Cameo appearance: How to tell if yours is vintage.

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!

Victorian "landscape" or "scenic" cameo earrings, circa late 19th Century to early 20th Century

Victorian “landscape” or “scenic” cameo earrings, late 19th Century to early 20th Century

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.

Prince Cameo - The Louvre. Photo in Public Domain

Prince Cameo – The Louvre. Photo in Public Domain

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.
Notice the slight curve on the back of these shell cameos. The crude welding is also characteristic of older cameos.

Notice the slight curve on the back of these shell cameos.

      • 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!

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
This entry was posted in Antiques, Vintage Jewelry. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Cameo appearance: How to tell if yours is vintage.

  1. Liz says:

    Hi I have bought a old cameo I can’t seem to ding the hallmark to try and date I have tried a magnet to see if it gold it didn’t stick to it it does seem old tho I have looked online can’t find anything

    • sarathurston says:

      I know there are chemical tests you can buy for gold, but I’ve never used them. I’m afraid I’ll damage the piece. So I have several items I keep meaning to take to a jeweler to see if they can tell me.

  2. Karen K says:

    I have several cameo’s I inherited from my grandmother and mother. 1 seems to be exceptionally rare, many are probably 60s and o e is a RI g that flips with a cameo on one side and a small diamond on the other side. I’m interested in selling them but feel the two could be more valuable. Do you value items?.

  3. Gabrielle says:

    if i send you a couple of pictures of the cameo i have do you think you could somewhat help me out? My mothers family had a tradition with this cameo, that it goes to the oldest girl of each generation. I’ve had it for almost 12 years and i did find out im the fifth generation girl to have it. Any help would be appreciated thanks!

  4. Pingback: Cameo appearance: How to tell if yours is vintage. « Expert Estates

I'd love to hear your thoughts (and corrections)!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s