Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs

Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs
Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs

So popular has cameo jewelry been throughout history that even some of you folks might happen to own or have inherited one. Cameo jewelry is indeed timeless, with its first examples dating back to the 3rd century BC. Practically speaking, a cameo is a piece of jewelry whose distinguishing feature is its carved raised relief that often resembles a face, flowers, animals, and even mythological scenes. Shell, coral, stone, lava, and glass are typical materials for cameos while gold or silver is commonly used as a setting. Feel free to skip the history lessons below and jump right to our vintage-inspired cameo jewelry recommendations that feature a modern twist. 

History Of Cameo Jewelry In The Ancient Times

Cameo jewelry has been admired since ancient times for its multi-dimensional artwork, frequently being worn by Emperors, Kings, and Queens from the ancient Mediterranean countries to the Western Culture. 

Thanks to trade routes that connected Egypt, Rome, and Greece, cameo jewelry initially got its popularity in the Mediterranean countries. The first cameo jewelry pieces depicted mythological themes that paid tribute to gods and goddesses. With the blossoming of the Roman Empire, cameo jewelry carvers started incorporating historical events, even political portraits in their designs. 

During this era, the landscape of cameo jewelry was affected by social stratifications, with the wealthy families being able to adorn themselves with cameo jewelry made of expensive gemstones, while glass cameo was marketed to lower social classes. 

History Of Cameo Jewelry During Renaissance And Elizabethian Era (14th to 17th Century)

Later in the 14th to the 17th century, covering the age of Renaissance and followed by the Elizabethian period, cameo jewelry-making technique saw another increase in popularity, as many affluent men and women began to collect cameos as symbols of cultural status. One of the most recognized collectors of cameo jewelry of this period was Pope Paul II. So much cherished the Pope his cameos that he loved to adorn his fingers with many cameo rings. Historians believe that was also what brought his death, which according to the folk tales, “ the Pope kept his hands so chilly by wearing many cameo rings on his fingers, that he caught the frost that spelled his death”. 

History Of Cameo Jewelry During The 19th Century 

Other more-fortunate cameo collectors from royal families (19th century) include Queen Victoria of England and Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte of France. It was Napoleon himself, who during this time, established a Parisian apprentice school to help young cameo carvers develop their skills. The famed Cameo Tiara from Napoleon’s collection, which he gifted to his wife, Josephine, in 1809, is now owned by the Swedish royal family. During Queen Victoria’s reign, shelled cameos, which represented natural and humanistic sceneries on deep-sea shells, were highly fashionable. 

Modern Cameo Jewelry Designs To Customize Any Look

Cameo jewelry continues to appear in contemporary fashion spaces, with world-renowned jewelry designers adding their take and keeping the thousands of years old craft at the forefront of jewelry options for many. In addition to accessorizing yourself with vintage cameo pieces, you can as well opt for many vintage-inspired pieces with a modern twist. 

Victorian Cameo Rhinestone Brooch

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True to its name, this Victorian-inspired cameo brooch brings its dramatic nature to your jewelry collection. Wear it as a brooch or add a chain and turn it into a necklace. Either way, the intricate carving artwork will be a great addition to your attire.  

Morning Glory Hummingbird Cameo Necklace 

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Looking for a statement piece from the past? This cameo pendant comes with the vintage-inspired design of the 19th century, visible throughout its intricate artwork and the antique brass color of the setting. Available for purchase are eight different motifs varying from nature scenes, birds, and portraits. 

Cameo Pin Brooches

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We found it for you! The ultimate accessory to adorn your dress or any outfit with. A classic cameo pin brooch. Surf through eight different designs, including anything from floral motifs, mermaids, cats, and even Snoopy featured in the center of the jewelry piece. 

14K Cameo Post Earrings

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Experience the real fine jewelry excitement with these genuine cameo post earrings in 14K yellow gold. The selection of premium materials, in addition to the intricate carving artwork, make these earrings the perfect statement pieces. 

Resin Cameo Necklace 

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With its blue and white pattern, this cameo necklace carved in resin brings to life a high level of detail. Its carved silhouette captures the power of the relationship only a Mother understands, making it perfect for a Mother’s Day gift. 

Victorian Black Velvet Lace Cameo Choker

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Make a change for one and accessorize yourself with a daring Victorian-inspired velvet lace cameo choker. This simple yet sophisticated velvet lace necklace comes with a woman silhouette carved in resin and a black, teardrop-shaped crystal bead that makes it an even more exciting jewelry piece. 

Popular Cameo Jewelry Motifs And Shapes

Although Victorian-era portraits are commonly associated with cameo jewelry, there are plenty of other different styles to choose from. The first cameos from antiquity, for example, were devoted to their patron Gods or Goddesses. Cameo decorations with astrological zodiac signs are an example of how contemporary artists have altered this design for current preferences in innovative ways. Whether you’re looking for a true antique item or something with a modern twist, there are plenty of primary topics to choose from.

The following are examples of relief designs found on antique and vintage cameos: portraits, animals, birds, insects, angels, flowers, mermaids, family, symbols of patriotism like flags, Disney characters, sports-related themes, birthstone pendants, city scenes, and other Christian-inspired motifs like hands in prayer and The Virgin Mary. 

Cameo designs are typically set in yellow gold, white gold, or sterling silver jewelry. These motifs are occasionally embellished with gems or pearls. Although the elliptical is the most common shape for cameo jewelry, there are a variety of different shapes available, including heart-shaped cameos, pear-shaped cameos, round, square, teardrop, or square.

Value Of Vintage, Antique, and Modern Cameo Jewelry

When evaluating cameo jewelry, certain factors indicate its value. While jewelry is one of those consumer goods that wildly varies in price; materials, level of craftsmanship, and time it was made, are three key factors that mark cameo jewelry’s value. For example, vintage cameo pieces from the Victorian, Art Noveau, Art Deco, or Edwardian era, are worth around $1.000 up to $8.000. 

A modern designer cameo jewelry piece can also reach this price range if it is adorned with precious gemstones, and comes from a reputable designer. As for the more antique cameo pieces, these jewelry artworks are considered historical items as they are quite rare and almost impossible to be found intact. 

Again, the price of cameo jewelry, whether that be antique or contemporary, can wildly vary on the condition of the item, the usage of precious metals and gems, as well as the level of workmanship. 

How To Identify Cameo Jewelry? 

The key to assessing a cameo piece of jewelry is to figure out what material it is made of. The cameo should ideally be formed of shell, coral, stone, or lava. Shell cameos often feature an orangish-pink background with a white or cream foreground and are crafted of conch shells. It’s necessary to keep in mind that the carved shell is thin, which makes it relatively translucent and prone to shattering. The less expensive molded plastic is designed to seem like a shell, but it is usually noticeably thicker. Other factors to take into consideration when appraising cameo jewelry include the following: 

Check Transparency 

Examine the backside of your pink or white cameo by holding it up to a source of light. You should be able to look through the cameo and make out the design outline if it’s made of a genuine shell. However, some plastic cameos are thin as well, so don’t rely on this tell-tale sign alone. Likely, the cameo isn’t made of the shell if you can’t see through it at all.

Scan The Carving 

If you can find a 10x loupe, view your shell cameo from the front. You should be able to see very fine carving tool lines or markings on the piece, indicating that it is formed of a shell. To compare, plastic has a smoother and more uniform look.

Search For Cracks or Crazing

Examine the texture of cameo work more closely. While viewing the cameo with the help of a light source, you should observe some fine cracks or crazing. This indicates the cameo jewelry is genuine and is made of shells.

Check The Setting 

As aforementioned, many vintage or antique cameo jewelry pieces come in gold or silver settings. Feel free to check the setting for any quality mark. It is not costume jewelry if the cameo setting bears a gold hallmark. However, not all antique gold settings are marked, so just because your cameo isn’t marked doesn’t indicate it’s costume jewelry. To be sure, check the piece for gold content

Editor’s Final Thoughts

Thanks to modern designers, we can enjoy past trends that are reinvented. Fashion is cyclical, and cameo jewelry, with its timeless designs, is no wonder that has been repeating itself for thousands of years now. And with Victorian and Edwardian style recently being at the forefront of vintage-inspired jewelry, wearing a pair of cameo earrings, or adorning your dress with a cameo brooch has never been more classy.