Cameos: Treat yourself like royalty

All images provided by Sunday and Sunday, Uniontown, Ohio., 330-966-6746.

I recently discovered I have something in common with Napoleon … and it’s not the urge to control countries. It is the appreciation of cameos.

A cameo’s subject is carved in relief. The top layer of a material is cut away, exposing the different colored layer beneath from which the subject is carved.

First appearing around the time of Alexander the Great, the cameo’s wave of popularity has continued all these centuries. Used to decorate helmets, military sword handles, and breast plates, it also adorned vases and dishes … and of course, jewelry.

Cameo 2247p AT 4-23.jpg14K solid rose gold early Victorian brooch pin, well detailed hand carved intaglio (antaglio) of Saint George with Dragon.

Napoleon was so taken by the beauty of cameos that he not only wore and collected them, he also started a school in Paris to train young carvers. His wife’s coronation crown was studded with cameos. Catherine the Great had a notable collection, Queen Elizabeth I wore them. But of all who had a fondness for cameos, it is Queen Victoria who is most associated with them.

Originally made from hardstones, such as agate, onyx, and sardonyx, cameos were limited to the very wealthy. Shells became the next major source, as well as coral, malachite, emeralds, and glass paste. While these materials made cameos more assessable, they still remained unaffordable to the majority.

Those left behind in the cameo pursuit were thrilled when 18th century glass maker John Tassie offered them less expensive glass imitations. But Tassie’s appeal went beyond those enthusiasts. Catherine the Great ordered all of his models made for her in triplicate.

Josiah Wedgwood also gained recognition during this time with cameos made from white porcelain bisque and unglazed jasperware. Its popularity is evident by the 1,764 different cameos listed in the 1787 Wedgwood and Bentley catalog.(Cameos Old and New, by Anna M. Miller) Wedgwood pieces were also mounted in furniture; Thomas Jefferson had his dining room fireplace mantel inset with Wedgwood cameo plaques. Wedgwood was so esteemed by royalty and collectors, they allowed him to take molds of their personal cameos. He even purchased some of Tassie’s molds.

Cameo 2538p AT 4-23.jpg14K white gold Edwardian hand carved genuine shell cameo pin/pendant in rare hexagonal shape.

Queen Victoria, who wore all kinds of jewelry, especially favored cameos. It was during her reign, 1837-1901, that cameos surged forward with even greater appeal. She wore them constantly and gave them as gifts.

Victorian business men showered their spouses with valuable jewelry as a way of showing off their newly acquired wealth. If something was good, Victorians believed you could not have too much of it…and, following Queen Victoria’s tastes for what was good, they clamored for cameos.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into permanent mourning, and until she died forty years later, wore only black clothing and jewelry. Black cameos were created for her. Widows, often spending several years in mourning, followed the queen’s example by choosing mourning cameos. The jet industry flourished, turning out enormous numbers of cameos carved from this fossilized form of coal.
Cameo 1653p AT 4-23.jpg
The diversity and creativity of cameo work is clearly evident in the fine detailing and intricate carving of the cameos seen here. It’s easy to understand why royalty and common folk alike all fell in love with the form.

Victorians were sentimental and cupids became subjects for their loving feelings. Those for the dead had somber faced cupids leaning against a column or urn. Mourning cameos frequently had glass covered boxes on the back. If the box was deep, it was to hold locks of the deceased’s hair. If shallow, it was for their photograph.

While men’s portraits were carved into cameos, those of women in profile far outnumbered male subjects. These designs mirrored the fashions of the day, both in hairstyles and clothing. Botanical subjects reflected Victorians enjoyment of horticulture. Mythological and religious motifs were also popular.

Cameo production was at a zenith during the Victorian era. More materials, such as sapphire, garnet, jade, opal, and quartz, were used to entice collectors. It is this period that most excites Carolyn Sunday of Ohio. Says Sunday of her preference for early Victorian pieces, “The ladies have a fuller figured look and generally much more realistic and detailed carving.” Sunday, who became a dealer of antique jewelry 25 years ago, said she fell in love with cameos right away and has been collecting them ever since. Most of her cameo customers also gravitate towards these pre-1900 Victorian pieces. And they don’t just glean cameos for displaying, they wear them.

It was during the mid-Victorian period that the carved women subjects began to wear jewelry themselves. Cameo habilles, portraits of heads wearing tiny diamonds affixed as necklaces, earrings, and/or brooches, usually fetch high prices. But not all habilles originated as such; cameo marriages may have been performed much later. According to Sunday, this was sometimes done to increase the value of an otherwise unremarkable cameo. Look beyond the added adornments for additional qualities.

Cameos were often souvenirs brought back from the Grand Tour of Europe. Status conscious Victorians especially liked lava cameos, showing they had visited Pompeii. An abundance of large cameos were carved from this less expensive material. The soft and easily carved lava enabled artists to create unusually high relief figures. However, these higher relief cameos were often damaged, especially the carved protruding limbs, noses, and faces.

The love of cameos did not cease after Queen Victoria’s death and artisans expanded their materials, including such sources as turquoise, ruby, lazuli, aquamarine, peridot, and topaz. Since production continues even today, knowing how to detect new cameos will also help collectors learn about the old.

Cameo 2665p AT 4-23.jpgExtremely rare Victorian sterling silver genuine (pre-ban) tortoise  shell, genuine ivory, and marcasite cameo.

A modern carving machine now creates cameos ultrasonically, producing them by the hundreds. This mass production, taking minutes to do what once took days, has meant cameos are more affordable. But there is a difference between those made by machine and those by hand. Reputable dealers can distinguish between them. And beginning collectors should too so they don’t purchase a machine made cameo at a higher price, expecting it to be older and hand carved.

Miller writes, “There is an absolute and unmistakable production giveaway … that you can learn on the spot.” When rubbing your thumb across the ultrasonically carved cameo, you will feel slight resistance. The hand-carved one will feel “silky smooth." Miller also points out the “fresh-fallen snow syndrome,” a glistening effect of the machine carved cameo.

Today an imitation shell cameo is being made by injecting plastic into a mold. Older pieces were set in precious metal; base metals are usually used for these fake shells. If a mounting isn’t marked with the gold content or ‘sterling silver’, it can be tested to verify.

Another way to distinguish shell cameos from plastic or glass imitations is to feel the cameo. Plastic and glass are warm to the touch, shells and stones are cool. You should probably have permission from the seller before using this suggestion by Miller: When rubbing the cameo against the bottom of your upper front teeth, a shell will have a slightly gritty feel, while glass will feel smooth.

Cameo 3146p AT 4-23.jpgMagnification is vital in studying cameos before purchasing. Miller writes of the “straight, irregular fibrous structure” of shells, while glass has flow lines and bubbles.

Using just signatures to authenticate antique cameos gets tricky as many were unsigned at production, but signed at a later time by someone entirely different as a way of increasing value. Sunday has also seen “unsigned pieces that are incredible, and signed pieces that are unremarkable.”

Pricing is subjective for Sunday. The age of the piece, the metal that it is set into, and the condition are considered. With all those being equal, “Highly detailed, extremely realistic carvings fetch the most.”

Cameo 3113p AT 4-23.jpg Acquiring knowledge of the antique will help collectors tell the new from old. This requires really studying them. Visiting museums to view outstanding public collections is one good way. Auctions are another learning source, especially attending viewings prior to action dates. Another learning tool is getting to know dealers who are experts in the field of cameos.

Even when a cameo is a known antique, a dealer’s knowledge can be helpful. Sunday, who has earned certifications at the Gemological Institute of America, has noticed shell cameos frequently being described incorrectly by dealers as sardonyx or carnelian, referring to the color. “This is very confusing to the new collector. True sardonyx and carnelian are hardstone minerals … both micro-crystalline varieties of the mineral chalcedony.” Both are 7 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, requiring a higher level of carving skill than shells, which are 2. As in all collecting, it pays to trust the expertise of people you are buying from.

new cameo 5 at 4-23.jpg Full Parure (a suite of matching jewelry) of Italian hand carved operculum shell set in 800 silver includes the earrings, necklace, bracelet and ring.

Some cameo enthusiasts concentrate on purchasing examples of a certain time period, while others collect a particular carver, theme, or material. In Victorian Jewelry, Margaret Flower labels collectors as either virtuosi or historians. The former desires what’s choice of its kind, preferring perfection to quantity. The latter pursues what is representative of their chosen category, regardless of beauty or rarity. Fowler believes both approaches have equal merit and there’s no way of predicting which a new collector will take. Regardless of what path is followed, both will fortunately lead to the preservation of cameos.


• When not worn, cameos should be displayed in trays or drawers with separate, lined compartments.

• Provide ample space around each stored cameo so they won’t get chipped from overcrowding.

• Lighted cabinets will not harm hardstone cameos. (Translucent hardstones look especially beautiful when backlit.) But lighted cabinets should not be used for other materials. Ivory, coral, and shells will dry out and become brittle if exposed to the heat of light.

(Source: Cameos Old and New)


Dust particles will accumulate around details, eventually scratching the surface. In addition to dusting cameos with a soft artist’s sable brush, the following instructions are provided by Anna M. Miller in her book, Cameos Old and New.

HARDSTONES: Only the hardest stones (like diamonds, ruby, and sapphire) can be cleaned with ultrasonic machines or commercial jewelry cleaners. All others should be kept away from cleaners. Miller suggests dusting them, then rinsing with tepid water, and patting dry with a soft cotton cloth. The exception, porous stones (such as turquoise) which will absorb moisture, eventually turning a dingy gray green. These cameos should only be dusted.

SHELLS: These are more easily scratched by dust than hardstones. Dust them, then rinse several times in tepid water and pat dry with soft cotton cloth.

AMBER: This form of fossilized tree resin will dissolve when any cleaning solution is used on it. Clean by repeatedly rinsing in tepid water, followed by patting dry with soft cotton cloth.

PLASTER CASTS: This is a highly absorbent material and must be kept dry. Miller warns collectors to never use liquids for cleaning. Instead, she says “Brush with an artist’s soft brush that has been dipped in dry plaster of paris.”

IVORY: This material reacts like wood when exposed to moisture and heat. It can separate and crack. Miller’s suggestion: dust carefully, give the piece a quick dip in warm water, then dry immediately with a soft cotton cloth.

GLASS: Miller urges collectors to take the advice of experts who restore old glass…keep it away from dampness, air conditioning, and heating vents. Store in well ventilated cabinets. To clean, only brush.

Your own expert jeweler should also be asked about the cleaning care of cameo pieces.


Cameos Old and New, By Anna M. Miller, Gemstone Press, 2002.

Cameos, Classical to Costume, By Monica Lynn Clements and Patricia Rosser Clements, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998.

Victorian Jewelry, By Margaret Flower, Dover Publications, 2002.

Nineteenth Century Cameos: A Price & Identification Guide, By Michael Rowan, Antiques Collector’s Club, 2004.

Cameos: A Pocket Guide, 2nd edition, By Monica Lynn Clements and Patricia Rosser Clements, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2003.

Collecting Victorian Jewelry, By C. Jeanenne Bell, Krause Publications, 2004.


Museums do not always have their cameos on exhibit. It is a good idea to inquire before going.

1. Victoria and Albert Museum has cameos dating back to the 1500s in their collection. Unfortunately it’s in

2. Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a small collection of cameos, intaglios, and cameo glass.

3. Indiana University (Bloomington) has the Burton Y. Berry collection of ancient gems, including rare cameos of jasper, agate, garnet, and other hardstones.

4. J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, CA) has a small, but excellent, collection of cameos, intaglios, and cameo glass.

5. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) is the home of several cameo collections.

6. The Zizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art (near Chicago) has the permanent, outstanding collection of the late Dr. J. Daniel Willems.