What Are Cameos & How Are They Made?

Posted on June 25, 2015 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments

Cameos make beautiful fashion statements and family heirlooms. | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Jewelry

Cameos are created using an ancient method of carving a three-dimensional relief from a multi-colored conch shell or piece of banded agate (a semi-precious stone). Typically, the darker color will be in the background while the image in relief (usually a portrait or a scene) will be a lighter color.

A Brief History of Cameos

Although most modern cameos are carved with an ultrasonic mill, cameos come from a tradition of careful hand-carving. During the first and second centuries (BCE), the Greek and Roman empires created cameos featuring mythological scenes and important family members. Cameos served as status symbols as well as declarations of love.

Fifth-century Europe witnessed a decline in the creation of cameos when budding religions prohibited forms of idolatry. The tradition was revived during the European Renaissance, a period that glorified classic art. The Medici family of Florence Italy helped popularize cameos as jewelry pieces. Around the same time, a rich agate mine was discovered in Germany. By the 19th century, advances in cameo-carving technology allowed the pieces to be mass produced. Queen Victoria wore cameos often, further popularizing them.

When the agate mine in Germany was eventually exhausted, cameo makers turned to South Africa for  agate stones. Meanwhile, the conch shells used for cameos typically originate in the Bahamas, West Indies, or Madagascar.

 Shell Cameo, Birmingham Museum, 1840 | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Blog

Shell Cameo, Birmingham Museum, 1840

Carving a Cameo by Hand

Hand-carved cameos are guaranteed to be unique since no shell or piece of agate is alike. The artist determines the best place to feature the carving by studying the layers and threads of color in the raw material. The design is outlined in pencil, carefully carved, and then polished. Since the process requires immense control and skill, cameos artists who follow traditional techniques are few and far between.

Onyx cameo in gold bezel setting with emeralds and amethysts, British Museum, 1860-70 | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Jewelry

Onyx cameo in gold bezel setting with emeralds and amethysts, British Museum, 1860-70

Caring for Your Cameo

Because authentic cameos are fragile, they must be given special care. The agate or shell may dry out if not moisturized with a little mineral oil every few years. If a cameo becomes too dry, it can crack, and pieces may break off. If you must clean your cameo, stick to jewelry cleaners marked safe for pearls. Do not leave the cleanser on for more than 30 seconds. Clean the cameo with a soft cloth (not paper towels).

Due to their fragility, cameos are typically set in a bezel setting. Store your cameo in a separate box, away from other jewelry that may scratch it. 

Photos: King of Jewelry, Kotomi Creations via Flickr

Posted in Ancient jewelry, cameos, informative, jewelry, jewelry history



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