For thousands of years, cameos have been popular. The cameos made thousands of years ago are still available and sought after today. What are they?
What we loosely call 'cameo' consists of two techniques: the cameo and the intaglio. Both are carved by fine craftsmen, from natural materials such as stones and shells. When material is carved away to leave the figures in relief, we call this cameo. When the figure is carved down into the material, we call this intaglio. They are the reverse of each other and due to the difference in technique, their uses are often different.
Most, but not all cameos, use material that comes in layers. The upper layer is carved away to reveal both the lower layer and form a figural depiction. For example, a shell with creamy white outside/upper layer and pinky-brown underneath. An agate with a light upper layer and dark grey lower layer, used as the ground.
While a cameo is purely decorative, an intaglio may be decorative, but it is also often used as a personal stamp, called a signet and thus the name 'signet ring' or as seals. Signet rings or seals were used to signify that a document was authentic. It was the mark of power. Our ancestor Joseph wore the ring of Pharaoh - symbol of ultimate power.
Since Classical times, a wide array of subjects were depicted in cameos, whether intaglio or relief. Cameos depict people, portraits, animals, hunting, mythological, allegorical and religious themes. Some cameos, especially those carved more recently are merely decorative and often of lesser value.
Over the last 2000 years, intaglio rings with family crests, monograms or personal symbols were carved in stone. Cameos were placed in many items, such as vinaigrettes, boxes and jewelry of all sorts. Cameos were popular from antiquity notably with the ancient Romans and then the Renaissance period saw an upsurge in their use. Finally, the Georgian and Victorians revived interest in the cameo and it has never entirely disappeared since then. Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife Josephine were great admirers of cameos and cameos were amongst their favorite jewels. Napoleon opened a school for deaf mutes in which they were taught the art of cameo carving.
Some jewelry incorporated ancient cameos into current jewelry. A Victorian jewel might include an ancient cameo in a current mount. Can you tell the difference?
Around the 18th and early 19th century, there was a resurgence of cameo popularity with a focus primarily on the Ancient Classics. It was at this time that the great Poniatowsky scandal took place.
Prince Stanisław Poniatowski (1754-1833) was the nephew of the last king of Poland. Highly accomplished in many arts, including the military, he was well educated and well-travelled. He was one of the great collectors of the 19th century and put together a huge collection (2600 pieces) of cameos and intaglios. Somewhat shrouded in mystery, the cameos were finally to be auctioned off by Christies in 1839, after the Prince's death. And then the explosive news: the cameos were denounced as fakes. Poniatowski had had them carved by master craftsmen in Rome. The prices plummeted and the magnificent cameos were sold for pennies and scattered around the world.
Ironically, this does not detract from their brilliance. Poniatowski gems, now well over 200 years old, have been recognized as being valuable in their own right. They are eagerly sought after and command serious prices.
While cameo carving took place all over the world, with the advent of the 19th century and demand for cheap mass produced jewels, the quality of carving and subjects deteriorated somewhat. Jewelry was in demand by all classes of society and then there were the tourists. An education included travel abroad and that in turn demanded souvenirs. At about this time, we find a plethora of carved shell cameos depicting generic 'beautiful women'. The quality of these cameos is often embarrassing.
Not all carving and not all carving in shell is to be scoffed at. To increase the appeal of some of these cameos, they were adorned with jewels of their own. Thus a portrait of a young lady might include a diamond necklace or a pair of earrings. These are known as 'cameo habille'. Needless to say, these would be more sought after than their more common cousins. Highly popular and in demand to this day are blackamoors – often slaves and often embellished with gemstones.
A special kind of carved cameo is called a gryllus. This consists of 4 heads, all carved in one image. Look at the same piece from different angles and you can see 4 heads, usually a man, a woman, another man and a ram. Often a flower forms the center.
Eastern cultures have often used gemstones to carve sections of the Koran or other magical words to bring luck or ward off evil. Many people in Iran or India daily wear jewels to ensure their good health and well-being. Some of the most wonderful gemstones of the Mughal world were stolen or bought by Europeans and later, during the early 20th century, some of the great jewelry companies of the west bought gems from the East and mounted them in modern, Art Deco settings. They now command enormous prices, for carrying the prestige of these names, the marvel of the gems and the wonderful workmanship of their settings.
Cameos may be carved from a wide variety of materials. As mentioned, carving from shells is easiest and therefore sometimes considered least desirable and cheapest. Hardstone carving, being more difficult to achieve physically, is therefore more sought after. While agate and its variation sardonyx are often used, we have intaglio carvings in moonstone, amethyst and theoretically every stone.
Cameos are not restricted to natural materials.
Two interesting techniques were developed.
The first is Wedgwood cameo, really two layers of jasper ceramic in contrasting colors. We are all familiar with the raised white on blue ground used to make everything from wonderful antique jewelry to cookie jars. However, Wedgwood used the cameo technique with as many as 4 layers. More than two layers are very difficult to achieve, highly sought after and rare. Many other companies, such as Adams, in England, copied the Wedgwood technique and no Victorian porcelain collection is complete without at least one example in the kitchen. Cameo jewelry by Wedgwood and others is set in precious metals and often offset with precious stones.
Whether as intentional fakes or, simply to supply a demand for cheaper jewelry to society at large, a number of 'fakes' came onto the scene. Some of them are quite lovely and worth owning despite their humbler origins.
For example, glass molded to look like carved gemstone. Look for bubbles that usually give this away, even if nothing else tells you that it's not what it is trying to be.
During the 18th century, a gentleman by the name of James Tassie created wonderful cameos, imitating the best pieces owned by the wealthy citizens of the western world. These imitations are highly sought after today and named for their creator. His nephew carried on the business after he died.
A word of advice: look at the side of the cameo to ensure that the material is truly of one piece. It is not unknown to join a carved image to a background in imitation of the real thing.
How do we assess the value of a cameo?
First and foremost is quality of carving. Then, we have the mount? Is it a simple metal mount or it is gem-encrusted gold?
As mentioned, the material from which the cameo is carved will make a difference. Hardstone is better than shell. Gemstones are better than cheap hardstones.
Age plays a small part, but strangely, ancient pieces are not relatively more valuable. Perhaps the ancients churned them out. The bottom line is that there is not a terrible shortage of Classic cameos.
Some cameos are signed by the carver. This adds a premium to the value.
And your first priority, as always, is to buy what you love.
Buy what you love, regardless of anyone else's opinion.