Cameo Jewelry: History, Significance and Worth | The Study

Cameo Jewelry: History, Significance and Worth

Cameos are trending among celebrities and style setters. Here's a look back and what makes these little carved jewels so endearing.
An assortment of different sized and colored cameos on glass
Various cameos on a mirrored table

Until celebrities like Rihanna and Sarah Jessica Parker started flaunting them, cameos were considered passé. They were often associated with the brooches worn by maiden aunts of yesteryear, heirlooms from mawkish Victorians who had profiles of loved ones carved into agate, coral, lava and shells.

Regardless of how a cameo jewelry resurgence came to be, their significance and fascinating, expansive history has made them a popular item amongst collectors and jewelry aficionados. This article explores cameo jewelry’s roots, how to identify authentic cameos and peeks into cameo trends that contemporary artists have used to keep their legacy afloat.

What is a Cameo?

A cameo is a gemstone carved in a raised relief that features landscapes, mythological figures, or most notably, portraits of women’s profiles. These hand-carved, detailed reliefs are typically set in gold or silver and used to adorn pieces of jewelry such as necklaces, bracelets, pendants and rings.

History of Cameo Jewelry

Cameos in onyx with a double portrait of Queen Victoria and her late husband
Upon her widowhood, Queen Victoria commissioned a series of bejeweled cameos in onyx with a double portrait of her and her late husband to give as badges to members of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert. Photo courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

Many of the earliest forms of cameo can be traced back to prehistoric petroglyphs, used to depict religious figures and mythological images onto rocks. With the rise of the Roman Empire, cameo craftsmen began to expand upon their uses and portrayed political portraits into their artwork.

From there, cameo carving greatly progressed during the Renaissance and Elizabethan periods where elite women starting donning cameos to showcase their cultural status. However, the most well-known era for the collection and distribution of cameos was inspired by royal cameo collectors Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th century.

What’s curious about the cameo’s popularity among Victorians is that the vogue was started by none other than Napoleon, who was the most detested man in England even decades after his demise. But then, as he himself observed, “fashion condemns us to many follies.”

Cameo of Napolean wearing a diamond-studded laurel crown and armor
During Napoleon’s reign, cameo portraits were often adorned with their own jewelry. Here, Napoleon himself wears a diamond-studded laurel crown and armor. Image via Sotheby’s

Napoleon, for all his conquering ways, was something of an aesthete. He greatly admired the brilliant workmanship in these miniature carvings that dated back to Greco-Roman times. A canny image-maker, Napoleon saw how they might serve as emblems of France’s new republic, linking it to Roman grandeur. He’d discovered the art form while a young general on a campaign in Italy, and when he returned a triumphant war hero to Paris, he brought a large collection with him, along with many of the most gifted cameo makers, whom he had captured when he conquered Sicily.

Napoleon had many of these carved medallions mounted as jewelry for his style-setting wife Josephine and his sisters. Eight years later, for his installment as emperor, he ordered gold crowns for himself and Josephine set with cameos and commissioned furniture embellished with them.

To support what soon became a continental craze, Napoleon established a school in Paris and staffed it with the abducted Sicilians who trained young Frenchmen in the glyptic art. For the first part of the 19th century, these artisans rivaled in output and excellence their Italian peers, producing some of the most innovative examples of the genre.

The turn towards wearable cameos only rose with the popularization of costume jewelry in the 20th century.

What is Cameo Jewelry Worth?

Cameo jewelry values vary significantly depending upon the intricacy of the carving and authenticity of the piece. High-quality, one-of-a-kind cameo can cost upwards of $10,000; however, cameo knock-offs can be quite inexpensive.

How to Authenticate Cameo Jewelry

Craftsman carving cameo jewelry
A contemporary artisan carves an polishes a cameo.

Because there are a handful of fake cameos circulating, it’s important to perform a careful assessment to better determine a cameo’s worth. 

Material

One of the quickest ways to tell if your cameo is real or fake is to examine its material. Real, authentic cameos are made from natural material and gemstones such as: onyx, sardonyx, agate, ivory, coral and lava. In contrast, fake, mass-produced cameos come in the form of plastic, resin or glass.

Transparency

Hold the cameo up to a light. If you can see through it and have a good glimpse of the outline of the design, it’s likely authentic and made from shell. Plastic versions aren’t as transparent.

Cracks and Carvings

You can tell much about the authenticity of a cameo by zooming in on the carvings. Check for things like:

  • Markings: Indentations and other markings like nicks from carving tools likely mean it’s authentic and natural materials were used.
  • Smoothness: Inauthentic cameos are very smooth and have no flaps.
  • Sound: Tap your cameo against a hard surface. If it’s hollow, this is likely a plastic fake. If it has a more solid sound, it’s likely made from natural materials.
  • Quality: In general, skilled cameo craftsmen took pride in their craft, and paid close attention to things like the texture of the hair and elements like added flowers and jewelry.

Face

You can tell much about the validity of a cameo based on the face. Many antique cameo faces look to the right. Additionally, many fake versions have the same or very similar faces. It’s helpful to do a simple Google search of “plastic cameo” to get a feel for the rotating facial styles that have been mass-produced.

As always, if you’re unsure about any of the above, it’s best to consult a reputable jewelry dealer to inspect your cameo further.

Contemporary Cameo Jewelry Trends

As with many vintage designs that surge in a more contemporary manner, cameo certainly proved to make a comeback, as established designers like Dolce & Gabbana added the timeless classic to recent collections and catalogs in the form of contemporary cameo brooches, cameo earrings, pendants, necklaces and more.

Cameo jewelry is certainly a timeless trend that can easily transcend eras, as evidenced by the many designers who continue to reinvent its place in fashion.


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