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.
The oldest pieces of this kind of jewelry date back 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.
In this blog post, I explain what a cameo is, where it is made from, and how you can see when your visit to an expert is worthwhile.
What is a cameo?
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.
It is made from gemstone (agate, onyx), shell, coral, or lava stone. And the result is a portrait or a scene on one color and the base in another color, set in a golden or silver frame. The color difference is possible when the base has layers of different colors. You can call the real one a piece of very exclusive handmade jewelry.
The most famous one is the ‘Grand Camée de France’ and another beautiful example is the ‘Gemma Augustea’. These cameos are truly exclusive handmade pieces of jewelry.
Cheaper variations are made of glass, plastic, or resin and they are not hand-carved.
The material cameos are made of
The authentic old cameos are made of gemstones, shells, coral, or lava stone. And that has not changed over the centuries. Only now the cameos 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).
Cameo of gemstone
The most popular gemstone to make cameo’s 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.
Cameo of shells
In the Renaissance (1300-1600) and around 1800 the shell cameo’s 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.
Cameo of coral
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.
Cameo of lava stone
Actually, the cameo of ‘lava stone’ is not made of lava stone but of calcite found near the Vulcan Vesuvius in Italy.
Golden bracelet with a cameo from the Russian Tsar Heritage
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 cameo can be valuable. When some of the hints are positive for your cameo 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 cameo. 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 your shell cameo 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.
Cracks or crazing
Have a better look at your shell cameo with a flashlight. When you see cracks or crazing you have found another positive Genuity point for your cameo.
Start looking at your shell cameo 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 cameo’s made in the 1940s. And look at the faces or facial profiles of the images used in those days. If your shell cameo 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 as 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 in 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 cameo 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 to go to an expert and check the Genuity and the value of your cameo.
At the beginning of the 20th century the popularity of the cameo is rising again
A little history.
As we know cameos exist since the 3rd century BC. Especially in Greece, there are artists with extraordinary skill 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 a cameo 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!
Tobacco box with a secret locket and a cameo from the Russian Tsar
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