Picture an antique cameo and the first image that probably pops into your mind is a woman's profile carved out of white shell against a coral background. That certainly describes a cameo, but cameos come in a much wider range of materials and designs.

In fine jewelry, the cameo is defined as an ornament carved in relief from a high-quality material such as stone, shell, coral, Gutta-percha, bog oak, ivory, lava, or mother-of-pearl. In costume jewelry, cameos are generally made from molded plastic or glass.

The most common cameo motif is the portrait. In the past, these bore the likeness of an actual person, usually a celebrity of the day—a ruler, scholar, or philosopher. Early in the 19th century, cameos started to feature an anonymous Roman woman wearing no jewelry. Victorian women on the Grand Tour—a traveling rite of passage for upper-class Europeans—sought out lava cameos carved with the mystery woman's image when they were in Italy. These affluent Victorians eventually had a big influence on cameos when they demanded a more familiar-looking lady, with a thinner neck, her hair up, and wearing jewelry.

Vintage cameos also incorporated religious figures and scenes, floral motifs, and images from mythology. In particular, ancient Roman motifs have been popular for cameos since they first appeared during the reign of Alexander the Great, when they were made of agate, onyx, and sardonyx.

In the salons of 18th-century Europe, carved gemstones were all the rage with high-society ladies. Cameo makers of the time would take Plaster of Paris molds of these carved gemstones as records of notable cameo collections. At the time, cameos were a sign of wealth and privilege, but glass paste brought cameos to the mainstream. Scottish artisan James Tassie began making molds of esteemed cameo collections to recreate the images as glass-plate cameos that could pass as carved jewels.

Soon, carvers discovered that shell was a soft, durable, and easy-to-carve material, and it made for less-formal looking jewelry. Empress Josephine wore a shell cameo every day, making them a must-have in France, and soon they caught on in England, where shell cameos were favored by Queen Victoria for her own adornment and as gifts.

As the popularity of cameos took off in the 1800s, they became incorporated into daily life. In France, Napoleon brought in carvers from all over Europe to create cameo jewelry f...

During the 19th century, colored lava excavated at an archaeological dig at Pompeii was used to make highly detailed, three-dimensional carvings. That’s where many of the women who were traveling to Italy for their Grand Tour picked up their lava cameos. More than a perfectly portable souvenir, these lava cameos became status symbols, proving that a woman had indeed traveled abroad.

Late in the century, the "cameo habillé" came into popularity. In these portrait cameos, the mystery woman is portrayed wearing real diamond jewelry. Religious motifs were also popular in the Victorian era, particularly scenes of Rebecca at the Well and the Garden of Eden. Mourning brooches often featured scenes signifying a loved one's assent to heaven. These memento mori cameos were usually made of Gutta-percha, while other carvers took to ivory and celluloid. These days, Lucite and other plastics have replace that early plastic.

Archaeological digs of the 19th century piqued the Victorians' interest in mythology. Soon, cameos were made with ancient Roman motifs such as Psyche, the bride of Cupid, with a butterfly wing on her hair or shoulder; Artemis (Diana), the goddess of hunting, with a crescent moon in hers; Demeter (Ceres), goddess of harvest, bearing a stalk of wheat; Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine and fertility, or his follower, the Bacchante maiden, with grapes and grape leaves in their hair; and the Three Muses.

After World War II, cameos surged in popularity with the rise of costume jewelry. Now they could be made very inexpensively out of shell, plastic, and glass in various colors. Today, cameo makers choose freely from the designs of the past, particularly those featuring that original anonymous woman and mythological tales.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Victorian 14k Gold High-relief Pink Angel Skin Coral Cameo Pin Antique Mixed Lot Jewellery, Victorian, Silver, Cameo, Gemstones, Deco. Quantity15 Ct Gold Hair Mourning Ring Set With Pearls And A Glass Flower Cameo.Antique Victorian 3 Strand Natural Undyed coral & Cameos NecklaceMonster Antique Signed 14k Gold Hand Carved Shell Floral Cameo Victorian RingSuperb Antique 14k Filigree Gold Orange Coral & Pearl Cameo Bangle BraceletVintage 9ct Gold And Natural Amethyst Cameo Pendant.Fine Rare Early Victorian Carved Lava Cameo Gold Filled Lion Head Figural BroochVery Fine Antique Art Deco 14k Gold & Amethyst Stone Cameo Brooch PendantAntique Victorian 14k Gold Rich Natural Orange Coral Lady God Deity Form BroochAntique Rarity Exceptional Fine Carved Shell Cameo Beautiful 3 DimensionalVery Fine Antique Victorian 14k Gold Maiden Carved Shell Cameo Pendant BroochAntique/vintage 9ct Gold Shell Cameo Brooch Greek God GoddessAntique 14k Yellow Gold Hallmarked Bangle Ornate BraceletHeavy Antique 14k Yellow Gold Lady W Flowers Thick Cameo Pin Brooch Pendant NrBeautiful Three Graces Carved Cameo Gold BroochAntique American 15k Gold Pearl Lava Stone Cameo Of Theodore Barton 1850 BroochAntique 14k Gold Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Necklace Rare And Beautiful Look!!!Rare 19thc Victorian 10k Gold Santa Claus W Sleigh Reindeer Shell Cameo BroochStunning Vintage Victorian Antique Mens Heavy 14kt Gold And Carnelian Cameo RingAntique 14k Gold Oval Cameo Pin Pendant 14.8 Grams NrSuperb Antique Victorian 14ct Gold & Seed Pearl Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Pin Antique Victorian 14k Rose Gold .25ctw Natural Ruby Carved Cameo Pendant 5.4gAntique Hand Carved Natural Shell Cameo Pendant Brooch, 900 Silver, C. 1900-1905Antique C 1860 Victorian 14k Gold Carved Crystal Cameo Festoon Necklace Pendant!Superb Vintage 9ct Gold Cameo Screw Back EarringsHuge 1920s Deco 14k White Gold Cameo W/ Diamond Necklace Filigree Brooch Pendant14k Solid Yellow Gold Jewelry Vintage Earrings Cameo Teardrop Leverback 3.9 GramVictorian Antique 10k Yellow Gold Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Pendant 1.48" TallVintage Antique Job Lot - Silver Mother Of Pearl Cameo Suite - Bracelet Etc. Vintage Shell Cameo In A 9ct Gold Mounting Marked Ejc Birmingham Hallmarks Antique Victorian High Relief Carved Lava Cameo Brooch Grand Tour ClassicalVictorian Carved Shell Cameo Pendant Drop Earrings C 1880'sExquisite Vintage 18k Yellow Gold Hand Carved Shell Cameo 2 Way Pendant Brooch31pc Vintage Antique Cameo Jewelry Lot G.f,sterling,shell,lucite,brooch,bracelet14k Good Ornate Frame Wedgwood Blue White Jasperwear Cameo Brooch Pendant Aes NrEstate Vintage 14k Yellow Gold Carved Blue Cameo Gemstone Estate Omega Earrings18k Yellow Gold Midnight Blue Angel Flower Bird Cameo Pendant Pin Brooch Hq NrVintage Esemco 14k Solid Gold Flip Ring,carved Shell Portrait Cameo,onyx,5 1/4Fine Antique 10k Gold Three Graces Double Shell Cameo Brooch With Chain Antique Lava Cameo Brooch: Lady Feeding Bird From Basket (high Relief Carving)14k Gold Cameo Brooch Or PendantPretty Victorian Whitby Jet & Carved Shell Cameo PendantAntique & Vintage Lot Of 12 Hard-stone & Shell Cameos1930s Vintage 18k Yellow Gold Hand Carved Lady Shell Cameo Ring Superb Lalique Opalescent Cameo Brooch Art NouveauAntique C1860 Victorian 2 Colour 9ct Gold Filled Hardstone Cameo Pendant LocketTagliamonte Sterling Silver 14k Yellow Gold Cupid Goddess Cameo NecklaceFine Large Edwardian Italian 9ct Gold Mounted Carved Shell Cameo BroochAntique Victorian Maiden W Diamond Raised Relief Carved Shell Cameo Unmounted NrAntique Victorian Carved Shell Cameo Brooch C 1880'sAntique Carnelian Shell 14k Gold Cameo Pendant Brooch Estate JewelryGorgeous Antique Large Carved Cameo Perseus & Andromeda Pendant NecklaceBeautiful Antique 14k Gold Maiden Carved Shell Cameo Pendant BroochConquistador Warrior Greco Roman Rare Hard Stone Cameo Civil War Era 14k RingAntique C1920 Art Deco 14ct Yellow Gold Hardstone Cameo Ring Size NAntique 14ct Yellow Gold Set Cameo Brooch 21g 2 1/4 X 2"Lovely Vintage 14k White Gold Cameo Brooch / Pendant Silver Necklace & Diamond?Huge Lot Nouveau Cameo Jewellery Shell Brooches Pins Cufflink Locket Sterling ++Large & Heavy Art Deco Design Queen Elizabeth Carved Cameo Silver Locket Pendant