Cameos were first carved from hard stones such as chalcedony,onyx,lava stone,amethyst,lapis and others. Carving was done in "intaglio"(carved into the stone),or"glyptic"(background carved away)styles. Egypt is honored as the actual birthplace of the cameo, thanks to Alexander the Great, in the 4th Century,B.C. Cameos were the jewelry of choice by MEN ONLY, being carved for rings as seals and to adorn helmets, breastplates,sword handles,etc. as good luck charms in battle. Common Grecian themes covered mythological gods and goddesses, military victories, military hereos and emperors(predominantly MALE themes).
By the time of Christianity (4th Century A.C.)cameos had grown in popularity, as the Christians translated Greek mythological figures (which they deemed pagan) to Christian themes such as Christ, St.John and the Madonna.
In the 13th Century, the French passed a law forbidding common folk from wearing ANY jewelry, so cameos went into decline. (This was the "Middle" or "Dark Ages" where creativity was suppressed). During the Renaissance that followed (15th-17th Centuries),personages made their cities centers of art once more. Lorenzo the Great of Florence, Italy was one of these, creating an open climate for artisans to design jewelry for all, then viewed as an art form.
A scarcity of acceptable carving material in Naples during this time caused artisans to cut India beads in half to carve on the cuved side, or to re-carve older cameos. Then a fisherman arrived in Italy, having whittled an African conch shell to while away his idle time. The artisans found shells plentiful, inexpensive and relatively easy to carve. They have since "carved a Niche" for themselves in the jewelry art world with their shell designs, shells being obtained from East Africa and large King Conch shells from Florida.
Meanwhile, large agate deposits were discovered near Idar-Oberstein in germany, causing two-tone agate cameo carvings to gain popularity.
The 19th to the beginning of the 20th century ("Victorian" age of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901) saw a decline of CARVED cameos, as American women preferred less expensive reproduction cameos molded from glass hematite, celluloid, bakelite and in the mid 20th Century, plastic. The feminine portraits of ladies with upturned noses, curly hair styles and flower and bird themes were most sought after during and since this time, dictaating the majority of popular styles you see even today.
The last 50 years has marked another return of appreciation for hand-carved hard stone (German), shell (Italian) as well as Japanese-produced abalone, mother-of-pearl, and ultrasonically caved agate cameos.
German cameos of today feature ancient themes to fantasy contemporary portraits with operatic themes, even personalized cameos of women today as keepsakes;
Italian shell cameos sell well with feminine portraits of women; synthetic molded cameos with excellent detail are worn even with denim.
The History of the Cameo
ameos—emperors have commissioned them, kings have acquired them, and at least since the fourth century B.C. collectors have cherished them.
Cameos are works of miniature sculptured art. Their original purpose is lost in history, with the original intent of individual pieces known only to the craftsmen who carved them. What is known is that of the countless ancient examples of the sculptor's and carver's craft, none offers such a unique window through which to view the cultural past. Cameos reveal the manners, customs, philosophies, historic events, and social occasions that have marked our past. The ancient cameos, like fine art and sculpture, were intended as statements. Only in the last few hundred years has the significance eroded as cameos began to depict endless profiles—of vapid females.
Today most cameo connoisseurs believe that cameos originated without any practical purpose other than ornamentation, but a dutch scholar, Zadoks-Josehus Jitta, seeing their deeper meaning has characterized them as "messages in agate." In ancient times the cameo also served as an amulet, a talisman, a storyboard depicting ethics and morals, a tangible affirmation of one's faith, and in some cases a reflection of one's destiny. At one point the wearing of a cameo portrait of the ruling monarch not only showed one's loyalty to the court but also facilitated a quick audience with the ruler; such a cameo could quite conceivably guarantee safety and favor. Given all this, it seems inappropriate to consign the carving of cameos only to the category of personal adornments and amusements plastered on cups, vessels, crowns and relics, used to fill treasuries of royalty and the church. *
Cameos are still popular today. While carved stone cameos can still be found, shell cameos are admired for their own merits and can be found carved with a wide range of artistic details.
Excerpt from Cameos Old & New 3rd Edition © 2002 Anna M. Miller (Woodstock, VT: GemStone Press). Permission granted by GemStone Press, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091