Nothing evokes the feeling of graceful elegance like a cameo. These one of a kind treasures have ebbed and flowed in popularity for centuries. Historically, people around the world wished to emulate the royals thus the rise in cameo popularity when Queen Victoria found favor with them. Like many fashion revivals, the cameo appears to be making a comeback. The following is a quick tutorial about these tiny pieces of art.
First, and foremost, always purchase a cameo in good condition. Whether you’ve decided on an antique or a modern day version, quality should be a priority. The finer the carving, the more desirable the piece. In the mid twentieth century, crudely carved cameos were set in elaborately styled settings by notable costume jewelry companies such as Florenza and Coro. These pieces are highly collectable because of the maker versus the cameo itself.
Florenza bracelet and pendant, mid twentieth century
Antique Shell Cameos
Shell cameos were carved in Italy from conch shells. The figure is carved in relief on the shell not applied as with many hard stone cameos. Shell cameos should:
Be cold to the touch
Be concave on the back
Be free of cracks (striations, natural lines in the shell, are acceptable. To determine if it’s a crack or striation, run your fingernail over the surface. If it catches, it is likely a crack).
Be translucent when held to the light
Should show signs of carving marks upon close inspection
Back of shell cameo-concave in shape
Early twentieth century shell cameo (left) and plastic cameo (right). Plastic cameos were not made until the twentieth century. Plastic pieces will be warm to the touch, do not allow light to pass through, and are flat on the back.
Dating cameos can be tricky as many loose cameos were set at a later time. Using the bezel to identify time period may not always be accurate. Generally, brooches with the bar of the pin extending beyond the bezel with a ‘T’ shaped hinge and ‘c clasp’ closure are early to mid-19th century. As the era progressed, the pin bar shortened and the hinge, and clasp, changed in style. Obviously, bezels of gold or silver are of higher value than those of plain metals or gold overlays. A cameo figure wearing jewelry is referred to as a Habille, the French word meaning “dress up.”
T-bar hinge with c-clasp
Early twentieth century safety clasp
Another method of dating a cameo is to study the profile and the hairstyle. Straight or Roman shaped noses are usually indicative of older pieces. Greek goddesses were also favorable subjects for cameos throughout the 19th century. Hairstyles common to the time period also help indicate age. The ‘ponytail girl’ became popular in the twentieth century. Short hairstyles and/or a notably turned up nose also suggest newer pieces.
Early twentieth century shell cameo brooches in filigree bezels
Late twentieth century cameo
Antique shell cameos of goddesses
(far left, Goddess Psyche; top, Goddess Diana; bottom, Goddess Bacchus; late 19th to early 20th century)
The majority of cameos feature a lady’s profile; however, gentleman, warriors, animals, and scenes have also been produced. The most common scene is that of Rebecca at the well, which shows a female figure standing near a well and is based upon the biblical account. Other subjects include Greek mythology and village scenes.
Variety of shell cameo scenes, including several of Rebecca at the well, dating to the late 19th century.
19th century bracelet with shell cameo profile of a man.
During the 19th century, cameos were also produced using hard stones such as sardonyx, onyx, and carnelian. Some of these pieces were carved into the stone while others had the cameo applied to the stone background. In the 1870s and 80s these small cameos, often resembling Queen Victoria, were used in necklaces, rings, watch fobs, bracelets, and brooches.
Hard stone cameos dating to the late 19th century.
Most images had a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria.
Lava cameos were also favored. Carved from lava found in Pompeii, these treasures were an ideal souvenir of the Grand Tour of Europe. Colors vary from taupe, cream, Terra cotta, and black, and are generally carved in high relief.
Lava cameos dating from the 19th century.
Additional materials for cameos include Jet, glass, coral, gemstones, Bakelite, Celluloid, Lucite, and plastic. Plastic cameos have been abundant from the mid twentieth century to the present.
Collection of 20th and 21st century plastic cameos.
Care and storage of cameos
It’s important to properly store cameos in order to keep them well preserved. Shell cameos should be kept in a soft area in separate compartments to prevent them from being scratched or cracked. Additionally, do not store shell cameos in cotton as this will dry them out. Keep in mind that cameos are made from shell, thus requiring moisture to prevent drying. Clean cameos with warm water avoiding cleansers or soaps. Blot the cameo dry with a soft cloth. An application of vegetable oil with a Q-tip (let it sit for a few hours) will refresh the cameo. Rinse with warm water and blot dry.
19th century shell cameo.
Be Well Informed
Spend time studying and handling cameos in order to learn more about the different materials and styles. Read reputable websites and books. Pricing depends upon the quality of the carving, setting material, age, and subject matter, but most importantly, condition.
If you are new to collecting cameos, finding a reputable dealer is paramount. Modern Jewelers in Beaufort, SC has some exquisite cameos for sale. Here are just a few of the lovely pieces on display.
Modern Jewelers, www.beaufortsjeweler.com
Here are a few good resources about these miniature pieces of art:
Cameos: Classical to Costume by Monica Lynn Clements and Patricia Rosser Clements
Cameos Old & New (4th Edition) by Anna M. Miller and Diana Jarrett G.G. RMV