Human’s fondness for cameos has been around since antiquity. Cameos have been used to represent a variety of symbols such as amulets, talismans, storyboards, religious icons, and loyalty tokens. The word cameo first appeared in the 13th century AD and was used to distinguish a relief carved gemstone, raised above the stone background, compared to an intaglio carved gemstone, incised or engraved into the stone.
The Golden Age of the Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BC, brought cameo carving to its peak. Carvers began to sign their cameo works and color and translucency became the 2 critical factors for carving materials. This made semi-translucent chalcedony, colorful jaspers, reddish-brown carnelians and clear to purple quartz desirable gemstones. The 4th century BC also enjoyed the peaceful and prosperous reign of Alexander the Great; a time when the average Alexandrian citizen could afford luxuries. Young maidens no longer only relied on perfumes and prayers to attract would-be lovers. Cameo jewelry became a fashionable lure.
Even after the Fall of Greece to Rome, 2nd century BC, cameo carving continued to flourish. Romans not only used cameos for rings, necklaces, and pins but also included them on helmets, breastplates, sword handles, crowns, cups, and vases. Both the rich and noble took great pleasure in hoarding large collections of cameos.
During the 16th century AD, desirable carving materials were scarce bringing shell carved cameos into popularity. Shell was abundant and easy to carve. Carvers were able to move quickly with their hand tools on the new material allowing for mass-produced shell cameos. Also, during this time period, Queen Elizabeth I started the practice of giving cameo brooches and pendants as gifts.
Shell cameos have three layers; outside, middle and ground. The outside layer which is sometimes warty in appearance is usually cleared away leaving the middle and ground layers. The middle layer is the design layer and typically white in color. The ground layer provides the contrast color for the middle layer design.
Cameo production increased again during the 18th century AD. Many carving schools were established in Rome and Florence and aspiring artists flocked to them. Wealth was on the rise and every sophisticated man desired for a cameo crest of his own as a mark of prestige. Tourism was also on the rise and every fashionable woman enjoyed wearing souvenir cameos as it “signified a traveled person of cultivated taste”.
Napoleon Bonaparte was captivated with cameos and stored a large collection. He founded a carving school in Paris and fanned the French desire for cameos. Queen Victoria’s fondness for shell cameos made them fashionable in England. In fact, carvers starting carving female portrait heads wearing necklaces and earrings during the mid-Victorian era.
In the first half of the 19th Century cameo collecting started to wane due to over production and WWII brought more decline. Cameos have had a long and noble place in human history. Our natural attraction to rediscovery and finding unique art forms will keep cameo collecting interesting and enjoyable for many years.
Article Written By: Lea, Owner of LeasAtticSpace.etsy.com
Reference: Cameos Old & New, 3rd Edition, Miller, A.M., 2005