Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Hand-Carved Cameos from Italy

Shells from the Caribbean have a darker background than those from Madagascsar.
Figure 1. Shells harvested from the Caribbean have a dark brownish background color (left), while shells from Africa—especially Madagascar—show a much lighter background color (right). Photos by Vincenzo Imposimato.

Vincenzo Imposimato (Naples) brought his hand-carved shell cameos and his carving tools to the GJX show to demonstrate the making of these exquisite pieces.

This was Imposimato’s sixth visit to Tucson. As a child, he was fascinated by the shell carvings he watched his grandfather make at home. He has also been passionate about drawing since his early childhood, so a career in cameo carving was a natural choice.

Imposimato mainly uses two types of helmet shell. One has a dark brownish background color and originates from the Caribbean Sea; the other, with lighter orangy or reddish background, is from the coast of Madagascar. Consumers prefer the darker background because it displays the carved image in greater contrast (figure 1). The Caribbean shell also has a more curved shape, allowing greater complexity in its carving, while the African shell tends to be flat. The Caribbean shell is more expensive, so consumers pay more for these finished cameos.

A carver holds the stick attached to a small cameo.
Figure 2. A carver holds the stick attached to the small cameo piece next to a hard surface, which provides support. Photo by Kevin Schumacher.

With a shell in hand, carvers have two possible plans: They can either make a whole-shell cameo or a small piece with different shapes. The general process for both types includes a rough shaping by machine and then detailed carving by hand. For whole-shell cameos, carvers need to hold the shell very gently. Since the shell is empty, carvers must pay extra attention when applying force to avoid damage. As for small cameos, the shell needs to be sliced into small pieces and then shaped by machine. Carvers then attach the small piece to one end of a wood stick with fish glue. Fine hand carving is done by holding the stick next to a hard surface (figure 2).

Detailed carving by hand is done with the bulino, a traditional tool for carving and engraving. There are bulinos of different sizes and shapes for different carving purposes. For shell cameos, carvers remove the top whitish layer to form a carving against the contrasting background color. The character or theme depicted depends on the shell’s natural condition. Factors such as the curvature of the piece, the thickness of the white surface layer, and the color contrast will determine what can be carved. A whole-shell cameo typically takes about two months to finish, while a small piece takes a few days.

Hand-carved cameos from Italy

Japan was once the biggest market for these handcrafted shell cameos. Imposimato first visited Japan in 1993 to show local consumers how to make cameos. After that, he was invited back more than 20 times. However, the market has slowed down over the past five years, perhaps due to changing styles. Women used to wear woolen coats that were perfectly paired with cameos. Now that they have more fashion options, many choose other accessories. Even at their height of popularity, cameos were typically purchased by women over the age of 30. Imposimato feels that the themes carved onto cameos need to be updated to appeal to young consumers and expand the market share.

Whereas cameos carved by machines tend to be flat, handmade versions tend to keep the natural curvature of the materials used. While manufactured cameos of all different types of materials are readily available these days, handcrafted shell cameos still hold a unique position in the fine jewelry world.

Tao Hsu is the technical editor of Gems & Gemology.