Cameo Jewelry: The Collector's Dream
Have you ever stopped to truly appreciate the craftsmanship in a cameo? I was recently struck by the reality of how exquisite and detailed some of these beautiful carved pieces of jewelry can truly be. I've gathered some of our prettiest pieces from both the past and present so that together we can admire these collectible pieces of art!
Cameos have slid in and out of popularity for centuries. People in ancient Mediterranean cultures made cameos to depict gods and goddesses, Ancient Romans carved political portraits into them, and Renaissance women wore cameos as status symbols (Cooper, 2020). For the 19th and 20th centuries, they were especially popular in the Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, and Retro 1940s eras.
Cameos can be carved from various materials, but for 19th/20th century jewelry we most often see them made from carved shell, coral, agate, sardonyx, and even lava. Portraits or scenes are typically what is depicted, carved in relief against a backdrop. We most often see cameos depicting women's profiles, soldiers, religious scenes, and myths and legends.
Above: Light pink and white shell cameo depicting Goddess Flora
Above: Carved black and white onyx cameo featuring a solider and a lady
Above: Victorian era cherub cameo carved in banded agate hardstone
Above: 19th century carved lava warrior & dragon cameo
Some profile cameos even feature gemstones as if the cameo herself were wearing a piece of jewelry. These are called cameo habillés ("habillé" is French for "dressed.") These pieces usually dress the cameo profile in necklaces, crowns, hairpieces, or even earrings made of diamonds or other gemstones.
Above: 1920s cameo habillé brooch with a genuine diamond
Above: Cameo ring with the cameo wearing a diamond in her hair
The wonderful thing about cameo jewelry is that they're almost like snowflakes - one can collect them for years and always find something new. Every profile seems to have a different hairstyle, accessory, facial expression, or other unique characteristic. One of my favorite cameos we've had in our shop wore a hat!
Above: Art Deco cameo wearing a period-correct hat and blazer
Above: Retro 1940s cameo habillé wearing a genuine single cut diamond as a necklace
Above: Antique 1890s black and white onyx cameo depicting Ancient Greek muse Urania, the muse of astronomy, holding a celestial globe
Above: 1920s cameo ring depicting the Bible story "Rebecca at the Well"
Above: Edwardian 1910s shell cameo depicting the Three Graces from Greek mythology
Cameo jewelry can be worn many ways! They have long since been popular as brooches. In the Victorian era, cameo brooches were often worn by women high up on the neck. Today, they look beautiful pinned to a scarf, securing the neckline of a shirt, pinned to a lapel, or even fastened to a hat. We also love to see cameos worn on a chain around the neck, or in a ring!
Above: Cameo pendants alongside antique photos featuring cameo jewelry
Above: Cameos worn as rings and a necklace
Cameo jewelry can be cleaned at home like most of your other fine jewelry, but with an added step. Warm water and mild dish soap is a great start, but since some cameos can dry out due to the material they're made of, we find that using a cotton swab to brush the cameo with organic coconut oil rehydrates the piece and keeps it fresh!
Cameo jewelry is so fun to collect due to the unique qualities and versatile uses of each piece. Do you own any cameo jewelry?
Above: Retro 1940s-50s gold filled cameo bracelet depicting a coastal town in several multi-colored cameos
Cooper, M. (2020). "A brief history of cameo jewelry and how it's still popular today." My Modern Met. https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-cameo-jewelry/