What Makes A Cameo

Posted on Friday, March 2nd, 2018 at 6:33 pm by Shelley's Jewelry

Cameos are carvings that have been made into jewelry.  In modern times the material being carved is usually stone or shell, but it can be wood, coral, ivory or a wide variety of organic substances.  The carved piece is usually set into gold or silver.  Click here to see our current selection of Estate Cameo Jewelry Pieces.

Cameos, usually in the form of beads, have been carved since the time of the ancient Sumerians, but the ones we see now are seldom more than two hundred years old.

A cameo starts with a gemstone that has banded colors. An artist carves away part of the top layer so the subject is seen in the color of the top band in contrast to the background of a different color. Yet they are still a single gem stone.  Most subjects are portraits but others are flowers, full-figure portraits, fairies, dogs, mythical characters, mythical scenes, chariots, horses, mother & child images and many others. Portraits are typically women and sometimes they include little enhancements like jewelry composed of tiny diamond earrings or necklaces.

The lowest quality of cameo is technically an imitation of a cameo. It is composed of a carved piece which has been cemented to the background piece. The value of pieces like this comes entirely from the jewelry in which the cameo imitation resides.  If it is a 14K gold pendant then the value comes from the gold. These “cameos” are often in silver, gold-filled metal, or 10K gold. Other inexpensive cameos are molded and might be of a single color, or might have a dyed background color.  Wedgwood would be an example. These are technically not cameos because they are not really carved.

The most common cameos of the twentieth century, and some nineteenth century examples also, are carved out of shell. They have bands of color, and the sculptor cuts away some of a white band, leaving a white figure showing against a tan background.  The actual shell cameo is not especially valuable so these pieces of jewelry, like those mentioned in the previous paragraph, are valued for the metal and jewelry work into which they are set.

20th Century Shell Cameo
Figure 1: Typical 20th C Shell Cameo in 14K

Fine cameos of the nineteenth century were often carved out of banded agate. Today these are often called hard-stone cameos. These gemstones have a rich polish making them shinier than other cameos. They are real eye stoppers. Sometimes portraits in these cameos are adorned with elaborate jewelry within the cameo. For example, I have seen cameo portraits where the lady is wearing a full diamond necklace. Hard-stone cameos are often in rings as well as in pendants. The value of a hard-stone cameo comes from both the gem and the metal setting. 

19th Century Hardstone Cameo Figure 2: Gorgeous 19th C. Hardstone Cameo

Some cameos of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are signed. In my experience, even if a piece is signed, it is hard to track down the artist. Still, some names are well known. For example the top cameo artist of the nineteenth century was Tommaso Saulini, but I have never seen one of his cameos.  

We think of cameos as being primarily a Victorian item, thus dating from the mid to late nineteenth century.  The mythological ones are sometimes earlier, even from the seventeen hundreds and, of course, there are many made in the twentieth century.

Some people collect specific types of cameos.  If this might be you, call us at 828-692-3615 and we will watch out for what you collect. 

Click here to see our current selection of Estate Cameo Jewelry Pieces.