You are invited to the

Fall 2024 Gemstone Roundtable

You are invited to the

Fall 2024 Gemstone Roundtable

Cameos: Now Making a Cameo Appearance!

Portrait of Queen Victoria in watercolor.
Figure 1. Queen Victoria, by Lady Julia Abercromby, watercolor, 1883. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, NPG 708

You’ve likely seen these delicate hardstone or shell carvings of figures in relief at antique shops and shows as well as from sellers of fine jewelry. Although the practice of carving cameos dates back more than two millennia in Greece, it was Queen Victoria (1819-1901) who made these carvings popular jewelry choices for almost every economic class in Europe and America (fig. 1). The portrait in figure 1, created when the monarch was 64, shows Victoria wearing a delicate cameo pendant, sleeve brooch, and pearl bracelet clasp.

Examine a cameo and you’ll see a fine art sculpture in miniature. The earliest of these, created by Greek artisans, rendered images of deities or spiritual symbols. These were used frequently for signet rings and large earrings. The ancient methods of carving hardstone were based on principles still used today. The stone was worked by manipulating various drills to rub powders into the stone to create the design. This practice reached the Roman Empire where cameos of famous people, deities, and mythological beings attested to the wearers’ taste and status, and devotion to political and religious authorities (fig 2). 

The decline of the Roman Empire also saw a decline in fine cameo carving. Cameos resurfaced as an art form, especially for use in jewelry, in the 1400s, during the Renaissance (fig. 3). In Italy, the form was popularized and supported by the Medici family. In England, by the second half of the 16th century, women began to collect and wear cameos as displays of wealth and status. It was also during this time that shell—mussel or cowry—became popular as a carving material. Much of the design inspiration for these pieces followed classical subject matter and form.

Signet ring set in gold with profile of man in stone
Figure 2. Signet ring with portrait of emperor Commodus. Roman, A.D. 180-200. Niccolo agate, gold Courtesy Gallo-Roman Museum, Tongeren, Belgium
Onyx and gold cameo with mans profile
Figure 3. Pendant with the profile of a woman, probably Italian, ca. 1560. Mount late 18th century Onyx, gold Courtesy Royal Collection Trust

Over the last three centuries, the popularity of cameos has ebbed and flowed with the dictates of fashion and status. Today, cameos are gaining in popularity. Master carvers of shell cameos are found in specific regions of Germany and Italy, where traditional techniques are coupled with classical and modern designs to create heirlooms for the future. It is from these areas that llyn strong sources her collection of modern, fine art cameo sculptures.

Speaking of heirlooms, do you have a vintage or antique cameo whose setting is dated or damaged? Consider having it re-imagined in a new setting and perhaps enhanced with fine quality gemstones. Depending on the size of your cameo, llyn and her team can create a one-of-a-kind setting for a ring, brooch, pendant, or objet d’art.

Custom 18k Yellow Gold Clasp with Customer's Vintage Cameo with garden scene
Custom 18k Yellow Gold Clasp with Customer’s Vintage Cameo

Call for an appointment to discuss designing a piece that will make a new cameo appearance in your jewelry collection!

For further reading see, Draper, James David. “Cameo Appearances.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

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