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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.