Art from the sea: Company creating new age of shell, coral cameos

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By Dr. Anthony Cavo

 The women in Massa Gioconda’s cameos are more dynamic than traditional cameos and give a sense of fluid movement. All Images are courtesy of Massa Gioconda

The women in Massa Gioconda’s cameos are more dynamic than traditional cameos and give a sense of fluid movement. All Images are courtesy of Massa Gioconda

Recently I had the opportunity to visit with my friend Nancy Schuring of Devon Fine Jewelers and her friends, Tommaso Marotta and Sabrina De Simone, from Torre del Greco, Italy, and speak about the new age of shell and coral carving. Torre del Greco has been known for coral harvesting since the 18th century.

Tommaso comes from a family of coral fishermen; his grandfather, Captain Giuseppe Marotta, began coral fishing during the early 20th century. Marino, Tommaso’s father, followed his father Giuseppe’s vocation as a coral fisher in the Mediterranean Sea and soon became a rough coral merchant. Rough coral merchants buy unfinished, or rough coral (coral directly from the sea), to be finished and prepared for carving. Tommaso and his three siblings, Principia, Giuseppe and Ciro, decided to not only broker coral, but to form a company that finished and carved coral as well. In 1976, they partnered with master carvers and founded Massa Gioconda and began producing sardonyx shell cameos along with coral and turquoise jewelry. Today they produce some of the most beautiful and rarest coral jewelry, art and unique accessories including a coral evening bag and objets d’art. Sabrina De Simone represents the company in Europe and the United States.

Massa Gioconda also produces museum-quality sardonyx shell cameos. These cameos, expertly hand-carved by E. Imposimato, are not traditional in any sense of the word in terms of subject matter, which include classical and modern themes. Although, as in classical cameos, women are widely represented, they are not the static profiles most people associate with cameos. The women in Massa Gioconda’s cameos are dynamic and, although fixed in shell, evince a sense of strength and a fluid, flowing attitude evocative of movement. Their subject matter is not limited to women and includes a variety of wildlife such as flora and fauna of all types and shapes — demi-lune, triangular, circular, rectangular, square, hexagonal, diamond, tear-drop, heart-shaped, free-form and ellipse — all set in 18-karat gold. The artisans at Massa Gioconda also create entrancing cameo lamps that incorporate the entire shell.

At Massa Gioconda, the classic elliptical-shaped cameo is no longer de rigueur. The entire shell speaks to Tommaso and based on this interaction, he discerns what size and shape cameos are waiting to be created. Cameos are born of the natural lines, planes, curves and bumps inherent in each shell.

 In this cameo, men are heading off to the Trojan War.

In this cameo, men are heading off to the Trojan War.

Tommaso shared a widely embraced story about the origin of cameos that is rooted in the story of a sailor who was so in love with a woman that he carved her image in a shell to carry with him whenever he went away to sea. Whether true or not, it is indisputable that cameos are more than decorative. Cameos were, and continue to be, used in depicting mythology and historic events. The early 20th century cameo shown at the top of the next page portrays men going off to the Trojan war. It is a pictorial you can immediately comprehend. Even without knowing the subject matter, the observer understands the emotion of departure in this scene; such is the power of a truly gifted carver. It is interesting to note that many cameo carvers have a profound connection with the sea as did their ancestors, and, as the market for cameos fluctuate, many carvers find employment on ships.

Sabrina and Tommaso explained that insofar as jewelry making is concerned, African shells are the least expensive and least desirable. Sardonyx shells (Cassis madagascariensis) from the Caribbean Ocean, Mexico and Honduras are more desirable, with those originating in the Bahamas being the most prized. “These shells,” Tommaso said, “have more curves and undulations and fewer flat surfaces; this adds to the perception of dimension.”

Long before a sardonyx shell is carved, the natural contour of the shell suggests shapes and sizes of a cameo. The geography of each section (dips, bumps, and planes) may also inspire subject matter. In E. Imposimato’s hands, small elliptical sections of a shell may be used for diminutive pieces exhibiting putti at play, whereas a larger rectangular area can yield a serpent that is either menacing or beautifully powerful, and a large elliptical section can produce a dynamic image from Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon.

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“These high-quality shells are used for cameos portraying humans and animals, whereas shells of less quality are used for cameos depicting flowers in which imperfections are easier to conceal,” Tommaso said. Sabrina expounded on this statement by saying, “This is not to say that cameos depicting flowers are inferior (many floral cameos are made of expensive Sardonyx shell), but rather, if a shell is not of high quality, it is better to use that shell for flowers, where natural flaws can be incorporated into the design.”

Nature is regularly irregular and perfectly imperfect, so each piece is unique.

Tommaso spoke about preparing a shell for cameo production. In readying a shell for cameo carving, the tip and base of the shell are cut off, leaving a cup-shaped form. The shell is examined against bright light to reveal the character of the surfaces and to identify imperfections; tricolor shells are best for cameos. Tommaso examines each shell and almost instinctually recognizes the different planes and surfaces and the shape and number of cameos that shell will yield. The way in which conch shells are used in Italy is tightly regulated and must be justified. Shell carvers must measure the conch shell and report the number of pieces that are made from any particular shell.

 Animal cameos are popular in the U.S., women are popular in Japan, and flowers are the top choice in China.

Animal cameos are popular in the U.S., women are popular in Japan, and flowers are the top choice in China.

 Lions, fish, swans and other wildlife are popular cameo subjects in the American market. These were carved by Azzardo Gennaro Cervasio.

Lions, fish, swans and other wildlife are popular cameo subjects in the American market. These were carved by Azzardo Gennaro Cervasio.

As far as subject matter, Tommaso said that in America, animals are preferred; in Japan, cameos depicting women are favored; and in China, the predilection is for flowers. The Japanese market for cameos has been strong, especially for high quality, expensive cameos. Sabrina and Tommaso find that skin tone is an important factor in selecting cameos and coral jewelry. They suggest those with fair complexions opt for lighter color cameos and angel skin coral, and those with a darker complexion select darker pieces such as red.

Not only are hand-carved sardonyx shell cameos created at Massa Gioconda, the collection includes natural turquoise jewelry and a variety of pieces made of coral. Their coral beads come in a variety of shapes and sizes both smooth as cabochon (round, oval and free-form) and hand-carved in such diverse colors as white, salmon, pink, and red. Massa Gioconda participates with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and none of the species of coral utilized are endangered. All coral used in their pieces originates in four places in the Mediterranean Sea — specifically, off the coasts of Corsica, Sardinia, Tunisia, Spain and Southern France (Costa Azzura).

Methods for collecting coral have changed dramatically since the early history of coral fishing. One of the earliest contraptions, dating from 1000 A.D., was the “ingegno” (literally “intelligence” or “brain” in Italian). The ingegno was also known as St. Andrew’s cross because of its X-shape or the shape of the cross on which St. Andrew was martyred. Fishing nets are attached to the X-form, which is tied to a long rope, thrown into the ocean, then dragged across the ocean floor where the nets entangle, snap off and collect coral branches. This crude method broke the coral branches but left the base undamaged. Today, deep sea divers are judiciously selective and harvest only the older, larger branches of coral and leave the younger branches to develop.

Mediterranean coral is collected at an average depth of 70 meters by divers and Pacific coral is harvested at around 200 meters by submarine. The Mediterranean produces red coral, whereas the deeper depths of the Pacific yield dark red to white. The beautiful and rare, pink coral can be found in the Pacific between Hawaii and China.

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A broad variety of subjects is always available at Massa Gioconda, and of all the different types of coral, Tommaso said it is the red coral that has the widest appeal.

Pink-shell cameos, often identified as “angel skin” (a misnomer) are made of the pink inner surface of the conch shell and they tend to fade with age and exposure to light. Tommaso is emphatic about the term “angel skin” and its use only in terms of coral and never shell cameos.

 This angel skin coral necklaceis a perfect example of the care each carver takes with precious material.

This angel skin coral necklaceis a perfect example of the care each carver takes with precious material.

This angel skin coral necklace of large graduated coral beads is a perfect example of the care each carver takes with the precious material. No photograph can do justice to the beauty, luster and color in the necklaces created at Massa Gioconda. In holding that piece, you are impressed with the smooth quality achieved by the carver, the impressive weight and innate coolness. There are a number of factors to consider when pricing coral jewelry. As with most gems or precious metals, weight is an important consideration in establishing value. In the case of coral, the weight is measured in grams. The other characteristics that determine value are the color, size, shape and presence or, more importantly, absence of imperfections.

There are currently around 100 cameo carvers in Torre del Greco. Tommaso is expressive when he speaks about the industry of cameo carving. “Although there are schools for cameo carving in Torre del Greco, there are not so many students who are sensitive enough of spirit and loving of the art,” he said. His passion for the sea and for coral and shell carving is apparent in his expression and hand motions. “You must love what you do. For the real artist, the emotion is more important than the money.”

When asked how much time Tommaso and Sabrina spend traveling on behalf of Massa Gioconda, he said, “Too much.” They travel five to seven months of the year to see their suppliers and clients in the United States, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Europe. He describes his customers as “Much, much, much more important than our goods. Goods can be bought, our relations with our customers is priceless.” Tommaso’s viewpoint is profound and can change the viewer’s perspective when they consider a cameo or piece of coral jewelry when he says, “It is moving when you consider that a cameo is actually a moment in time, it is actually a portion of time of that carver’s life.” It makes you think about how little we consider the time and passion an artist invests in any piece, especially when we tend to contemplate a piece of art as a physical entity and perhaps the response it triggers in us, seeing only what is there before us rather than the inception, creation, time and emotion invested in that piece.

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Besides coral, Massa Gioconda is also known for creating extraordinary and exquisite pieces using 18kt gold and diamonds, including one-of-a-kind letter openers in the form of a budding flower made of angel skin coral and a lion’s head in red coral that spouts a fall of diamonds that is reminiscent of the “Fontane Pubbliche” or public fountains, found throughout Italy in the piazzas of cities, towns, and villages. In the ancient world, lions were always associated with power and water.

Tommaso is responsible for buying the “rough” product and once selections are made, a carver is chosen based on the quality of the shell. Tommaso knows, with conviction, which carver is best for which shell. “I know because of the characteristics in the rough that only this guy or that guy can do it. Sometimes I see the talent they don’t even know they have. It is like a soccer team where the coach knows in what position each player is the strongest. You are not diminishing anyone’s talent, but recognizing where the full talent can be best realized. Some carvers do right profiles best while others do left profiles best.”

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The artists at Massa Gioconda do not limit their talents to small pieces and jewelry. They also carve larger and intricate red coral figurines that display incredible detail and rival any museum quality carvings of comparable size. These one-of-a-kind pieces are mounted on ebony, gold or Lucite and many incorporate 18kt gold in the design.

This strong image of a Native American has been carved on a Sardonyx shell. With meticulous handling, a skilled carver can cut away fine surface layers to reveal the colors hidden deep within the shell. The rich deep browns hidden in the depths are revealed by the carver’s tools to contrast with the warm golden browns and stark whites comprising the surfaces above. To realize their full color potential, shells must be completely dry. It may take two or more years in the sun for a large shell to dry out enough to qualify for carving a cameo of superior quality. By using their skills and the depths of color, a skilled carver can convey a sense of dimension not seen in imitation cameos that are molded or machine-made.

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All cameos from Massa Gioconda are signed by the carver. Tommaso has tried carving, but realizes his true talent is in selecting the rough and identifying the talent required to produce an item of beauty from that rough. He and his brother do the initial cutting and shaping before they map out the shape and number of cameos that will be made. He finds true joy in witnessing the transformation from the rough to the finished piece, and in sitting on his balcony in the sea-scented air, overlooking the Mediterranean with a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

Tommaso’s expression changed to one of awe when asked if he had favored the work of any single cameo carver. “Carlo Parlati,” he answered without hesitation. “Carlo Parlati was a master carver filled with a strong inner conflict that is reflected in his work. His pieces are signed and very difficult to acquire; most of his pieces are held by collectors.”

Massa Gioconda offers this advice to help keep your coral jewelry in optimum condition: Do not expose coral to extreme heat or any heat source. When displaying coral, such as in showcases, the coral should not spend much time under electric light. Coral does best in a humid environment and can be damaged by body sweat, cosmetics and perfume. After handling and wearing coral, it is best to wipe them clean with a dry natural cloth such as linen. Coral should be handled with care as it is apt to crack or even shatter if dropped on a hard surface.

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If you visit Massa Gioconda’s website (www.massagioconda.it/), you will have the option of navigating in English. I would recommend you visit and view the different shell cameos — the visit will certainly change your image of what a cameo is. Their coral and turquoise collections are also well worth a visit. Prior to seeing the turquoise pieces created by Massa Gioconda, I can say that I was somewhat indifferent to turquoise as a gem stone; however, after seeing their pieces in turquoise, I have radically changed my opinion.

If you plan on visiting the beautiful coastline in the Bay of Naples, and the beautiful beaches of Erchie, my grandfather’s village, you should visit the neighboring village of Torre del Greco and the studio of Massa Gioconda — it is well worth the visit.

Dr. Anthony J. Cavo is an honors graduate of the Asheford Institute Of Antiques and a graduate of Reisch College of Auctioneering. He has extensive experience in the field of buying and selling antiques and collectibles; at age 18, he became one of the youngest purchasers and consigners of antiques and art for a New York auction house. Dr. Cavo is an active dealer in the antiques and collectibles marketplace in the U.S. and abroad.

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