Cameos 101: History of Cameo Jewelry, Value and More

I once saw a dark-haired cameo in an online auction that sold for far beyond my budget, and I’ve been on a quest for a dark-haired cameo ever since. I have this romantic notion that there’s a cameo out there that resembles everyone, but very few shell cameos are carved in such a way that the figure’s hair is dark, so I’m having a hard time finding mine!

No matter their hair color or if they’re even figural (bust) cameos, I’m fascinated by cameos in general. I can search for “Italian cameo” or “antique cameo” in Google Images and get lost looking through all of the gorgeous designs. The Three Muses (or Three Graces) cameos are some of my favorites, and I really love seeing ones with crazy hair, pearl strands (cameos of busts wearing jewelry are called cameo habillé), or very detailed village scenes, usually with a couple in some romantic setting. I still daydream about the masterfully carved huge (bigger than an egg) brooches I saw in the Italian pavilion of the JCK Las Vegas show several years ago. I don’t recall what they were carved in, but the backgrounds were chocolate brown and they were stunning. Swoon!

carved Three Graces cameo and carved coral cameo Art Deco pendant

Left: Art Deco 10k white gold filigree brooch with hand-carved shell cameo of the Three Graces (The Three Muses), circa 1920s, $595. Photo: Sunday & Sunday (D). Right: Platinum Art Deco coral cameo pendant necklace with diamond, emerald and onyx accents, $4,500. Photo: The Gold Hatpin (D)

I think cameos are ideal for making one-of-a-kind jewelry, even today. Their designs range from ancient to traditional to modern and whimsical (have you seen the sugar skull and unicorn cameos?), and even genuine hand-carved cameos can be found in prices to suit all budgets (bezel settings aside). I’ve been meaning to write about cameos for ages, and then I found a section about them in the fabulous book Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry by jewelry expert C. Jeanenne Bell, G.G. Here are the parts I found most interesting, to answer the most common questions about cameos.

What is the History of Cameos?

“The early cameos were made from stone. In the 16th century, workmen turned to shell to meet the demand for more cameos at less expensive prices,” Jeanenne writes. “Cameos were set in rings, brooches, earrings, and bracelets. The men wore them in watch fobs, rings, and pins. Stone cameos were cut from onyx, agate, sardonyx, cornelian, coral, lava, and jet. The carvers of shell cameos used the shells of the Black Helmet and the pink and white Queen’s Conches, which were so plentiful in the seacoast towns in Italy.”

carved jet and shell cameos with seed pearls

Left: Jet, diamond, seed pearl, and gold pendant/brooch, cameo features carved jet, enhanced by a full-cut diamond weighing approximately 0.10 carat, accented by a seed pearl border, set in 14k gold, completed by a pinstem, catch and collapsible bail on the reverse, 2-1/8″ x 1-3/4″, $593.75. Photo: Heritage Auctions (A). Right: A shell cameo pendant/brooch, oval-shaped shell cameo measuring approximately 45.5 x 36.2 mm, gross weight approximately 55.5 grams, mounted in 14k gold, 2-3/4″ long, $1,500. Photo: Bonhams (A)

How Did Cameos Become So Popular?

“Cameos made lovely, portable souvenirs for tourists visiting the ruins of Pompeii and Hercelium. When the travelers returned home, their friends were enchanted with these small works of art. Within a short time, Italian cameo artists had shops in England, France, and America,” Jeanenne writes. “These craftsmen carved cameos in the ancient styles or any other designs the purchaser might select. The January 1850 issue of Godey’s Magazine included the following note: ‘Peabody the celebrated Cameo Portrait Cutter, 140 Chestnut Street, is kept busily engaged with the portraits of some of our most eminent citizens.'”

How Are Cameos Made?

“Cameos are made by cutting away background material to make a design in relief. In stone cameos, a banded agate is often used,” Jeanenne writes. “The lighter band is used for the figure of the cameo. The remainder is carved away to expose the darker ground. In shell and stone cameos, the true artist takes advantage of different layers and faults in the material to enhance the design.”

carved shell cameo and moonstone cameo pendant

Left: Shell cameo brooch of Ariel on the wings of a bat, gold filled, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, 2-1/4″ x 2″, $2,500-$3,000. Photo: Red Robin Antiques (D). Right: Belle Époque moonstone cameo diamond lavaliere, circa 1910, a carved moonstone cameo, 16.3 x 14.3 x 8.7 mm, within a platinum diamond lace drop in the shape of a peacock feather, on cable link chain, 7.2 dwt (11.2 gs), total chain length 28″, drops 2″, $3,125. Photo: Rago Arts and Auctions Center (A)

How Are Cameos Valued?

“Stone cameos are generally more valuable than those made of shell. But the medium is not nearly as important as the artistry,” Jeanenne says, “The best way to judge a cameo is to examine it with a good magnifying glass. Graceful, smooth-flowing lines with much detail are signs of a good one. The inferior ones seem to have sharper lines, fewer details, and a harsh look. Be sure to hold the cameo to the light and examine it for possible cracks.” You can also see the translucency of a cameo when you hold it up to the light–which is another one of my favorite things about cameos.

carved stone cameo

Antique 14k gold hardstone cameo and split pearl pendant/brooch, finely carved cameo depicting a vestal virgin, framed by split pearls, 1-7/8″ x 1-1/2″, $1,200. Photo: Skinner Auction (A)

Which Cameos Are Most Valuable?

“Scenic cameos are generally more expensive than bust cameos,” Jeanenne says. “A very popular motif around 1860 was what is known as ‘Rebecca at the Well.’ There are many variations on this theme, but they usually include a cottage, a bridge, and a girl.”

How Does One Know a Cameo’s Age?

“Many antique cameos were reset in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some craftsmen were expert at copying antique pieces. This makes accurate dating almost impossible,” Jeanenne writes. “However, there are usually some clues to help determine age.” Here are some of the clues Jeanenne shares for helping you determine a cameo’s age.

  • “If a cameo is made of lava, it is almost certainly Victorian.”
  • “If the cameo is mounted as a brooch, carefully examine the pin and hook. Safety catches are a 20th century adaptation. If the cameo has one, then it is either not older than the early 1900s or a new catch has been added. If it is an addition, this can usually be ascertained by more careful examination. Look for signs of soldering. Often the new catch is attached to a small plate jointed to the back of the brooch.”
  • “Next look closely at the pin and notice what kind of hinge it has. If the sharp point of the pin extends past the body of the brooch, it is an ‘oldie.'”
carved shell cameo brooches

Left: Brooch/pendant, 14k, featuring the goddess of day and night, embellished with black enamel and accented with a band of seed pearls around the cameo, 2-3/4″ x 2-1/4″, $1,600. Photo: Red Robin (D). Right: Shell cameo brooch of Minerva with Medusa helmet, 9k, 2-1/4″ x 2″, $2,000. Photo: Red Robin Antiques (D).

How Does A Cameo’s Mounting Help Determine Its Age?

“Gold, silver, pinchbeck, gold filled, cut-steel, and jet were some of the materials used for mounting cameos,” Jeanenne writes. Pinchbeck is an alloy of copper and zinc used to create brass that resembles gold. “The type of metal used can often give an indication of when it was made. If the mounting is pinchbeck, it was probably made between the early 1700s and the mid-1800s. Gold electroplating was patented in 1840 so, if the piece was plated, it was made after that date. Nine-karat gold was legalized in 1854, and a piece in 9k would have to be made after that date. A popular metal used for mountings in the 1880s was silver, but this does not mean that all cameos mounted in silver were made at that time,” she warns. “All the clues have to be examined before a judgment on age can be made.”

carved shell cameos

Left: Brooch, 18k shell cameo depicting “Night,” $938. Photo: Doyle (A). Right: Edwardian 10k yellow gold hand-carved shell cameo brooch, with tiny seed pearls strung on gold wire and green gold foliate seed pearl accent, folding pendant bale, circa 1910, $650. Photo: Sunday & Sunday (D)

Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry is the most extensive book (and eBook) I’ve seen on antique and vintage jewelry. It’s broken down into time periods, and within each period are sections on popular styles, stones, materials, jewelry types, and pricing are covered. This expansive reference book also includes an extensive jewelry glossary, gallery of maker’s marks and hallmarks from around the world, and helpful articles on identification, such as “Is it Real?”, “What is This Metal?”, “How Was it Made?”, “Who Made It?”, clues for dating old jewelry, and much more.

If you’re a jewelry dealer or reseller, a junk shopper, a jewelry maker or designer, an antiques dealer, or someone who adores jewelry–you will savor this book! It would make a beautiful, unique gift as well, so grab two for the price of one while it’s half off in our Black Friday Sale!

P.S. Want to see something completely different in the world of cameos? I have to share this fun, modern shrink-plastic faux cameo tutorial I found!

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.