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About Old Cameo Jewellery

Friday, 11 May 2018  |  Anne
Not long ago the antique cameo jewellery was seen as out of date, old fashioned and something only worn by old Grannies. That was such a shame as it meant that many wonderful examples were hidden in jewellery boxes, out of sight just waiting for their time to come again. Nowadays they  are quite fashionable and they have been brought out of their hiding places and being worn by the young and trendy . Here are some notes for those collecting cameo jewellery.
What is Cameo Jewellery?
Its a piece where the design stands proud of the background. Normally a cameo features a figure or figures or even romantic scenery. Perhaps a ladies head or a classical scene. I saw one recently which simply featured a horses head. Floral designs are most popular too.  Its a work of art in miniature which is meant to be worn.A cameo can be distinguished from an intaglio which is where there design is carved into the back of the piece and then viewed from the front. It is any piece of jewellery set with a piece which has a positive image which sits raised above the background. Carving these began in ancient times however we come across few today which date from before the Victorian era . They are still being made today. Not all cameos we see today are carved, it just depends on the materials they are made from .The carved ones will always be the most desirable.


Here is a little look at the materials that they can be made from: •1. Shell . This is what most of the cameos we see are made of. This usually has a brown /buff background with the design standing proud in a paler colour. Different shells such as that of the Queen Conch give a different colour with the conch being with pinky tones. Most of these are carved in Italy. The most popular cameos we see are carved from two tone shell part of the top colour is carved away to leave the background showing in a different shade.

•2. Lava from the Volcano mount Vesuvius in Italy. This is quite soft and easily carved giving a lot of detail to the design. The colour range from black, grey, though muddy brown and greenish colours to a paler cream.  They do tend to be mono tone in shades of grey and brown and maybe not quite to todays taste.

•3. Coral is a hard substance which is not easy to carve and so these are relatively rare but when done well have a lively pinky colour and a high shine. Be warned imitation coral in plastic does exist. A coral piece will have a much colder feel than a plastic one.

•4. Jasper pottery . A speciality of Wedgwood although they were also made by other Staffordshire potteries. These were set into all types of jewellery - earrings, rings, pendants and brooches. The most popular colour is white on blue but a whole variation exists. Green and black are the next most common. Rare colours include yellow , mink and mauve.

•5. Glass .These are often created in one piece in a mould - they look similar but have a much greater degree of mass production than hand carved examples. Milk glass cameos can be very attractive.

•6. Hardstone . Made of different types of hardstone - agate and chalcedony being popular. This can give a good range of colour to the picture as some of the hardstones have different colour layers within them.

•7.Victorian Black cameos. Mourning Jewellery made from Whitby Jet, Gutta percha, French Jet ( black Glass) and bog oak.. Other popular materials include hardstones such as agate and onyx but these are much tougher to carve making good images quite expensive.

8.Wedgwood  made a great range of cameos from Jasper ceramic, these have actually been created in two pieces with the design applied to the background rather than carved into it, they are becoming highly collectable.

9. The very cheapest pieces are normally moulded and coloured plastic , there has been no skill in the making of these pieces and at the moment have little or no value.


You can find most types of jewellery set with cameos – rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and of course beautiful brooches. It does not matter if they are mounted in gold, silver or other material the pieces are all known as cameo jewellery. If you are looking for a shell cameo ring then please do take care not to get it wet as the material will eventually deteriorate. Being soft they will also wear smooth over time.

I love antique and vintage cameo jewellery, it is both a jewel to wear and a collectable piece of art at the same time. Connoisseurs keep them in rows in glass cabinets so that they can look at them just like any other decorative collectable.  

Top 25 tips for collecting cameo jewellery.

1. Cameos stand proud of the background material, if they are indented they are known as intaglios 2. Most Cameos are hand carved. All the work involved in this process is why they are treated like collectable art 3. The first cameos were carved from stones and gems. The shell cameos we know and love today came along later. Hardstone and gemstone cameos can still be found they are much rarer. 4. A cameo brooch is valued on:
  • the quality of the workmanship,
  • size ( larger is better),
  • subject matter ( pretty ladies are better than grumpy old men in general) , 
  • Artist if signed
  • Setting, is it gold or base metal?
  • Age, all other things being equal older is good but a newer cameo with great workmanship will be more costly than an old one which is poorly carved.
5. Most cameo work is carried out in Italy or by Italians abroad. A large trade built up around visitors from the UK on the Grand Tour in the Georgian and Victorian eras. 6. Most of the classical figures we see carved into cameos are from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.  Working out who the cameo depicts is half of the fun although sometimes it seems to me you need a classical education to help. 7. The most common classical subjects include, Hebe and the Eagle, Ledra and the swan and the three graces. Bacchanalia with grapes and leaves in their hair are quite cute and not to difficult to find. 8. The most popular classical subjects are not the common ones and not so easily found. These include Nyx with the owl, any cameo carved with winged subjects such as Cupid and Psyche 9. In the 20th century we developed a taste for pretty lady cameos especially those who appear to be wearing flowers in their hair or wearing jewellery of their own. 10. A cameo which has jewels set into it is known as a Cameo Habille ( which I think is French for dressed cameo). 11.Cameos which appear to be made from sludgy brown or grey rock are carved from lava from Italian volcanoes such as Vesuvius. 12. Look carefully on the back of a cameo, if you are lucky you may just find a signature. These are difficult to read and attribute but still nice to see. 13. The main articles of cameo jewellery are brooches, rings, earrings and necklaces / pendants. Occasionally you can also find cameos to hang as charms from a bracelet. 14. Look out for cameos carved from rock crystal, coral and  jet. All of these have been carved by hand as well as shell cameos. Rock crystal and coral cameos are quite expensive compared to shell one of a similar level of workmanship. 15. Josiah Wedgwood developed ceramic cameos . These are not carved in the traditional sense but the designs are created in moulds and then applied to the contrasting backgrounds. These are collectable in their own right, can certainly be antique jewellery dating back as far as the later 1700s but are not carved and therefore not true cameos. 16. Some of the famous names in cameo carving are: Tommaso and Luigi Tommaso,G. Bissinger, Father and son Giometti, Nicolo Morelli and a who family of Pistrucci's. You will be very luck to find any of these but its worth keeping a look out. 17. Many of the Victorian portrait cameos were specially commissioned as a likeness just like a portrait miniature but carved rather than painted. Some like Queen Victorian as easy to work out but many were private individuals and so we will never know who they are. 18. There are many thousands  of imitation plastic cameos about from through the  20th century and right up to date. These are moulded costume jewellery and have no craftsmanship involved. They can be quite cheap and pretty to wear but have little intrinsic value. Do ask when you buy if its real shell.  Any reputable dealer will be know the difference and will be happy to help with this. 19. Real cameo jewellery has tended to rise in value recently as we appreciate the work involved and as the value of the gold and silver in the frame frames has risen too 20. Heres trade secret, Look on the side of the frames,on the outside.  You will sometimes find gold and silver hallmarks hidden here. From these we can date the frames exactly although it is possible the cameo could be older. For example soldiers serving in the second world war brought back cameos and had them mounted as jewellery here in the UK. There will be British hallmarks on them dating years after the the cameo was carved. 21. Shell cameo jewellery does need special care, wrap each piece individually so it does not become chipped in a mixed jewellery box. They crack in heat so dont leave them lying in the sunshine. 22. You can clean cameos and I have written a guide to cameo jewellery care which may come in useful. 23. There are several good books about on Antique cameos. I personally like Nineteenth Century Cameos by Michele Rowan. see below. 24. As cameos are quite soft do be careful when wearing a cameo ring. They are great for dressing up in but please wear something a bit tougher when doing the housework or gardening. 25. AntiquesAvenue offers a top selection of genuine antique and vintage cameos . Please do take a look as you may find something inspiring :-)

Cleaning Cameos

As shell cameos are a natural shell they can be easily damaged but with the right care they can last many years. After all we have some great Georgian and Victorian cameos around still. They can last for centuries if treated right but  when exposed to the wrong conditions can easily crack and become dried out. Heres how to check your cameo and offer it a little TLC first aid if necessary. Warning, practice cleaning on a non-valuable piece first and if in doubt leave it to the professionals. This is about shell cameos only, if its not shell then apply a cleaning technique appropriate to the material it is carved from. Check the condition on your shell cameo carefully by holding it up to a bright light and looking into it from the front and from the reverse. Are there any lines in it that are not part of the design? These may be cracks all the way through or stress lines which may develop into cracks in time. Most lines I see are from top to bottom or at an angle not far off this. Look at the sides close to the frame as well as in the middle. Has the surface dried out , lost colour and looks faded ? 

If your jewellery is in good condition:

Use a soft clean toothbrush, you can dampen it a little if necessary. Gently rub over the cameo taking care with all the likes and crevices that you can see dirt in. If this doesnt work you can add a drop of gentle liquid soap to the toothbrush and work it carefully just for a few seconds. Clean off the soap with a damp tooth brush and pat dry with a lint free cloth. If you cameo has dried out and cracked: You can try a little first aid. This will not return the cameo to its original condition but it will help with the appearance and may prevent further damage.  Please note this is for damaged cameos , I do not recommend the following for cameos in good condition.
  • Firstly rub a little pure olive oil over the surface. By a little I'm talking one or two drops depending on the size of the piece. use one finger tip to massage the oil in well. Do not press to hard as you dont want to cause further stress. Hopefully it will look a little better. 
  • Now with real care, polish the surface with a lint free cloth . This will remove any excess oil and give a little sine to the piece. How does it look? The damage will not have gone and the value will not be restores but you may now have a piece of jewellery which looks fine to wear and this may halt further damage.
  Love your cameo and it will be a treasure for generations to come. AntiquesAvenue offers a wide selection of real shell cameo antique jewellery including brooches, rings and bracelets . Please do nip over to the shop and take a look.   If you are looking to learn more or identify I specific picture then I recommend the book Nineteen Century Cameos by Michele Rowan. A copy has been in my bookcase for more than 10 years now and I refer to it regularly. Its expensive but look around for a second hand copy especially if you are keen on collecting cameo jewellery.