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 JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Lot Victorian Shell Lava Enamel Jet Silver Gold Cameo Brooch Bracelet IntaglioHuge Lot Victorian Shell Micro Mosaic Stone Silver Gold Earrings Brooch ++ Large Lot Victorian Antique Shell Silver Gold Cameo Brooch Necklace BraceletVintage Long Shell Cameo 14k Gold Ring 7.3 Grams NrHuge Lot Victorian Antique Shell Porcelain Maiden Cameo Brooch Pin Pendants An Antique C1900 Silver Italian Shell Cameo Of Apollo & Venus. Bracelet Bangle Gorgeous Vintage Italian 14k Solid Gold Expertly Carved Shell Cameo Ring ~flora Antique 14k Yg & Pink Coral Cameo & Rose Necklace Superb Quality & Condition Nr Antique Carved Pink Coral Brooch 14k Vintage Victorian Italian Cameo Romantic NrEstate Diamond Cameo 14k Gold Long Earrings 8.6 Grams NrStunning Antique Large 9ct Gold Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Bacchante / MaenadsFine 14ct Gold Hardstone Cameo And Opal Bangle Antique 9ct Gold Signed Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Day & Night Genius Of LightEstate 14k Gold 15mm Glass Cameo & Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Earrings $2659Stunning Antique Unusual 9 Ct Gold Harstone Cameo Brooch Roman Scene Large Antique Victorian Shell Cameo Diana Godess Archer 14k Gold Brooch JeweledBeautiful Fine Victorian 9 Carat Gold & Carved Shell Cameo Brooch C1890Antique Victorian Art Deco Nouveau Estate Large Cameo Sterling Silver Pin BroochExceptional Unusual Vintage High Relief Natural Shell Cameo Pendant Hera GoddessAntique Victorian 14k Gold Fill Book Chain Bookchain Cameo Pendant NecklaceAntique 10k Solid Rose Gold Hand Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Pendant - Not ScrapLarge Antique Carved Shell Cameo Bacchus Dionysus For BroochLarge Antique Italian Victorian 18ct Gold Portrait Bullmouth Shell Cameo Brooch Large Art Deco Habille Omc 5 Pt Diamond Shell Cameo 14k W. Gold Brooch/pendantVictorian Angel Skin Coral Shell Cameo And 9 Carat Gold BroochFine Antique Victorian Solid 9ct Gold Carved Shell Cameo Pendant Drop EarringsStunning Huge Silver Mounted Carved Shell Cameo Naked Woman Horse & Dog Diana18th Century Antique Rare Large Victorian Cameo Quality Gold Carved Brooch Victorian 1880s Antique Whitby Jet Flower Cameo Locket No ReserveAntique 9 Carat Solid Gold Cameo Ring-hand Carved Shell-art Nouveu Lady-sz.k1/2Victorian 14k Gold Cameo Ring 4.3 Grams, Roadworn, Repaired, Vintage Antique Luxury Natural Peridot,pearl,mother Of Pearl Cameo,topaz 925 Silver Bracelet 7.5Rare Antique Georgian Sardonyx Agate Hardstone Cameo "unmounted" Circa 1820Rare Georgian Hard Stone Cameo Ring 18 Ct Solid Gold Stunning Antique Set - Real Natural Cameo And Solid Silver Brooch, Ring, EarclipBeautiful Vintage Well Carved Shell Cameo 9k Gold Brooch Depicting 2 SistersEstate 36mm Hand Carved Carnelian Clasic Lady Cameo Ltaly 14k Gold Pendant $6249Estate Lot 3 Antique Victorian 10k 9k Gold Amethyst Shell Cameo Ruby RingsSuper Antique Vintage 18k Gold & Carved Shell Cameo W Graduated Pearls TurquoiseAntique Victorian Gold Filled Book Chain Coral Cameo NecklaceMassive 1950s 14k Gold Diamond Habille Carved Shell Cameo Ladies Ring Size 7.5Antique 10k White Gold Pink & White Carved Shell Cameo Ring Size 619th Century Carved Shell Cameo Of Angel Kissing A Goddess.46mm Long.excellent!!Antique Shell Cameo BroochAntique Civil War Era Carved Hard Stone Cameo Seed Pearl 14k Gold Pin PendantAntique Georgian 15k Neoclassical Georgian Silhouette Cameo Mourning Brooch PinVictorian 1800's 10k Rose Gold High Relief Natural Coral Cameo Pin Pendant 5.2gAntique Round Shell Cameo 14k Gold Brooch Pin 11.0 Grams NrEstate Sardonyx Cameo 40mm 14k Gold Pendant With Chain Dgla Certified $8259Estate 40mm Carved Cameo Brooch Pin Pendant 14k Gold Dgla Certified $5000Antique Victorian 9ct Gold Carved Shell Portrait Cameo Pendant Brooch PinVintage 800 Coin Silver - Antique Marcasite Shell Cameo 15.6g - Pendant As335Massive 10k Gold Finely Carved Scenic Civil War Era Nat. Pearl Cameo Pin PendantEstate 14k Gold Sardonyx Cameo Flower Pendant With Chain Dgla Certified $5799Gold Tested Large Cameo Brooch And Stamped 9ct10kt Yellow Gold Cameo Filigree Ring Size 6.75Large Antique 10k Gold Carved Cameo Brooch Pendant 11.8 Grams Pin VictorianAntique Loose Shell Cameo OvalLarge Antique 14k Gold Shell Cameo Brooch PinAntique Cherry Red Amber Bakelite Cameo Perfume Bottle