Cameos: Signature Accessories of the Past and Present

For centuries, the cameo has been a signature accessory that can elevate any ordinary outfit. With the recent revival of history-inspired jewelry, the cameo is certain to resurface as a treasured addition to any lady's jewelry chest. In fact, the origins of the cameo can be traced several centuries back. France's Louis XIV, the "Sun King," appointed several advisors to acquire entire collections of ancient cameos and engraved gems. Queen Elizabeth was known to favor cameos to complement her garments, and Catherine the Great had an impressive collection as well. During the mid-19th century, however, cameos became all the rage when Queen Victoria revived the jewelry piece.

Before the Victorian era, carved gems had been an indulgence for the rich. In the 1760s, jeweler William Tassie invented a glass paste that he used to copy casts of famous and ancient cameos and intaglios. Tassie imitated the look and texture of these pieces, and his works became known as "Tassies". His cameos depicted classical subjects as well as notable scholars or philosophers of his day. The masses began purchasing his expensive-looking yet affordable Tassies. Josiah Wedgwood, who bought molds from Tassie, later developed a method to create a cameo from "jasper ware" by firing a stoneware design onto a blue ceramic background. Wedgwood's cameos became world famous, and the signature blue background is now referred to as "Wedgwood blue."

Cameos during the Victorian era were often attached to a black velvet ribbon choker. Jewelers during the nineteenth century used gemstones, stone, shell, lava, coral and manmade materials as mediums to carve cameos. Shell had been used by Italian carvers since 1805, and by the Victorian era, was the favorite material of cameo designers. During the nineteenth century, the waters near the Italian town of Torre del Greco were discovered as housing an abundance of coral. Victorians believed in the power of coral to ward off evil, and soon began using coral for cameos. Popular subjects for cameos included depictions of deities from Greek mythology (especially the Three Graces, the daughters of Zeus), the Biblical Rebecca at the well, and the Bacchante maidens adorned with grape leaves in their hair. The Victorians' appreciation for naturalism, especially their love of gardening, was also captured in cameos featuring flowers and trees. Finally, the Victorian woman of means often commissioned a cameo in her likeness, while other artists depicted an idealized woman with an upswept hairstyle and Romanesque features.

"Lava" cameos were especially popular, coveted pieces during the Victorian era. During this period, wealthy families traveled throughout Europe on an extended vacation known as the "Grand Tour." One popular stop along the Grand Tour was the ruins of Pompeii, and wealthy travelers often purchased lava cameos as souvenirs for themselves and as gifts for loved ones back home. Mt. Vesuvius provided an abundance of lava, a soft and delicate substance, in many colors that carvers used to create intricate designs. The lava cameos often portrayed historical statesmen, philosophers and dignitaries, as well as classical scenes. Lava cameos were less expensive than their precious counterparts and appealed especially to ladies who traveled to Italy. In fact, lava cameos became a status symbol because they showed the observer that the wearer had been on the Grand Tour.

Antique and vintage cameos are highly prized and collectible works of art. When considering a purchase of an authentic cameo, the piece should be judged by the artistic composition, skill and technique of the carver. Each cameo is unique, and each design reflects the personality and life of its carver. To accurately date a cameo, one must act as a detective of sorts, performing research and study to train the eye. For a collector who is interested in history or art, the study and collection of cameos can be especially rewarding. Jewelers generally use a "loupe," a magnifying tool, to examine the quality of a carving and determine the item's material. Magnification allows the collector to discover whether the cameo was carved from one piece or assembled from different materials and glued together, and whether the cameo was actually carved or machine-made (e.g., from lasers). Through magnification, an authentic cameo should have a "snowy" appearance on its surface.

The material used often provides clues to the cameo's origin. Shell cameos were widely popular during the Victorian era, for example, and have a slight translucent quality that can be detected when held to the light. Lava was also a popular choice during the nineteenth century, and although lava was used prior to that, the vast majority of lava cameos can be dated to the Victorian era. Jet was also popular during the nineteenth century after it was discovered in Whitby, England. Later cameos from the twentieth century were commonly made from celluloid, Bakelite, glass, gutta-percha, and amber. In addition to the material used, the cameo's motif can also provide a timeframe for its history. If a shell or stone cameo contains a classical scene, it probably originated during the 18th or 19th centuries, when such subjects were popular. A depiction of an anonymous woman likely came from the Victorian Era. A long Roman nose denotes that the piece originated before 1850; if the nose is slightly upturned, it was probably created after the mid-nineteenth century. A pert nose is typical of the turn-of-the-century or later Edwardian pieces. An upswept hairstyle on a woman indicates a late Victorian cameo, while shorter curls are indicative of the early twentieth century.

A reproduction cameo makes the perfect complement to a modern wardrobe, adaptable to your casual or formal outfit, and available at a fraction of the cost of an antique. A cameo adds an instant sense of romance to any ensemble, and can be worn on a blouse, sweater or blazer. Recently, cameos have also been found on chokers, necklaces, earrings and even wristwatches! When purchasing a reproduction, consider whether the cameo is handmade or machine-produced. Mass produced items (especially plastic cameos poured from moulds) tend to look less authentic, and you are better off paying a little more for a a reproduction that looks like the real thing.

To learn more about cameos, it is important to spend time handling them and understanding the different textures of various materials. Tapping a cameo lightly against one's teeth, for example, is a common method to discern the difference between stone, shell, or other materials. Asking questions can also provide valuable knowledge for a collector. Consider visiting a museum with an exhibit devoted to the history of cameos. Finally, consult a knowledgeable appraiser or jeweler when in doubt.

Below are a few novel ways to wear cameos. Today, cameos have stepped out of the past and into the present fashion. We've noticed that recently, cameos have been sewn into blouses, dresses, purses and even shoes! Sometimes, reproduction cameos appear in the most unexpected places, and their continued popularity is a testament to their timeless appeal.

Below are a few examples of our favorite cameos. Mouseover the images to view detail and click to enlarge.

Designer Unknown

Designer Unknown

Extasia Necklace

Extasia Bracelet

Extasia Necklace

Extasia Brooch

Tarina Tarantino Belt Buckle

Avalon Cameo Watch