Cameos 101: History of Cameo Jewelry, Value and More (2023)

A few years ago, I saw a dark-haired cameo in an online auction that sold for far beyond my budget, and I’ve been on a quest for dark-haired cameo jewelry ever since. I have this romantic notion that there’s a cameo out there that resembles everyone, but very few shell cameos are carved in such a way that the figure’s hair is dark, so I’m having a hard time finding mine!

Understanding Cameos and Cameo Jewelry

No matter their hair color or if they’re even figural (bust) cameos, I’m fascinated by cameo jewelry in general. I often search for “Italian cameo” or “antique cameo jewelry” in Google Images and lose myself looking through all of the gorgeous designs. The Three Muses (or Three Graces) are some of my favorites, and I really love seeing ones with crazy hair, pearl strands (cameos of busts wearing jewelry are called cameo habillé), or very detailed village scenes, usually with a couple in some romantic setting. I still daydream about the masterfully carved huge (bigger than an egg) brooches I saw in the Italian pavilion of the JCK Las Vegas show several years ago. I don’t recall what they were carved in, but the backgrounds were chocolate brown and they were stunning. Swoon!

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I think cameos are ideal for making one-of-a-kind jewelry, even today. Their designs range from ancient to traditional to modern and whimsical (have you seen the sugar skull and unicorn cameos?). Even genuine hand-carved cameos can be found in prices to suit all budgets (bezel settings aside). I’ve been meaning to write about cameos for ages, and then I found a section about them in the fabulous book Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry by jewelry expert C. Jeanenne Bell, G.G. Today, I wanted to share with you the parts I found most interesting, to answer the most common questions about cameos.

What is the History of Cameo Jewelry?

“The early cameos were made from stone. In the 16th century, workmen turned to shell to meet the demand for more cameos at less expensive prices,” Jeanenne writes. “Cameos were set in rings, brooches, earrings, and bracelets. The men wore them in watch fobs, rings, and pins. Stone cameos were cut from onyx, agate, sardonyx, cornelian, coral, lava, and jet. The carvers of shell cameos used the shells of the Black Helmet and the pink and white Queen’s Conches, which were so plentiful in the seacoast towns in Italy.”

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How Did Cameo Jewelry Become So Popular?

“Cameos made lovely, portable souvenirs for tourists visiting the ruins of Pompeii and Herculeum. When the travelers returned home, their friends were enchanted with these small works of art. Within a short time, Italian cameo artists had shops in England, France, and America,” Jeanenne writes. “These craftsmen carved cameos in the ancient styles or any other designs the purchaser might select. The January 1850 issue of Godey’s Magazine included the following note: ‘Peabody the celebrated Cameo Portrait Cutter, 140 Chestnut Street, is kept busily engaged with the portraits of some of our most eminent citizens.'”

How Are Cameos Made?

“Cameos are made by cutting away background material to make a design in relief. In stone cameos, a banded agate is often used,” Jeanenne writes. “The lighter band is used for the figure of the cameo. The remainder is carved away to expose the darker ground. In shell and stone cameos, the true artist takes advantage of different layers and faults in the material to enhance the design.”

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How Are Cameos Valued?

“Stone cameos are generally more valuable than those made of shell. But the medium is not nearly as important as the artistry,” Jeanenne says, “The best way to judge a cameo is to examine it with a good magnifying glass. Graceful, smooth-flowing lines with much detail are signs of a good one. The inferior ones seem to have sharper lines, fewer details, and a harsh look. Be sure to hold the cameo to the light and examine it for possible cracks.” Thanks to their open backs, you can see the translucency of a cameo when you hold it up to the light–which is another one of my favorite things about cameo jewelry.

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Which Cameos Are Most Valuable?

“Scenic cameos are generally more expensive than bust cameos,” Jeanenne says. “A very popular motif around 1860 was what is known as ‘Rebecca at the Well.’ There are many variations on this theme, but they usually include a cottage, a bridge, and a girl.”

How Does One Know a Cameo’s Age?

“Many antique cameos were reset in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some craftsmen were expert at copying antique pieces. This makes accurate dating almost impossible,” Jeanenne writes. “However, there are usually some clues to help determine age.” Here are some of the clues Jeanenne shares for helping you determine a cameo’s age.

  • “If a cameo is made of lava, it is almost certainly Victorian.”
  • “If the cameo is mounted as a brooch, carefully examine the pin and hook. Safety catches are a 20th century adaptation. If the cameo has one, then it is either not older than the early 1900s or a new catch has been added. If it is an addition, this can usually be ascertained by more careful examination. Look for signs of soldering. Often the new catch is attached to a small plate jointed to the back of the brooch.”
  • “Next look closely at the pin and notice what kind of hinge it has. If the sharp point of the pin extends past the body of the brooch, it is an ‘oldie.'”
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How Does A Cameo’s Mounting Help Determine Its Age?

“Gold, silver, pinchbeck, gold filled, cut-steel, and jet were some of the materials used for mounting cameos,” Jeanenne writes. Pinchbeck is an alloy of copper and zinc used to create brass that resembles gold. “The type of metal used can often give an indication of when it was made. If the mounting is pinchbeck, it was probably made between the early 1700s and the mid-1800s. Gold electroplating was patented in 1840 so, if the piece was plated, it was made after that date. Nine-karat gold was legalized in 1854, and a piece in 9k would have to be made after that date. A popular metal used for mountings in the 1880s was silver, but this does not mean that all cameos mounted in silver were made at that time,” she warns. “All the clues have to be examined before a judgment on age can be made.”

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Learn More About Cameo Jewelry and Other Vintage Designs

Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry is the most extensive bookI’ve seen on antique and vintage jewelry. It’s broken down into time periods. Within each period are sections on popular styles, stones, materials, jewelry types, and pricing are covered. This expansive reference book also includes an extensive jewelry glossary and a gallery of maker’s marks and hallmarks from around the world. Plus, you’ll find helpful articles on identification, such as “Is it Real?”, “What is This Metal?”, “How Was it Made?”, “Who Made It?”, clues for dating old jewelry, and much more.

Are you a jewelry dealer or reseller, junk shopper, jewelry maker or designer, antiques dealer, or someone who adores jewelry? You will savor this book! It would make a unique gift as well, for the person who has everything . . . except a dark-haired cameo.

P.S. Want to see something completely different in the world of cameos? I have to share this fun, modern shrink-plastic faux cameo tutorial I found!

-Tammy Jones

Originally posted November 20, 2015. Updated April 1, 2022.

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