A cameo is a piece of jewellery featuring a gemstone or seashell with an image carved into it. Valued for their exquisite details and high-level workmanship, cameos have been popular for hundreds of years. The height of cameo popularity occurred during the Victorian Era, which lasted from 1837 until 1901. This is why you are most likely to see cameos in movies or television shows set in this period and amongst estate jewellery collections.
Where Did Cameos Originate?
Prehistoric people carved images into rocks called petroglyphs. These images feature iconography with symbolic and religious significance. Cameo jewellery originated in ancient Egypt and took inspiration from prehistoric petroglyphs.
A cameo is a type of bas-relief carving, meaning that portions of the top layer are removed to form an image that extends outward from the bottom layer into multidimensional space.
In ancient times, trade routes connected Egypt with Greece and Rome. Greek and Roman traders would obtain cameo jewellery in Egypt, and eventually, craftsmen in these areas would start making their own cameos.
What Do Cameos Look Like?
In the 19th century, the most sought-after cameos depicted portraits of people in profile, mostly women. Sometimes these were famous people, but other times they were anonymous women with attractive features. However, cameos can also feature landscapes and other subject matter as well. In ancient times, people carved cameos of their gods and goddesses as a way of paying tribute.
Collecting cameos was initially a mark of cultural status. Queen Victoria herself was a collector, and her enthusiasm may have inspired the trend. Today, cameos are worn primarily by women, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, men frequently bought and wore cameos as well. Historical male cameo enthusiasts include Pope Paul II and French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
What Are Cameos Made of?
Cameos are usually carved from gemstones, such as agate, or seashells, such as the sardonyx or carnelian. Sometimes mother-of-pearl is used to carve cameos, which gives them a shimmering, opalescent effect. The colour of the cameo depends partly on the material it was made from.
In ancient times, cameos were carved from glass. Because these cameos were less expensive, they were marketed and sold to the lower classes. In the 18th century, the ruins of the ancient city Pompeii began to be excavated. Pompeii was a city in southwestern Italy destroyed by a volcanic eruption. It became a popular tourist attraction, and local carvers began making and selling cameos made of petrified lava for souvenirs.
How Are Cameos Made?
Carved cameos are still made and sold today. In many cases, the artist uses the same types of hand tools and techniques passed down for hundreds of years. Depending on the size and complexity of the image, carving a cameo can take a few hours to a few days. To take advantage of the natural light, most carvers sit near a window.
However, some cameo makers use modern-day technology, such as ultrasonic carving, to produce them. This is good for people who like cameos but prefer a more modern appearance.
Glass cameos are made by first carving an image into an intaglio mould. The cameo is made by pouring molten glass into the intaglio and squeezing it into the mould so that the glass takes on its shape when it cools. By pressing another piece of glass with a different colour onto the back, glass cameos mimic the appearance of those carved from shells or gemstones, especially to the untrained eye.
Why Do Cameos Remain Popular?
Each carved cameo is an individual art piece that shows exquisite beauty and painstaking craftsmanship. A cameo is a link to history and a reminder of bygone eras. They make thoughtful gifts or remarkable pieces for your own collection. Colonial carries an extensive collection of silver and gold estate jewellery and other vintage pieces. Check out some of the items available to purchase here.