The History of the Iconic Cameo
A cameo is a style of jewelry that depicts a profile of a face or a mythical scene, carved into a material with what’s called a “raised relief of positive space.” This contrasts with intaglio, the “negative space” of the flat background upon which the cameo image rests. They are often made from shell, coral, stone, lava, or glass and hold varying quality factors, including the intricacy of the carving and the type of setting used.
Although cameos were typically thought to have originated during the Victorian era, they have an earlier history that can be traced back to prehistoric times, when religious figures and mythological images were carved into rocks. During the rise of the Roman Empire, the trend of carving began expanding into the carving of political figures, but the actual rise of popularity of the carved pieces can be traced back to Napoléon Bonaparte in the 19th Century. The leader of France brought with him a large collection of the engraved pieces when he returned from war. He had many pieces commissioned for both him and his wife Josephine. He even created a school in Paris to teach the craft of cameo making.
While Napoleon might have introduced the trend, Queen Victoria is most widely known for growing the cameo’s popularity. During the Victorian era, a woman’s status was often attached to her collection of the engraved pieces that were now routinely worn as jewelry. Even men started collecting the pieces to showcase their own clout and status in society. Travels to Pompei were on the rise at the time, and while stone was previously used, the shells found in the region became the most popular material used in the making of cameos. While we might think of jewelry when we think of cameos, they are also commonly seen on military breastplates, swords, helmets, vases, cups, and other treasured pieces.
During the Renaissance, Pope Paul II was an avid collector of cameos. According to history, this love ultimately led to his death. His excessive display of carved gems and stones on his fingers apparently kept his hands so cold that he caught a terrible chill which he never recovered from.
Today, cameos are making a comeback. Celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Rihanna have both been seen wearing this Victorian Era jewelry style, which are also treasured by modern-day collectors.
Cameo lover or not, you cannot deny the artistry and individualism of the intricately-carved treasures. They are certainly worth a second look the next time you browse through an antique store!
About The Author
Debbie Azar is the Co-Founder and President of Gemological Science International (GSI), one of the largest gemological organizations in the world, and a distinguished leader in the global diamond and jewelry industry. As an executive with extensive knowledge of the jewelry and gem lab industries, her entrepreneurial skills and vision have helped GSI achieve rapid and continuous growth worldwide, establishing 13 leading-edge gemological facilities on four continents. She currently serves on the boards of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, Responsible Jewellery Council, and Jewelers for Children, and is a member of the 24 Karat Club of New York. She has been featured in Forbes, Daily Mail, Good Morning America, Bloomberg, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fox Business, Fox5, CBS2, BOLDTV, Varney&Co, The Street, and NASDAQ, among others.