The History of Cameo Jewelry

There are few pieces as synonymous with antique jewelry as cameos.  There’s something about those ghostly white figures, carved as if by magic, that seems so classic and so enchanting.  Come with us on a journey into the history and beauty of this iconic piece.

What is a Cameo?

The term “cameo” usually refers to any raised carved relief of stone or shell, although molded glass versions have long been classified as cameos, as well, dating all the way back to Ancient Rome.  Although shell cameos are more prevalent, stones and gems preceded shells as the preferred carving medium.  Hardstone (a broad term referring to many different kinds of semi-precious stones) was favored for its durability, however, it was considerably more difficult to carve.  Stones such as agate and sardonyx provided the natural color variations that helped form the classic look of cameos – a white portrait over a darker background.


Onyx cameo depicting Queen Victoria



Shell, being a softer medium, provided a much more conducive carving material for cameo artists.  Shell cameos became popular through Empress Josephine and Queen Victoria, who wore them as casual, everyday pieces.  It was also during this era that archaeologists discovered lava, a soft material, perfect for carving.  Lava cameos are much more fragile than shell cameos, however the depth of relief is extraordinary, and surviving lava cameos from the 1800’s can be quite valuable.  Gutta-percha was also used for cameos, most prevalently in Victorian mourning jewelry.  The tone on tone deep brownish hue gave the cameo a subdued look, making it an appropriate choice for mourning pieces.


Victorian Era lava cameo with exquisite high relief.


The post-war era made way for plastic, and allowed the cameo to be purchased by people of any means.  Although some consider these pieces to be inauthentic to the true cameo, there is no doubt that they helped the cameo persist through the generations and cemented its iconic status.


Common Motifs Found in Cameos

The most common depiction in cameos is of the “anonymous woman.”  Shown in profile, her hair and bone structure have evolved over time, but generally she looks the same.  The cameo habillé depicts the traditional portrait with the addition of gemstones, often a miniature diamond necklace around her neck.  This style of cameo began in the late nineteenth century.

Another common motif is the biblical “Rebecca at the Well” scene.  This depiction of a lady, a well, and a house was popular in the Victorian Era.  Greek and Roman figures were also popular during this time.  Some of the mythological figures depicted in cameos include Diana (depicted with a crescent moon in her hair), Psyche (shown with a butterfly wing), Demeter (depicted with a stalk of wheat), Dionysus or his Bacchante maiden (accompanied with grapes and leaves), and the Three Muses.


Art Deco era cameo habillé depicting a Bacchante maiden.


Determining the Age of Your Cameo

When it comes to dating cameos, there are a few general things to keep in mind.  Although the easiest method is to look at the jewelry the cameo is set into, it is not foolproof.  Stones can be removed and set into older pieces from a different era.  However, there are a few ways to date a cameo by looking at the carving itself.  One method of dating portrait cameos is to look at the shape of the nose.  In general, the straight, Roman nose is indicative of pieces from the earlier half of the 19th Century.  The Victorians preferred a slightly upturned nose, and as we move into the 1920’s and beyond, the nose becomes even more sloped and curved.  Hairstyles can also provide a clue to the date the piece was carved.  Fashions and trends were ever changing, and cameo portraiture tended to mimic what was popular at the time.

Antique cameo depicting Aphrodite with the classic Roman style nose.

Starting Your Cameo Collection

When it comes to collecting, rather than focusing on the age of the cameo, it is better to look at the quality of the carving and the rarity of the piece.  Although shell cameos are prevalent, there is a wide degree of artistry that sets certain pieces apart from the rest.  As with all antique jewelry, it is always best to look for pieces that speak to you personally.  Look closely at the carving.  Is it detailed?  Has the artist communicated some kind of emotion in the subject?  Is there a play of transparency and a good use of the medium?  All of these factors determine a good cameo.  Click on the photos to learn more about the pieces you see here, and view the full Market Square Jewelers cameo collection by clicking here.


Cameo depicting Athena, goddess of wisdom.



Mother and child onyx cameo pendant.



Art Deco cameo habillé.



Victorian Era tiger’s eye cameo ring.


Mid-Century cameo brooch.



Victorian Era sardonyx cameo ring.



Art Deco era cameo habillé ring.


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