A Brief History of the Cameo

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.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

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 charming cameo ring.

A charming cameo ring.

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 Caraglio_Cameo_of_Barbara_Radziwiłłdiamonds 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.

5 Classic Cupid Symbols

It’s not even close to Valentine season, but as it turns out, Cupid gives meaning to far more than cheesy cards and boxes of chocolates.

It all starts with the cameo.

Though the most popular cameo style today features the profile of a woman (popularized by Queen Victoria), prior to the Victorian era, numerous other styles and themes appeared on the cameo.

In older times, these images were often thought to have a kind of magic and were often given as a love token. So it makes sense that the most powerful images portrayed Eros, or Cupid, the god of love.

Some say that whatever Cupid holds or does in the image gives a hidden message. Fun Valentine activity: give your significant other a Cupid card, tell them it contains a hidden message, and watch them sweat.

A rare enamel patch box, available here.

A rare enamel patch box showing Cupid riding a lion, available here.

But for those who want to know what Cupid is up to, here’s your handy guide to five classic Cupid symbols:

1. Cupid with a rose means a secret love. Cupid often carries a rose in mythology, which comes from the Roman tradition of hanging a rose over a conference table as a symbol of secrecy. In legend, Cupid gives the god of silence, Harpocrates, a rose so he will keep the secrets of Venus.

2. Cupid riding a lion says love conquers all. This is one of the oldest cameo images, and it has lasted to this day. Cupid is also often shown riding a dolphin, which is possibly a metaphor for Apollo’s love for Daphne.

3. A blindfolded Cupid suggests “love is blind.”

4. Cupid in chains means “love-bound”.

5. Cupid shown with a bow in his hand means he is ready for battle in the war of love.

Bonus symbol: Cupid isn’t always used as a symbol of love. You can find him on pieces of mourning jewelry leaning against an urn or column. When someone is in mourning, people will often ask, “How are you holding up?” So it is with Cupid, literally holding himself up with the urn or column. A sorrowful Cupid is shown pensively standing in a somber pose, with a cameo background of black onyx or another dark material. The piece might also have pearls to represent tears.

Cupid on a Dolphin

Cupid on a Dolphin

Cupid has always been a popular subject of not only cameos, but also of jewelry and various other items. Archaeologists found a 2,000-year-old carving of Cupid in Jerusalem three years ago. The carving shows Cupid with an upside-down torch, possibly symbolizing the fading of life.

Next time you see Cupid on a Valentine’s Day card or a piece of jewelry, consider the picture’s details. They may mean more than you think.

And if you’re given a card with Cupid holding an upside-down torch, somebody doesn’t like you.

Sources:

Valentine’s day

Mythological Messages

2,000-Year-Old Cupid Uncovered