Many women have a cameo brooch or pendant or ring. Most of the time it is a part of an inheritance and a lot of times that precious piece of jewelry stays in a jewelry box. Such a pity. Since that cameo of your grandmother is popular… again.
A cameo is a piece of jewelry made using a certain method of carving to get a profile of a face or a mythical scene on top of a gemstone. The artist carves away all the material except the design itself. And that image lays on top of the base material when the artist is finished.
The cameo is one way of carving gemstones, but you see also carved beads and pieces of gemstone carved with geometrical images, that are well worth using in jewelry.
In this blog, I will show you the reason why carved jewelry and of course also the very popular cameo never loses its value, nor the interest of so many people.
The process of carved gemstone jewelry
Unique carved gemstone jewelry (and the cameo) is popular for ages and on everyone’s wishing list. And it is not only the carved gemstone jewelry that is wanted by a lot of people. You can use all kinds of (softer) gemstones to make that great carved gemstone jewelry, but you can also use, shells, bones, ivory, bamboo, and even paper. In this blog post, I want to show you the possibilities of this unique carved gemstone jewelry
In ancient times when people found a beautiful stone, gemstone, or just an ordinary stone, they polished it, drilled a hole in it, and used it as a necklace. They polished the stone with sand to make it soft and shining.
We make a big step through history and arrive in a society where there is enough food for everyone and where it is possible for very talented people not to work in the fields, but to become an artist. The artists made pottery, or wooden artifacts, and jewelry, carved gemstone jewelry.
Chinese masters make carved gemstone jewelry
The jewelry designers used the somewhat softer (gem)stones to make beautiful necklaces (in the first place) and fibula (a kind of two-part brooches to keep a shawl together during the cold). They invented tools to decorate these stones with animal or geometrical figures and lines. The Chinese artists were masters in carved gemstone jewelry, and they use jadeite or nephrite to make that carved gemstone jewelry. Their skills became better and more excellent. Those jewelry makers did not only design carved gemstone jewelry but also carved statues up to 30 feet high.
How I got a great piece of carved gemstone jewelry!
And the Chinese are still masters in making carved jewelry. A few years back I visited China and found a great bead shop. I loved shopping there but when I wanted to pay the salesman told me he only accepted cash. Not a real problem, but from the bank, I only got large banknotes, and he had no change.
He had a solution… from under the counter came a hidden box with some carved jade pendants. He told me they were from his family and rather old. I did not know whether that was really true, but I accepted 2 of the pendants as change. They were really beautiful and one of them is used in a necklace from my collection.
yellow jade vermeil necklace (1 available)Product on sale
Techniques to make carved gemstone jewelry
When people found gemstones in the rivers or mined them from volcanic rocks, they noticed that the so-called precious stones (diamond, ruby, emerald, and sapphire) were too hard to carve. They could only polish them or make facets to let them shine more beautifully. Or they made a variation like a cabochon. The cabochons were cut into round or half-round (domed) geometrical patterns.
The techniques and the skills developed and the jewelry makers start mixing the technique of cutting and polishing harder gemstones adding facets. And the technique of making cabochons, using the polishing skills to make certain patterns in the gemstones.
They started adding kinds of channels, plateaus, tunnels, step conceits, round shapes, etc. A huge innovation and step forwards in the gem cutting world. This ‘fantasy cutting’ as it was called made an endless variety of making carved gemstone jewelry possible.
Mr. Bernd Munsteiner, a German gem cutter, was a master in making fantasy cut statues and sculptures.
Used material making carved gemstone jewelry
I already mentioned that softer gemstones are excellent to make carved gemstone jewelry. Sometimes the carvers used diamond cutting and polishing wheels to form the bigger picture of their carving. But after that, they had to use smaller wheels, special tools to make the most exquisite carved gemstone jewelry. And after every stage, they had to polish the stone. Otherwise, they could not reach every spot to make it smooth and shiny.
Shell, Ivory or coral used to make carved jewelry
And before they start the carving work they had to choose the right (gem)stone for their design. For instance, agate has beautiful bands and you should have the capability to see how those bands added beauty to the design and how they can become an integral part of that design. Difficult work and you need a lot of experience and skills to make unique carved gemstone jewelry.
In this stage, cameos were ‘invented’. Actually, cameos are carved images, made of shell or ivory, glued on a gemstone to make a fabulous piece of carved gemstone jewelry. This type of carving and making carved gemstone jewelry is getting popular again.
The oldest cameo dates to the 3rd century BC and its popularity goes up and down in times. It can be a very valuable jewel, besides the emotional value, it can have a financial value. But it is difficult to see that, except when you are a professional.
It is made from gemstone (agate, onyx, etc.), shell, coral, or lava stone. And the result is a portrait or a scene in one color and the base in another color, set in a golden or silver frame. The color difference is made when the base has layers or different colors. You can call a real cameo one piece of very exclusive handmade jewelry.
The most famous one is the ‘Grand Camée de France’ and another beautiful example is the ‘Gemma Augustea’.
Cheaper variations of the cameo can be made of glass, plastic, or resin and are certainly not hand-carved.
… is made of …
The authentic old cameos are made of gemstones, shells, coral, or lava stones. And that has not changed over the centuries. Only now they get more and more expensive people to make them of cheaper material, like glass, plastic or resin, without the frame of precious metals and machine-made (laser).
The most popular gemstone to make cameos off is the agate. To get the two colors (one for the image and one for the base) you need gems built up in layers. And the layers should have different colors in the
same stone. Agate is ideal for this purpose, but onyx and carnelian are great seconds.
Since gemstones are harder than shells or coral, making a cameo out of this material is more difficult. The advantage is that the images, like the profile of a person or a mythical scene, are more detailed
and therefore more beautiful.
… or shells …
In the Renaissance (1300-1600) and around 1800 the shell cameos are popular. Shell is easier to work with, but breaks easier. And shells have sometimes 3 layers in different colors. So the artists can imitate a 3D image using shells with 3 layers.
The advantage of using shells is that the color range of shells is larger than the gemstones that can be used for carving. The variety of shell cameos grows fast.
… and sometimes of coral or lavastone
A cameo made of coral, the protector against all evil, is very popular. That is the coral variety ‘corallium rubrum’ is. The coral images are very detailed.
Actually, the cameo of ‘lava stone’ is not made of lava stone but of calcite found near the Vulcan Vesuvius in Italy.
Real or fake?
It is rather difficult to tell whether a certain cameo is valuable or just an inexpensive reproduction. Therefore I give you certain hints for checking whether your copy can be valuable. When some of the hints are positive go to an expert and ask for advice.
Cameo’s made of gemstone, shell, coral, or lava stone are normally genuine and a positive point for your copy. Most of the time the shell cameo is made of a conch shell, that has an orangish to the pink background and white image. This shell is thin and somewhat transparent and easy to crack.
Watch it in bright light and when it is a real shell you can look through and see the outline of the image. If so, that is again a positive point for genuinely. Or have a better look with a flashlight. When you see cracks or crazing you have found another positive Genuity point for your cameo.
Start looking with a 10x loupe. In the front, you see fine markings from the used tools when your cameo is the real one.
Go to Google or another search engine and search for cameos made in the 1940s. And look at the faces or facial profiles of the images used in those days. If your copy has the same ‘face’ as used in the 1940s it is not a fake, because the material is a shell. These cameos are less valuable (mass production) and are considered costume jewelry.
Some cameos have the same face as used in the 1940s, but the material can be plastic or the frame is brass. All these features are negative points for your cameo.
The frame has to be made of silver or gold. And you can find out if there is a mark on the precious metal. But be a little careful with this. Marking gold and silver is common since the 19th century (in the Netherlands). When your jewel is older than the 19th century is this no proof of Genuity.
When your cameo’s scored a lot of positive points it is worth going to an expert and check the Genuity and the value of your cameo.
A little history
As we know cameos exist since the 3rd century BC. Especially in Greece, there are artists with extraordinary skills in carving gemstones. They make cameos for signet rings and large earrings. Or for a piece of art to look at, especially when it is too heavy to wear as jewelry.
Emperor Augustus in Ancient Rome and his family are real admirers of the cameo. We know the beautiful ‘Gemma Augustea’ from those days. Or the ‘Gemma Claudia’, specially made for Emperor Claudius. After 300 AD
this piece of jewelry becomes popular under the ‘higher class people’, although there is still no mass production in those days.
Between 1300 and 1600 and in the 19th century the cameo has a revival. Napoleon of France, Queen Victoria of England, and many other royals start to buy expensive and well-made jewels. On the paintings of the Russian royal family, you can see how popular this piece of jewelry is.
The ‘modern’ cameos
In the last century, cameo carving becomes popular… again. The artists usually use layered agates for the base and they dye those layers for stronger color contrast. In those days they like the color combination white on black, blue, or red-brown. The layers are translucent and you get shading effects when you move the material. If you have one like this you know that it is real, but not that old.
Hopefully, you find a beautiful and maybe valuable one in your jewelry box. And if you want to purchase one, you know where to look for it!
But besides carving gemstones and maybe making a cameo out of it, there are other materials or gems that you can carve and make excellent pieces if jewelry:
A few years back I lived a few weeks in Egypt finishing my history study. After I was finished I wanted to go to the temple of Abu Simbel. That is in the South of Egypt and this temple is saved by Unesco because it threatened to vanish underwater due to a dam.
This visit would be a kind of ‘desert’ experience during my stay there. But there was no train or public transport at that time. So we hired a 4×4 car and started driving. We had to spend the night in the desert and for safety reasons, we asked a tribe if we could put our tents in their neighborhood.
How I got these beautiful camel bone beads?
The famous Arabic hospitality helped us out. This tribe was on its way from the South to the North of Egypt with a caravan of camels. It took them 5 days to reach their destination. I got into contact with one of the ‘camel boys’ and he showed me that they use everything of the camel. Their skin to make tents, their meat, and even their bones.
In the evening near the campfire, under the stars, he made exquisite camel bone beads. With his own made tools he showed me how he carved them to perfection. At that time I was not a jewelry maker yet, but I
was born as a magpie and raised by a jewelers family. So the result was that I bought his carved bone beads, to make a beautiful necklace out of them a little while back.
Let us face it. Cameos and carved jewelry are a tremendous pieces of art. It takes a lot of craftsmanship to make a cameo or carve a gemstone. That they are popular again does not mean you need to like them or maybe you are not a type for wearing cameos or carved jewelry?
But do you know what kind of jewelry looks good on you? Do you know what jewelry accentuates your best features? What jewelry makes you look taller, or even shorter? A lot of questions, but where are the
Well, no worries. All, or nearly all the answers about what kind of jewelry accentuates your best features are in a little but practical PDF, especially made for you. It is free of charge. Just let me know
where I can send it to.
Florence from FlorenceJewelshop