Get to Know Cameos | Plus New Ways to Wear This Ancient Style

Cameo Image from the Met Museum
The Fall of Phaeton Late 19th Century Sardonyx Cameo. Photo Courtesy of MetMuseum.org.
Image of a cameo from the metmuseum.org
Early 19th Century Italian Cameo. Photo Courtesy of MetMuseum.org

 

A cameo is a relief image raised higher than its background and carved from one material. But this over-simplified definition doesn’t begin to tell the story of the ancient and beloved art form of cameo carving. Cameos have captured people’s imagination for thousands of years.

The modern Italian word “cameo” comes from the ancient Hebrew/Arabic word “kamea,” meaning “charm” or “amulet.” In addition to being miniature works of art, cameos are said to have special powers to keep their wearers in good health and good fortune.

A Brief History

Victorian Cameo Habille
Victorian Cameo Habille. Photo Courtesy of Skinner.com

A major portion of superior ancient cameo carving came from Greece and Rome, and, to the present day, Italy has remained the primary center of cameo cutting. Cameos can be made in any material; some of the most exquisite are carved in carnelian shell or the rare sardonyx shell, mother-of-pearl or agate.

Greek and Roman themes, in addition to portraits, dominate most cameo designs.

France became a renowned cameo jewelry center during the Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries) and remained the dominant style influence through the mid-1700s. England embraced the cameo during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), who was said to have been a big fan.

In the United States, from the Civil War to the World War II era, cameos featured prominently in American women’s jewelry collections. Particularly popular in the late 19th century was the “cameo habille,” a relief portrait brooch of a woman wearing a necklace or earrings decorated with diamonds.

Cameos for Today’s Woman

Antique Gold Hardstone Cameo and Seed Pearl Brooch
Antique Gold Hardstone Cameo and Seed Pearl Brooch. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany.com

While cameos fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th century, it is safe to say they have always had their loyal followers. And it seems their popularity is on the rise again among 21st century jewelry collectors.

Lisa Maushay, owner of J & H Jewelry in Bellmore (Long Island) New York, reports that cameos are big sellers. “Our most fashionable young customers are buying antique and vintage cameo brooches and wearing them on extremely long chains, almost to the waist,” she told us when we visited her store last fall.

If you’re lucky enough to have inherited a cameo from your mother or grandmother, you can also try pinning it on a velvet choker for a retro-but-on-trend look.

Or wear a cameo pinned to a headband, or scattered with other pins on a jacket lapel.

Where to Find Them

Elizabeth Gage Cameo Pearl Amethyst and Diamond Brooch, Contemporary Cameo Earrings
L – 1990s Elizabeth Gage Cameo, Pearl, Amethyst and Diamond Brooch
R – 20th Century Cameo Earrings by Wilfredo Rosado. Photos Courtesy of 1stdibs.com
Victorian Cameo Brooch
Victorian Cameo Brooch, Available for $750 at J&H Jewelry in Bellmore, New York.

In addition to independent jewelry stores like J&H, look to websites including Skinner, RubyLane and 1stdibs for vintage cameo brooches, stickpins, earrings and cufflinks. And be sure to seek out contemporary jewelry designers that specialize in modern pieces using this ancient technique.

To learn more about cameos and cameo jewelry, please click here.

“To engrave is…to decorate a surface with furrows,” Victorian critic John Ruskin stated, and “cameos…are miniature sculptures, not engravings.”

 

Source: Collectors Weekly; MetMuseum.org;

 

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