The cameo is one of the most popular pieces of jewelry in history. But what exactly is a cameo, and how did it come to be so popular?
The history of the cameo goes way back. Cameos owe their origins to petroglyphs, figures carved into rock that recorded events and gave information as far back as 15,000 BC.
The intaglio, the reverse of a cameo in which the piece is carved below the surface, actually came before the cameo, when the intaglio was used in ancient times to seal papers or mark property.
There are disagreements on when the first cameo was made, however. Research suggests dates anywhere from six BC to 300 BC.
No matter what the right date, experts agree that the first cameos were made in Alexandria, Egypt, where people used them to convey a moral or declare a statement of faith or loyalty. Some of the earliest cameos were made of hard stones like agate and sardonyx (a stone like onyx, but with shades of red instead of black) before the use of more modern materials like gems, coral, and shells. People in cultures outside of Egypt soon came to love the cameo, too.
Contrary to what modern readers might expect, women were not the original cameo wearers and only started wearing them as a symbol of status during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). This is also when the ruins of Pompeii rose in tourism and status-conscious women bought souvenir shell and lava cameos as evidence for their trip.
A cherub band playing accordions and a flapper wearing eyeglasses, smoking a cigarette, and holding a liquor bottle are just two rare cameo styles that have sold for huge amounts in auction.
Many famous figures popularized the cameo in their time. Napoleon himself wore a cameo to his wedding and created a Paris school to teach the art of cameo carving. Thomas Jefferson’s dining room fireplace mantel was inset with Josiah Wedgewood cameo plaques. Catherine the Great ordered all of glass maker John Tassie’s less expensive cameo models in triplicate. Queen Victoria not only created a greater wave of cameo popularity but also popularized the cameo with the woman’s profile carved in sea shell, creating the theme we’re most familiar with today. When she went into mourning after Prince Albert’s death, she wore black cameos until she died.
In the mid-Victorian period, cameo habilles came into being. These habilles featured carved women wearing their own tiny diamonds on necklaces, earrings or brooches, adding significant value to the pieces. This style gained popularity and can still be found in production today.
Today mass production means more easy access to cameos now that a modern carving machine makes them ultrasonically.
However, as you can guess, there is an easy-to-see difference between machine-made cameos and those made by hand. Today, only a select number of tradesmen specialize in cameo carving. The craft takes years of dedication to perfect.
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