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Contents:  Article "A History of Cameos"


(Written by Heidi Reed, published in Southern Nevada 9/99)

The word "cameo" often triggers fond memories of a grandmother's heirloom, but most know little about the background of cameos, and the thirst for knowledge about them has grown steadily.

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Example of shell cameo.

Cameos were first carved from hard stones such as chalcedony, onyx, lava stone, amethyst, lapis and others.  Carving was done in "intaglio" (carved into the stone), or "glyptic" (background carved away) styles.  Egypt is honored as the actual birthplace of the cameo, thanks to Alexander the Great, in the 4th Century, B.C.  Cameos were the jewelry of choice by MEN ONLY, being carved for rings as seals and to adorn helmets, breastplates, sword handles, etc. as good luck charms in battle.  Common Grecian themes covered mythological gods and goddesses, military victories, military heroes and emperors (predominantly MALE themes). 

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4-layer Sardonyx cameo of an armed, helmeted warrior leaping from his horse.  Dated to the first century, B.C.


 By the time of Christianity (4th Century A.D.) cameos had grown in popularity, as the Christians translated Greek mythological figures (which they deemed pagan) to Christian themes such as Christ, St. John and the Madonna.

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"Leda and the Swan" would have been interpreted during early Christian times would be called "Annunciation" instead, to eliminate the "pagan" connotations.


In the 13th Century, the French passed a law forbidding common folk from wearing ANY jewelry, so cameos went into decline.  (This was the "Middle" or "Dark Ages" where creativity was suppressed).  During the Renaissance that followed (15th - 17th Centuries), personages made their cities centers of art once more.  Lorenzo the Great of Florence, Italy was one of these, creating an open climate for artisans to design jewelry for all, then viewed as an art form.  Cameos as hat badges flourished.

A scarcity of acceptable carving material in Naples during this time caused artisans to cut India beads in half to carve on the curved side, or to re-carve older cameos.  Then a fisherman arrived in Italy, having whittled an African conch shell to while away his idle time.  The artisans found shells plentiful, inexpensive and relatively easy to carve.  They have since "carved a niche" for themselves in the jewelry art world with their shell designs, shells being obtained from East Africa and large King Conch shells from Florida.

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Fully carved conch shell, Italy.

Meanwhile, large agate deposits were discovered near Idar-Oberstein in Germany, causing two-tone agate cameo carvings to gain popularity.  (examples below)

The 19th to the beginning of the  20th century ("Victorian" age of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901) saw a decline of CARVED cameos, as American women preferred less expensive reproduction cameos molded from glass, hematite, celluloid, bakelite and in the mid 20th Century, plastic.  The feminine portraits of ladies with upturned noses, curly hair styles and flower and bird themes were most sought after during and since this time, dictating the majority of popular styles you see even today.

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Traditional "Roman nose"  and stylized hair style.

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Victorian era "upturned nose" and flowing hairstyle has been popular ever since.


The last 50 years has marked another return of appreciation for hand-carved hard stone (German), shell (Italian) as well as Japanese-produced abalone, mother-of-pearl, and ultrasonically carved agate cameos.

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Examples of ultrasonically carved cameos.

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How you can tell the ultrasonic cameos - called "FFS Syndrome" for "fresh fallen snow", the way the edge of the carving looks.  The machine cannot undercut itself, nor make a clean edge.  They are not as valuable as shell or hand carved agate cameos.

German cameos of today feature ancient themes to fantasy contemporary portraits with operatic themes, even personalized cameos of women today as keepsakes; 

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Blue agate, carved in Idar Oberstein, Germany.  Modern.

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"Carmen" operatic themed agate cameo, Germany.

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Parsifal, based on an opera by Richard Wagner, carved on blue and white Brazilian agate in Idar Oberstein, Germany.  Modern work.

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The ceiling of the Sistine chapel inspired this carved agate cameo dish, Germany.


Italian shell cameos sell well with feminine portraits of women; synthetic molded cameos with excellent detail are worn even with denim.

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Modern Italian carved shell cameo by Sebastianelli firm.

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Sardonyx (Emperor helmet shell - a large, thick shell that produces a marbled, sculpted look) Italian carving.

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Soldier cameo carved of labradorite, age unknown, at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

People also collect vintage reproduction cameos, respected on their own merits, to round out their collections.

So, new or old, cameos have earned an enduring legacy and a place in all our hearts.  Feel free to start your own heirloom collection today!

View the virtual tour of the


Elmhurst IL - Link below to Rocks Page 7:

Lizzadro Lapidary Museum, Illinois Virtual Tour

has a great selection of hand carved 



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