The Story of the Cameo

While some specimens date back to the first century, the Cameo has had it’s greatest popularity during the Roman era, the Renaissance and the 19th century.

Necklace and set of five brooches – part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Made of shell and gold, they date back to about 1840 and were a gift of the Misses Cornelia and Susan Dehon in memory of Mrs. Sidney Brooks.

What exactly is a Cameo? Cameos are relief carvings, generally made from agate or various types of shells. Gem engravers carved each stone or shell by hand to create figures or scenes, which were raised up from their background.

Necklace with a cameo of Elizabeth I made of gold, silver, diamond, emerald, pearl and agate and dating to about 1890, England

Originally commissioned and owned by the wealthy elite, during the 19th century the cameo moved from the realm of the wealthy cabinet collector to a wider audience. Increased wealth among the European middle class and increased travel meant a demand for souvenirs, especially from trips to Italy. The shell cameo industry in Italy thus increased in size to meet demand.

Cameo with the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche or an initiation rite made of layered onyx and dated to mid to late first century BCE, Greece

Cameo Bracelet depicting the Hunt brothers, by William Morris Hunt, made of gold and shell around 1840, America

In the earliest part of the 20th century, the cameo peaked.
At the time, the image of a woman wearing a choker was an extremely popular figure portrayed in cameos, so popular that it saturated the market and fell out of favor.

As chokers became mass-produced, and with the advent of the machine-carved cameo, the quality also suffered.

Lately, cameo’s have made something of a comeback, with modern jewelry designers expanding on the imagery and themes of classic cameos to create stunning new pieces:

Amedeo’s “Gioia” double finger ring with hand-carved cornelian cameos set in rose rhodium-plated sterling silver and featuring tsavorite and blue and rose sapphires

(Info via National Jeweler)

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