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 were 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 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.
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 to 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.
The 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 was a popular subject.
They even carved cameos of such things as peacocks and horses.
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?