Is Cameo Jewelry About to Make A Comeback?

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, October, 2005


Scenic shell cameo depicting the "Three Graces". Courtesy: Skinner Auctions, Boston MA

There is nothing like a Museum Exhibit to spark interest in a collecting or potential fashion category. Such can be the result of the on-going exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York entitled “Cameo Appearances”. More and more often cameo jewelry is coming to auction at still reasonable prices. $150/200 for example. If they are considered miniature sculptures, it doesn’t matter if they are in fashion to be worn as jewelry. Many are mounted as a collection.

The carving of cameos began in antiquity , in the first century, in the reign of emperor Augustus. It also became popular in Greece at that time. During the Renaissance a renewed interest developed for both carving and collecting them. It was the Napoleonic campaigns that brought classicism into fashion, along with cameos and intaglios. Intaglios have carved designs hollowed out from the surface of a design. Cameos may be carved from a variety of materials, shell, etc. , through two or more layers. The design results in a raised relief.

Cameo and intaglio carving were considered an important art form and  Italian carvers were held in high esteem. The most important signed their works. However, popularity brought forgeries and the faking of signatures of renowned carvers.  Aging and discoloration was achieved with abrasive solutions. There were also  cheap imitations made. Pieces were also sold by dealers as antiquities by removing any signatures.

Cameos went briefly out of fashion from 1820 to 1840. By 1850 shell  cameos had become larger and neo-classical  subjects were replaced with women’s heads and figures, often mounted in gold. Other subjects were also portrait busts of famous people. Poets such as Dante and Petrarch were carved on lava cameos. Brooches, bracelets, earrings and necklaces used cameos from all kinds  of materials.

The shells came from Africa and the West Indies. Coral was often carved into cameos. Other materials were carnelian, Sardonyx, agate and paste... In the 1860s, as families began to travel to far away destinations, such as Italy, they discovered cameos made from the lava of Vesuvius. Scenic cameos became popular , such as the “The Three Graces.”

CLUES: By the late 19th century ingenious new ways to fake cameos were in use. Cameo-type designs were molded in glass or porcelain. Careful examination with a jeweler’s loup or magnifying glass will show no tool marks. Glass imitations cast from an original cameo will have a signature. Typical would be a raised, opaque white glass cameo cemented to a dark background, usually onyx or carnelian. To add to the confusion of dating, many antique cameos were reset from the late 18th century to the early 19th. A clue to the age can be the mounting materials. Gold, silver, gold filled, pinchbeck, jet and cut steel were some of them. Pinchbeck is a metal resembling brass, but actually an alloy of copper or zinc. It was used mostly in the 18th century.

The quality of the carving is important to value as is detailing. At auctions or antique jewelry shows don’t hesitate to ask questions of the sellers. “How do you know this for a fact ?” In the meantime do your own research with the many books about antique jewelry available. Don’t overpay unless you know what you are doing.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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