A Brief History Of Cameo Jewellery And Is It Still Popular?

Sandra Jordan | 24 April, 2022


          
            A Brief History Of Cameo Jewellery And Is It Still Popular?

How familiar are you with the term Cameo Jewellery? Even if you’re not, this type of jewellery is likely to be popular as it is a piece of art that dates back centuries. Whether we have seen it in period dramas, antique shops or even in your grandma’s jewellery box, cameo jewellery is very captivating. Here, we are going to look into how these pieces are still popular today and break down the surprising history, from the Sumerian period (c.3100 BC) to the Victorian era.

 Antique 18 Carat Gold Shell Cameo Pendant Necklace £695

Antique 18 Carat Gold Shell Cameo Pendant Necklace £695

Cameos are usually made of gemstones such as agate, onyx, or sardonyx, with two layers of contrasting colours with figures carved into one of the layers and projected over the other. Creating a multi-dimensional artwork. Cameos can also be made out of shell, coral, stone lava, or glass. The term cameo describes a hard or valuable stone carved in relief (also known as relievo, which comes from the Italian relievevare, 'to raise') or a similar look in items such as glass (called paste) and mollusc shell. In the ruins of Pompeii petrified lava became the new material for carvers. The ruins were discovered in 1748 and the petrified lava cameos began to be sold as souvenirs for tourists. 

Italian Giovanni Noto Sardonyx Cameo Brooch set in 14ct gold signed G. Noto. This cameo is a mid 20th century shell cameo and carved within the cameo is a lady profile with a bird on her shoulder £885

 

The designs on cameos historically feature portraits, landscapes and mythological legends. These detailed reliefs were put into decorative pieces of jewellery, such as necklaces, brooches, bracelets and even rings. Early cameos were inspired by prehistoric petroglyphs, which were rock carvings or paintings made by pecking onto the rock surface. As the petroglyphs would document religious and symbolic imagery.

 Pre-Owned Cameo Flower Brooch

Pre-Owned Cameo Flower Brooch set in 9ct gold with a decorative floral design £285

 

It is known that cameos have existed since Sumerian period (c. 3100 BC) to the decline of Roman civilization, the Renaissance, and the Neoclassical period in the 18th century. In contrast to the intaglios, which were used as seals. Greek cameos were made with coloured quartz, were purely decorative and reached a high artistry. Roman cameos often made from sardonyx, onyx and glass (paste), were carved with mythological scenes and portraits. Roman cameos were often signed by the artists. Artists/carvers were incorporating political portraits into their artwork as the Roman empire grew. It is also interesting to note that there was a divide in society that was also reflected in the ancient jewellery industry; those with great wealth were able to afford gemstone cameos, whilst the lower social classes got cheaper glass cameos.

 

The art of cameo engraving was perfected in the Renaissance because of the increase in classical civilization. In the ancient days cameos were used to commemorate personages. An example of this is 16th century England where cameos were made with the head of Queen Elizabeth I to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada. 

 

 

When we think of cameos we usually think of its popular period, which is the 19th century also known as the Victorian era. People began to collect cameos as signs of cultural status as they were inspired by the royal cameo collectors, Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte. Under Queen Victoria’s reign shelled cameos were popular and the style of the cameos depicted natural and humanistic scenes. The desire for wearable cameos only rose with the popularity for costume jewellery in the 20th century. 

 

 

Today, there is still cameo art and jewellery being made. Modern jewellers, like Liz Swig, are modernising cameo portraits and adding her own artistic flair. One particular piece of jewellery caught the attention of the public when actor and producer Cate Blanchett wore a pair of striking hand-carved cameo earrings to the Venice Film Festival in 2019. The earrings were created by Liz Swig and were a limited edition based on Pensive, a self-portrait by an American artist Cindy Sherman.

 

Now that you know a little bit of the history of cameos, what are your thoughts? Would you wear a piece like this? Let us know by writing in the comments. 

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