poppies and marguerites(?); stone ground at back; what remains of lowest stratum is cut very thin; roses in a red stratum.
Fragment of Flora of Pistrucci, early 19th century, Benedetto Pistrucci, The British Museum.
Carved from cornelian.
This cameo is famous for the controversy surrounding it.

Sotheby’s (Magnificent Jewels [N08843] )

Gold and Hardstone Cameo, Tommaso Saulini, Circa 1860

Scenic cameos depicted more than one figure and background details were also popular. Motifs included ‘The Three Graces’ and other classical maidens, often in gardens.

Cameo carved on Cassis madagascariensis by Ascione manufacture, 1925, Naples, Coral, and Cameo Jewellery Museum Ascione

By the time 1860 came around, another popular motif was ‘Rebecca at the Well’ which is from a biblical story. Taking different forms, it always comprised a girl, a bridge, and a cottage. Other motifs were naturalistic and included flowers and leaves. Commemorative cameos of special events such as weddings were also popular.

William Tassie, who invented glass paste in the 1760s, began to create molds of cameos and reproduce them in glass.  He had an enormous collection of impressions of antique cameos and many credit him with being a key participant in the Neo-Classical revival. These imitation cameos were known as ‘Tassies’ and were popular and inexpensive.  This production continued as a family business well into the 1800s.

Detail from a ‘Tassie’ cameo

Wedgwood bought many of these molds from William Tassie. Wedgwood produced and still produces jasperware plaques in blue and white which are in the style of cameo and are also often referred to as cameo.  In fact, many people will think of these as being the archetype of cameo. However, these are not true cameo as they are made from molds.  There were quite inexpensive in their day; they are nowadays considered collectible.

Cameo was also loved by the artisans and designers of the Art Nouveau movement and continued in the Art Deco era.

Brooch/pendant, carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yg, platinum, c. 1890, a circ carved opal depicting a sea nymph, rising/setting sun with circ-cut diamond center, and ocean waves, with grad oe diamond border above and demantoid-set yg foliate wreath border surmounted by two stylized fish below, three hidden pendant loops, sgd "Marcus & Co."
Brooch/pendant with carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yellow gold, and platinum, c. 1890.
A carved opal depicting a sea nymph with ocean waves by Marcus & Co.
Spring Trend – Cameos

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, painted by John Sargent in 1892.

She is wearing a red and gold cameo pendant.

With the advent of Industrialization, many ‘cameos’ could be produced with molds, with dyed agate layers and later with ultrasonic machine carving. In my opinion, this is why many people today don’t admire cameo or think of them as desirable, they are associating them with the mass-produced, machine-made, or mold made variety.

Cameo continues to be produced and loved today to one degree or another.  However, the artistry, technique, and popularity of cameo that was experienced in earlier eras, particularly in the pre-industrial Georgian and the early and mid-Victorian era – as well as by a few eminent Art Nouveau artists – has not been seen since.

What to look for when buying cameos

There are many clues to look for when dating and valuing cameos and these are just a few below. Having, evaluating cameos is challenging as so many have been remounted and also many cameo artists were really good at copying older styles.  Some experts devote their careers to appraising cameos and it requires great skill.


If the cameo features a long Roman nose, the chances are it is from before 1850 and if it has a more pert nose, it is likely to be afterward.  Up-swept hair suggests late Victorian; short hair would imply the 20th century.


If it is made from lava, it is almost certainly Victorian.  Shells are also not likely to be from before 1800 (shell is translucent when held to the light). If it is jet, it is likely to be mid-Victorian and later.


If the mounting is made of pinchbeck, it will probably be from between the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. If it is gold electroplated it will be from after 1840.  If it is 9k, it will be from after 1854.  Silver implies it is from the 1880s, but certainly not necessarily so.  A safety clasp implies it is from the 20th century. But take into consideration that it might well have been remounted.


Scenic cameos are often considered to be more valuable than simple portraits. Stone is considered more valuable than shell.  Obviously, ivory, coral, and gemstones are the most valuable.

Of course, the mounting is important.  Most important of all though is the fineness of the carving; fine detail, flowing lines, and grace show skill.  Less skilled cameos are harsher with jagged lines and fewer details.

Authenticity/method of creation

Things to watch out for are whether or not it is mold made or if it is actually two pieces glued together. If it is laser cut, it is modern. All of these can be discovered by examining with a jeweler’s loop.

Ultrasonic machine-made cameos will have no undercutting and a satin surface texture. There will be absolutely no variation between them and many others of the same design. Dyed agate will show a very strong color contrast between the layers.


If it is signed it is probably from after the mid-1800s. However,  if it isn’t signed it doesn’t mean it is older than the mid-1800s.

Who you are buying from

As always, it is best to buy from a reputable dealer.


How to Buy Antique Mosaic Jewelry

Traditionally, mosaic jewelry comes from:

  • Italy, particularly Rome, Naples, and Florence.
  • It also comes from Switzerland.

Even as early as the 18th century, visitors to Italy purchased micro-mosaic jewelry as souvenirs. It became a status symbol in other parts of Europe and America to prove a trip to Italy. Mosaic jewelry would sometimes even be sent home ahead as a kind of postcard.

With its roots in ancient architectural techniques, mosaic jewelry was very popular in Europe and the Americas throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and is still produced today.

It is considered a cultural treasure worthy of protection by the Italian people.

Mosaic jewelry can be divided into two basic kinds.

1) Micro-mosaic

Key facts about ‘micro-mosaic’

  • Micro-Mosaic is inlaid with a design made of small pieces of colored glass tube shaped tiles or tesserae.
  • The pieces are usually fixed with cement on a glass or stone background.
  • These small pieces can also sometimes be made from metal, marble, or stone, although not as often.
  • When the glass tubes are cut into tiny pieces they are referred to as smalti.
  • In the finest pieces, the design is created with thousands of very tiny colored smalti with no gaps in between.
  • When the smalti is more than one color, it is referred to as ‘millefiori’ or “1000 flowers”.
  • The expression ‘Millefiori’ is sometimes used to describe ‘micro-mosaic’. 
  • The glass for the micro-mosaic is usually produced in Venice.
  • Micro-mosaic jewelry has traditionally been produced in Rome.
  • Micro-mosaic is actually a form of pointillism (using dots of color).
  • It is considered a derivative of the Roman Opus Vermiculatum mosaic style.

Micro-mosaic, black glass, gold frame brooch, Rome, Italy, 1820-1830
The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Christie’s sale number 5968, 19th Century Micromosaic Bangle, 12 December 2012
London, King Street
Lot Description: The broad hinged bangle with a fine bead and ropework decoration, the front set with a rectangular micromosaic panel depicting Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, flying before the chariot of Apollo, with the clouds of night rolling away before them, the reverse with applied letters spelling ROMA, each character raised on a navette shaped cream micromosaic ground, circa 1870

An early 19th century Italian micromosaic

Christie’s Sale 5896, Vintage and Modern Jewels at South Kensington,19 November 2009, London, South Kensington
Lot Description: An early 19th-century Italian micromosaic
The circular copper plaque depicting the Capitoline Doves, the four doves seated on a basin resting on a plinth against a blue ground, circa 1825

2) Pietra dura or Pietre dure

Key facts about ‘micro-mosaic’

  • Pietra dura literally means ‘hard stone’.
  • It is also sometimes referred to as Florentine.
  • Hard stones such as chalcedony, agate, marble, jasper, and lapis lazuli, are laid flat to create the design.
  • Rather than being a true mosaic, pietra dura is actually created more like a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Pietra dura is traditionally produced in Florence.
  • Pietra dura normally uses black marble as the foundation.
  • Florentine designs normally use larger tiles than Roman micro-mosaic.
  • Pietra dura is thought to be derived from the Roman opus sectile mosaic style.
  • Popular during the Renaissance era, pietra dura enjoyed a revival throughout the 19th century.

Necklace, 1808, Pietra dure, lapis lazuli, chalcedony, gold.
The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Christie’s Sale 1502, 31 May 2012, Milan, Palazzo Clerici

What to look for when buying antique mosaic jewelry

  • Generally, the finer and smaller the mosaics are, the older the piece.  Particularly after Industrialization, the mosaic pieces became much larger and less refined.
  • The best way of telling the age of the piece, however, is to look at the mounting.
  • The Italian jewelry artisans considered to have been responsible for the development and introduction of Italian mosaic jewelry were Giacomo Raffaelli, who created a micro-mosaic brooch in the 1770s, and Castellini who pioneered a new style for mosaics using gold wires to separate the pieces in 1850.
  • Mosaic work jewelry of the 18th and 19th centuries often depicted famous Italian tourist attractions such as the Vatican Square as well as scenes from Roman mythology.
  • Well-to-do travelers during the Grand Tour Era in which a trip to Italy was obligatory, would sometimes commission their own designs, favoring animals and famous paintings.
  • Later in the 19th century and in modern recent time, designs become simpler and bolder and more decorative rather than figurative.
  • The value of the piece is greatly determined not only by the fineness of the mosaic work but also by the base metal.
  • Inspect carefully for chips, missing parts, and damage.
  • There are many later pieces on the market which do not have a great value, although they are still attractive.
  • It is always wise to purchase antique jewelry from a reputable dealer.

Doves of Pliny micro-mosaic, attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli, circa 1770

Micromosaic and Gold Brooch by Castellani, c.1880. Image Courtesy of Wartski.

Victorian lady wearing pietra dura brooch


Tips for Buying Antique and Vintage Jet Jewelry


A single, simple jet bead, circa 1910

Jet has a feel like no other substance.  Smooth and mat and velvety, almost warm to the touch, it isn’t like wood or like stone or like rubber… it is unique.

Once you have handled real jet you will never forget the feeling in the hand.

Some facts about jet

  • Jet is fossilized wood, specifically fossilized resinous driftwood, originally from the Monkey Puzzle Tree, pressurized between layers of shale in the Jurassic period.
  • Jet is considered to be one of the  ‘organic gemstones’ (the others are pearls, coral and amber). 
  • A common misnomer for jet is ‘black amber’.
  • Another confusion is that jet is often used to describe the color black and not just used to describe the substance.
  • If someone says that they have a ‘jet necklace’ check that they don’t just mean they have a black necklace.
  • Jet is relatively soft and is easily carved.
  • Jet is also easily polished.

The History of Jet in Jewelry

The first piece of jet jewelry dates from 17, 000 B.C in Spain so it has truly been in favor for a long time.  It was also popular in Ancient Rome and has also often been used for rosary beads.

However, in more recent times jet truly came into vogue after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.   As mourning jewelry became so popular, jet became a very favored substance and was always part of Queen Victoria’s mourning dress.

In the 1920s, the flapper girls favored long strings of jet beads and found them excellent accessories for dancing.

19th century polished jet mourning brooch


Whitby Jet

Since the town began production in 1800, the most sought after jet has been from Whitby in Northern England.  ‘Whitby Jet’ is prized worldwide and is still a thriving production center.

There are some stunning carved designs of Whitby jet, particularly brooches, which came in a large variety of designs.


Carved Whitby jet brooch, late Victorian.  (This brooch is showing some slight damage around the edges).

Carved Whitby Jet Brooch, circa 1870.  The word ‘Mother’ as well as first names were popular, probably to remember deceased loved ones.

Other substances that are mistaken for jet

There are many other substances that are often mistaken for jet. Jet is the most valuable of all these substances and is considered highly collectible, particularly Whitby jet.

It is worth becoming familiar with all of those below so you can better identify jet.


Onyx may have a similar look but is much cooler to the touch and shinier.

French ‘jet’

French jet is not jet at all but is, in fact, black glass.

Vulcanite or ebonite

Gutta Percha


Bog oak

Epoxy resins

A test for jet

One test for jet is to rub it on some unglazed porcelain. Real jet will leave a brown mark. However, once you have handled a few pieces you will find this unnecessary.

It is always sensible to buy antique and vintage jewelry from a reputable dealer.


il_570xN.340892961 Carved jet beads, circa 1910