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”)

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]

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]

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 Jewel History blog have been treated to her weekly (someti… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique C. 1860 Victorian 18k Yellow Gold Salmon Coral Cameo Dangle Earrings!Lovely Stone Cameo Pendant / Brooch In 14k Gold Mount W/ Inscription Dated 1913Large Vintage 18ct 18k Gold & Carved Shell Cameo Pendant /brooch Of ChristFine 9ct / 9k 375 Gold Victorian George And The Dragon Carved Cameo BroochAntique C. 1880 Victorian Sterling 800 Silver Carved Cameo Grand Tour Bracelet!18ct/ 18k/ 750 Exceptional 19th Century French Art Nouveau Hard Stone Cameo RingFine Rare Victorian 9 Carat Gold Cameo Brooch Carved Cameo Shell BroochAntique Victorian Era Carved Lava Cameo Bracelet Grand Tour Bracelet Roman Gods4 Vintage Silver Marcasite Mounted Shell Cameo Brooch PendantsVictorian Lava Brooch And Matching Earrings Carved Cameo StyleAntique 10k Gold Coral Cameo Brooch Deep Relief Vtg Mother's Day Fine JewelryAntique Victorian 9ct Yellow Gold Real Shell Cameo Medieval Man Brooch PinGorgeous Antique Victorian 10k Pink Gold Bacchante Shell Cameo Pin C.1890'sPretty Silver Marcasite Shell Cameo Pendant On 9ct Gold Necklace, Boxed- V14 B03Finest Hand Carved Antique Stone Or Lava Mourning Cameo 10k Frame High ReliefVintage Solid Gold 9ct Cameo Ring With Bow Detail Size PVintage 14k Yellow Gold 0.22ct Diamond Habille Cameo Brooch Pendant 9.6gFine Antique Carved Cameo Shell Brooch In Yellow Metal Mount - C1910 - 1920Antique 10k Gold Cameo Pendant & Broach 6.3grEstate Find.. Victorian Gold Filled Carved Shell Cameo BraceletVtg Glp Co Solid 10k Gold & Hand Carved Angel Skin Cameo Pendant/ Pin | G AxFabulous Victorian 12k G.f. Carved Lava Female Cameo Screwback EarringsFine Quality Antique 9ct Rose Gold Carved Shell Cameo Set RingLarge Antique Vintage Silver Mounted Cameo Of Jesus Christ Fabulous Pair Antique Italian Grand Tour Shell Cameos Day & Night Goddesses 1880Victorian 1800's Carved High Relief Cameo W/diamond Necklace 10k Y Gold Ring 3gEstate Cameo 14k Yellow Gold Pin Pendant 7.4 Grams NrAntique 1940s Shell Cameo Diamond 10k Yellow Gold Ring Nice Size!!! 5gStylish 9ct Gold Raised Carved Cameo Lady Ring Size H In Good Condition 4gAntique Jewelry,victorian Hat/hair Pins&3rare Sterling-cameo Ring &fountain PensEstate 14k White Solid Gold Finely Carved Shell Diamond Habille Cameo BroochAntique Art Deco Mens 10k Yellow Gold Greek Roman Soldier Carved Cameo Ring Fine 14k White Gold Carved Shell Portrait Cameo Pin BroochVictorian Antique Volcanic Lava Gilt Mounted Cameo Brooch Circa 1860 (t172)Antique Vintage, Marcasite, Continental Silver, Shell Cameo Brooch/pendant.Wonderful Pair Antique Victorian Silver Shell Cameo French Wire Dangle EarringsOstby Barton Sterling Hand Carved Shell Cameo Pin Brooch Titanic Not ScrapVintage 10k Gold Cameo Habille Ring W/diamond Size 7 Romany Pin Not Scrap 4.2gRare Victorian 14k Tiger Eye Cameo Ring 189210k Yellow Gold & Angel Skin Coral Cameo & Pearl Lavaliere Pendant Necklace NrAntique Art Deco Cameo Carved Mother Of Pearl Micro Glass Seed Bead Purse FrameElegant Wedgwood Vintage Blue & White Jasperware Cameo Gold-filled Bracelet A Lovely Victorian Style Vintage 9ct Yellow Gold Three Graces Cameo Brooch 14k Blue Agate Cameo Pendant Marked Italy, 3.3 Grams**antique 14k Yellow Gold Pearl Cameo Brooch Pendant 31.9 Grams 3.6mm 2.25x1.75"Sterling Silver 925 Vintage Cocktail Ring Lot 35 Grams Onyx Turquoise Cameo Q415Beautiful Very Finely Carved Antique 1920's Shell Cameo Brooch Lady With A DoveVintage Art Deco Antique Sterling Lavalier Necklace Pendant Carved Shell CameoVintage Black Hills Gold 10k Cameo Ladies Pendant Charm Grape Leaf Green Pink!! ☆♡☆ Vintage 9ct Gold Cameo Pendant Necklace 18 Inches ☆♡☆Authentic Vtg Signed 14k Yellow Gold Shell Carved Cameo Pendant Brooch Pin Rare!Antique Victorian Whitby Jet Mourning Angel Coral Shell Cameo Pendant EarringAntique Victorian Period Carved Shell Angel Cameo C1880 $1 No Reserve**estate Carved Pink Coral Flower Loose Stone 1.5 Grams 0.5"Gorgeous Vintage Cameo In Complex Layered Frame 800 Silver Brooch PendantAntique Victorian 9k Gold Shell Cameo Vulcan God Of Fire Brooch SalamanderBig Old 1930s 10k Gold High Relief Double Roman Soldier Tigers Eye Cameo Ring 5Rare Antique Victorian Carved High Relief Cameo 10k 2 Tone Gold Leafy Ring 2.9g14k Yellow Gold Ladies Cameo Ring 4.3 Grams Antique Cameo Brooch Pendant Silver Mount