Carved in Stone—or Shell







I have always loved cameos. I received one as a birthday gift years ago, white carving on a brown background set in an antique gold broach, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of jewelry. Not because I wear it all the time, but because of the history of the gift. My history.

Recently my mother, sister and I were sorting through my grandmother’s jewelry. Among the dozens of bird and animal pins—she loved wearing them for her kindergarten students—were several cameos. Some were plastic, others looked to be rather old. Since GGG (she signed her cards this way—stands for Great Grandmother Grace) didn’t collect fine jewelry, the old pieces wecameo-antique-victorian-sardonyx-1880re probably her mother’s. Looking at those wonderful pieces got me thinking about the history of the cameo.

The cameo is much older than I thought. Though the origins are still under dispute, most think the word “Cameo” comes from the Hebrew word KAMEA, meaning a charm or amulet, or from the Latin CAMMAEUS, meaning “engraved gem”.

Historians believe this carving tradition came from Alexandria, Egypt, nearly three centuries before the birth of Christ. Early Greek and Roman carvings featured images of gods and goddesses, mythological scenes and biblical events. Some immortalized rulers or heroes. During the era of Helen [323BC – 31/30BC], women wore cameos depicting a dancing Eros as an invitation to perspective lovers.

They’ve been used on military uniforms, rings, watch fobs, pins, amulets, vases, cups and dishes. They became a collector’s item during the reign of Queen Elizabeth to demonstrate status and wealth.

queen-victoria1Queen Victoria popularized the cameos made of sea shells. Napoleon wore a cameo to his own wedding and founded a school in Paris to teach the art of cameo carving to young apprentices.cameo-coral2


Stone, shell and coral are the materials most often used for the carvings. In stones, you’ll find agate and less often, turquoise.


Shell is probably the most commonly used material, because of it’s availability cameo-strombus-giga-shellto carvers in all locations and financial situations. Among the shells used are Cornelian, Cassis Madagascariensis, Empire Helmet or Conch, Sardonyx (that’s the material in the pink amulet above), and Strombus Giga.


cameo-antique-victorian-shellThe cameos we’re most familiar with show a young woman, hair and dress appropriate to the period of the carving, in various colors. 

In the 1840s, the goddess Athena cameo-athena-french-1840was a popular subject.

They even carved cameos of such things as peacocks and horses.cameo-antique-ivory-peacocks 




Here’s one of my favorites from my research:




I still don’t know the origin of the lovely pieces in my grandmother’s collection, but that doesn’t matter so much. I appreciate them for their beauty and the history they portray—my history.

Do any of you own cameos? Do you know where they came from?

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36 thoughts on “Carved in Stone—or Shell”

  1. Tracy, I own a wonderful cameo pendant. It was given to me by my husband on the day that we wed to wear with my wedding gown. I love it and the matching earrings but don’t always think to wear it. Needs a new chain, age and live means the chain is now a little short. Loved reading about the history of cameos.

  2. Tracy,

    I think cameos are so beautiful. I did not know the history of the cameo. Very interesting. You have taught me something today.

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  3. Connie, I understand about not thinking to wear the cameo. Somewhere in the back of my mind I consider them very dressy. But they deserve to be shown, don’t you think?

  4. I also love cameos. I have one that I bought years ago, but don’t own any old ones. It’s wonderful that you have one with family history attached to it. They really are works of art.

  5. Tracy,

    What an interesting subject! I love cameos and I put one on my heroine in my third single title called Redemption. The cameo played a crucial part in the story.

    I have two cameos, one that my belonged to my mother. It’s costume jewelry but it has great sentimental value to me. The other cameo was given to me as birthday present several years ago. I keep it on my dressy black coat. Sure does dress it up.

  6. Hi Tracy,
    I have a cameo ring from my grandmother. The work on it is so intricate and the woman is wearing a diamond necklace, so there’s an actual mini-sized necklace with a diamond chip in it. It’s an amazing piece of work. Thanks for reminding me about it. I also have a cameo pin from my grandmother too.

  7. Linda, most of mine are costume, too, but its that sentimental thing that make them priceless to me. Just wearing one always makes me feel dressed up.

    Charlene, cameo rings amaze me. I found pictures of some that were incredible. The detail is small but so precise.

  8. Ah cameos. They are still carved in Sorrento, Italy. You can tell a real cameo (made from shell) from the paste ones. Simply turn it over and hold up to the light.
    The value of the cameo is really in the carving.
    Anyway it was fascinating see cameos being carved when I was there last year.

  9. Hi Tracy!

    I’m one of those who doesn’t own a cameo. I love them — think they are beautiful, but I don’t own any, sad to say.

    Those you show are beautiful — what a great post — I keep learning more and more things.

    Great post.

  10. I have never had a cameo… My grandmother had one… I know my mom has one. I love that Horse one, oh my, how beautiful!!! 😀

  11. Michelle, you lucky girl. That had to be wonderful to see. I knew about holding them to the light – if you can see “through” them they are shell, not plastic, right?

  12. Thanks, Karen!

    Isn’t the horse lovely, Colleen? I was surprised to find they carved something other than the Victorian lady into cameos. I liked the peacocks, too–thought the picture doesn’t do it justice.

  13. I love cameos, but unfortunately there is no family
    jewelry that includes them! Perhaps I’ll add a
    cameo to my Christmas list for this year and begin
    a tradition!

    Pat Cochran

  14. Tracy,
    I learned so much from this post. Thanks!

    I love cameos but have never owned one. I will be looking for one now though. I was in Italy in 2004 staying in the next town over from Sorrento! It’s so beautiful there and wished I’d known about the cameos then.

    I’m glad you asked Michelle about the light coming through. I had the same thought… 🙂

  15. Hi Estella. Happy Friday! Glad you stopped by. I’ve had one since I was young, but that was all until I was fortunate to be given these from my grandmother.

  16. Hi Tracy, I don’t have any cameos, but I just had the awesome experience of going through family jewelry with my sister-in-law. Such treasures! We found my grandmother’s baby ring. I didn’t even known there was such a tradition. The best pieces were the ones we remembered moms and grandmothers wearing.

    I think cameos are beautiful. The detail is truly amazing.

  17. Hi, Tracy, I have a cameo that was passed down to me from my mother who received it from her mother who received it from my grandfather as a gift. It is totally beautiful. I love it not only for the beauty but for the history.

  18. Vicki,

    Although I’m sorry for the reason (Hugs, my friend!) I have to agree about what a neat experience it is to look at all the treasures. The ones with memories attached are the best.

    Finding out how they are carved made cameos see lots more like art than jewelry. Much to the sorrow of my wallet, I might have to start watching for them at antique stores. 😀

  19. I have a cameo that I received for Christmas from my parents when I was about thirteen. I don’t ware it ofter anymore but have always enjoyed it. I think the chain needs repaired.

  20. Yes, sorry. I should have been clear. With a shell, you will see the light coming through and no pasted layers.
    It is all carved and the different colours come from the different colours of the shell. There can be up to seven different shades.
    It is fascinating to watch cameos being carved. The craftsmen are very skilled.

  21. My favorite cameo was given to me as winner of the Molly Award for “Most Unsinkable Heroine”. It was my first writing prize, and I keep it in an antique dish near my bed to remind me every single day that I am a writer.

  22. To show his deep love for me, my husband secretly had three gold pieces of jewelry he had worn for years melted down and my husband had a cameo ring made and hand designed for me. Its one of a kind since my husband designed it and told the jeweler what he wanted. It had to be braced underneath because of the heaviness of the cameo mounted in filigree gold.

  23. Hi there
    I was just wondering if anyone knows where I might find out some information about- an old -conch shell with a carving of queen victoria-
    thanks so much

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