I’ve always loved these earrings, which were given to me in the early 1960s by an elderly neighbor who was getting ready to move into a retirement home. They’re missing whatever used to hang from them, but still I loved to wear them with jeans or evening dresses because they always got compliments!
One of the most popular jewelry items of the Victorian era, the cameo traces its roots to ancient Rome. It’s thought that the name comes from the Latin cammaeus, which means “engraved gem.” That’s because the Romans carved their cameos from agate. And since a cameo is carved from a single material, anything from agate and onyx to shells, that sounds about right.
Cameos are usually carved in relief; the figure or scene stands out, with the rest of the shell carved away. An “intaglio” cameo’s image will be a depression carved into the surface – these cameos are much less common.
At some point, the Italians began to carve cameos from shells, and the town of Torre del Greco is still famous for its superb work.
While cameos never went out of style, they wax and wane in popularity.
They’re becoming popular again today, and, of course, that means a rise in prices — and fakes!
How can you tell if the cameo you own or want is vintage or antique?
- Cameos that have been mass produced tend to have a grainy texture some compare to “snow.”
- The back of a shell cameo should be slightly curved. Plastic will be straight.
- Heat a straight pin until it’s red, then touch it to the cameo in an area that won’t show. If the pin melts the material, it’s plastic. If it doesn’t, chances are it’s real shell.
- If it’s a older brooch, the clasp will be a “C” type instead of a more modern “rollover” clasp.
- If the cameo is framed in white gold, it’s newer than 1919
- Black cameos made from jet (a type of fossilized wood) date from the Victorian era and were probably made for mourning.
- Older cameos weren’t typically set in gold. Metals used were brass, silver, silver vermeil and gold-filled.
- Detailing won’t be as perfect as the laser-cut precision of modern cameos
- If the theme is mythology, the cameo could date from the 18th Century to the early 20th Century
- “Landscape” or “scenic” cameos (ladies under trees like the one shown here, for example) may indicate an 18th or 19th Century piece.
A portrait cameo can provide some clues, as well:
- A strong, Roman-type nose indicates pre-1860
- A straight nose is probably Victorian
- Pert, cute noses are from the 21st Century
- Heavy, upswept curls indicate Victorian. Shorter hair and curls tend to be more modern.
Your cameo shouldn’t have any chips, cracks or stress marks. You can usually see them by holding the piece up to the light and examining it with a jeweler’s loupe.
Cameos can be a great complement to just about any style. And vintage or antique cameos add a layer of quality and artistry you just can’t find in the mall jewelry shop!
If you love learning about antiques as much as I do, follow the blog so you won’t miss the next article. And enjoy the hunt!