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He carves seashells by the seashore...
June 19, 2017
Cameos are an age old art form that soared in popularity during the 19th century. Although cameos are produced from materials such as stone, lava, shell, plastics, and glass, this post will focus on shell cameos. Primarily carved in Italy during the 19th century, shell cameos vary in color from dark coral to pink to pale tan. Some of the more popular themes for cameos include Roman/Greek gods and goddesses, Biblical scenes such as Rebecca by the well, animals, flowers, men, and women. Antique shell cameos were hand carved with amazing detail by artisans and highly sought after by Victorian ladies. Some were elaborately sculpted while others were crudely produced. The more detailed the carving, the more desirable and valuable the cameo. It would take days to cover all of the information about cameos so I will address a few of the basics in this post. Please note, this is general information that does not apply to all cases as there are exceptions to every rule.
Dating cameos can be difficult at times, especially if an older piece has been set in a newer bezel thus blurring one's ability to decipher age. Female profiles in the 19th century are generally depicted with Victorian era hairstyles crowning profiles with straight or Roman shaped noses. Goddesses are depicted in the same manner with the associated symbols (i.e. Psyche has butterfly wings in the hair, Diana goddess of the hunt has a crescent moon in her hair, etc.). As the Victorian era merged into the Edwardian era (1901-1910), profiles changed to fuller, rounder facial features making the nose and silhouette features appear petite. The infamous 'pony tail girl' came about in the twentieth century and is the most commonly seen profile on mass produced cameos today. Modern day cameos generally show upturned noses and flowing hairstyles.
Throughout the twentieth century to the present, plastic replicas have been made in the coral shell color. In order to determine if a cameo is made of shell or plastic one must investigate a few key factors. First, shell cameos will be colder to the touch than plastic. Second, when viewing from the back, shell cameos are concave in shape whereas plastic is flat. Finally, if you study the shell under a loop you should be able to denote carving marks in the surface.
Caring for cameos is very important. They should be kept in a moderately temperate place (not too hot or too cold). Avoid storing cameos in cotton as this dries them out and can lead to cracking. House them in softly lined compartments. Also, prevent cameos from hitting against other pieces of jewelry as this can scratch or chip the delicate shell. Some collectors advise cleaning with warm water and a soft brush, avoiding harsh cleansers. Oiling cameos yearly is also recommended.
Condition plays a major role in selecting a cameo. Chips, cracks, or notable damage decreases the value significantly. To determine if cracks are present, hold the cameo up to the light. If a crack is noted, run your fingernail against the line. If it catches it is a crack and devalues the piece. Some shell cameos have natural striations that are inclusive of the shell. These do not detract from value as much as actual damage and usually do not catch when running a fingernail across it.
Bezel settings also impact value. Obviously, natural metals such as gold or silver are more valuable than brass or other common metals. The length of the pin bar and style of hinge also help to determine age; however, it is not unusual to find an older cameo set in a more modern setting so this is not a foolproof manner for dating a piece. Older pins jut out from the edge of the bezel and usually have a 'T' style hinge and 'C' clasp. Safety clasps did not become the norm until the twentieth century (on occasion you may find an antique cameo and setting with a newly applied safety clasp). 'C' clasps were seen as late as the 1930s.
Quintessentially Victorian, cameos are miniature pieces of art ebbing and flowing in popularity over time. Each rendering is unique and lends a bit of delicate beauty to any Victorian ensemble. Below are a few examples of 19th and early twentieth century shell cameos with descriptions below each photo. The next installment in this series will address lava cameos
Victorian Lady Kim
Shell cameo in brass setting, c. 1860s.
Scenic shell cameo, set in gold filled bezel, late 19th century, swivel with hair compartment on back.
Antique floral cameo, possibly 19th century
Shell cameo with mother of pearl bezel embellished with seed pearls, late 19th century
Shell cameo in brass filigree setting, late 19th century, possibly the goddess Harmonia.
Scenic shell cameo in brass setting, late 19th century
Shell cameo depicting lady with bird, simple prong setting, late 19th-early twentieth century
Rebecca by the well, twisted brass setting, latter part of 19th century
Flapper girl with bobbed haircut smoking a cigarette, silver filigree bezel, c. 1920s
Diana, goddess of the hunt (crescent moon in hair), gold filigree setting, late 19th/early twentieth
Crudely carved shell cameo set in Florenza bracelet, mid twentieth century