Cameos: Timeless, Miniature Carvings for Jewellery Lovers

Three smaller cameos show the progression of craving a cameo from rough shell. They sit in sand alongside a shell with a fully carved cameo on it.
A group of cameos shows the progression from rough shell to the final carved cameo. Gift of Kessler Mfg & Imports Inc. Photo by Kevin Schumacher/GIA

Alexander the Great commissioned his portrait – in the likeness of a god – to be engraved in stone in the third century BCE, according to jewellery expert Anna M. Miller, author of “Cameos Old and New”. This was the first time a cameo – a three-dimensional figure carved out of stone – had been seen in Egypt. It is perhaps the first known selfie!

Cameo portraits of rulers and nobility or scenes of historical events have been highly valued ever since. Prior to Alexander, carvings were cut below the surface – intaglio – and used as seals of identification. The seals usually depicted animals of strength, such as lions or bears, and figures from Greek or Roman mythology.

A couple sits on rocks in a garden setting. Several trees fill in the background. The shell's colour is ivory with shades of orange.
A courtship cameo shell brooch from the Georgian era that shows depth of colour and detail in a landscape scene. Courtesy of MMH Collection. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA

Cameos can be carved in low relief (barely standing out from the background) or in high relief (projecting prominently above the background). Quality factors in evaluating cameos include the type of medium used, as well as the setting, condition, detail of the carving, subject matter and signature of the artist.

Shell became a popular medium in French and Italian cameos during the Renaissance. Cassis rufa, known as cornelian, is a common type of shell used for cameos and varies in colour from very light to deep brown orange. Cassis madagascariensis, commonly known as emperor helmet shell or sardonyx shell, is a thick, dark brown shell. It is the largest mollusc shell and resembles banded agate when carved.

The discovery of large deposits of carnelian (an inorganic rock that is different from the shell cornelian, which is organic) and agate in the Idar-Oberstein region of Germany in the 16th and 17th century spurred a renewed interest in cameos. Onyx, sardonyx, carnelian, jasper and quartz were widely used materials during this period and are ideal for carving because of their relative hardness and colour zoning.

Cameos were popular in the Victorian era in England and Europe because Queen Victoria was fond of jewellery and favoured them. Portraits of royalty and statesmen continued to be popular subjects, along with profiles of women dressed in finery, youthful maidens, religious icons, and mythological gods and goddesses. Gem materials such as sapphiregarnetjadeopal, coral and quartz gained favour for cameo carving in the Victorian era.

Queen Victoria went into mourning after Prince Albert died in 1861, but did not give up her penchant for wearing jewellery. She often chose jewellery made of jet, a fossilised form of coal. Lava cameos also grew in popularity as mourning jewellery during the Victorian era. Enterprising artisans realised that lava from the remains of Pompeii was a suitable material for carving cameos. These were sought after as a souvenir by status-conscious Victorians to show that they had taken a European tour. Jet and lava are suitable for high relief carving – a quality factor in evaluating cameos – and are collectible.

The goddess Bacchante is carved in high relief in black lava and shows fine detail of leaves and clusters of grapes in her hair.
The goddess Bacchante is carved in high relief from black lava and shows fine detail of leaves and clusters of grapes in her hair. Cameos dating to BCE 79 were discovered in 1748 in the ruins of ancient Pompeii. Lava cameos were popular in Victorian England as souvenirs of a European tour. Courtesy of MMH Collection. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA

Cameos continued to be popular after Queen Victoria’s death and artisans expanded their carving materials to include turquoiserubylapis lazuliaquamarineperidot and topaz.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian carvers Tommaso Saulini, his son Luigi Saulini, and Giovanni Noto, were known to sign their work. The British royal family commissioned Tomasso Saulini to carve portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and his work is housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Italian Republic commissioned Noto to create official gifts, including a work for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in Britain. Most works by these masters of cameo carving reside in museums and private collections.

The rich history and lore of cameos make them a fascinating avenue into the world of collecting for history, mythology and jewellery buffs.

Sharon Bohannon, a media editor who researches, catalogues and documents photos, is a GIA GG and GIA AJP. She works in the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center.