In broad terms, a cameo is defined as a precious or a semi-precious stone on which a design is carved ‘en relief’, being the exact opposite of the ‘intaglio’ carving which dates farther back in history. Whereas the intaglio engraved gem was highly functional and could be impressed in damp clay or wax to indicate, ownership of sealed objects for example, the cameo was purely ornamental. It is therefore not surprising that although the engraved signet stone (intaglio) can be traced back to the Sumerian period in Mesopotamia (circa 5000 BC) the cameo did not make its appearance until the Hellenistic period about the third century BC.
Its emergence in the Greek world took place after the conquests of Alexander the Great and due to the influence of the newly acquired territories from the Persian Empire which enabled the Greeks to acquire the Oriental fashion for mounting precious stones in their jewelry. Both the onyx and sardonyx were stones admirably suitable for cameo production due to their stratified layers of light and dark stone.
By the end of the second century BC the cameo had been generally accepted by the Romans, both as an ornament particularly for furniture, and as personal adornment. The style was that of the Hellenistic era and the art continued to flourish for almost 200 years. After the Roman period cameos were highly prized but very rarely were they found in their original gold settings. Exceptions are finger rings which have survived intact such as a few contained in the British Museum’s fine collection of classical cameos.
With the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century, the art of the cameo blossomed under the patronage of collectors like Pope Martin V, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, Pope Paul II and, of course, Lorenzo de Medici. The names of stone-engravers began to be known and by the sixteenth century every court in Europe had followed the Italian fashion and many employed Italian artists for this purpose. Matteo dal Nassaro of Veano worked in France for Francis I, training both Italians and Frenchmen, while Jacopo de Trezzo became gem-engraver to Philip II of Spain.
In Tudor England the fashion for Renaissance cameos was eagerly followed by Henry VIII and throughout the Elizabethan period the demand for cameos undoubtedly grew, but little is known about the handful of master carvers who were commissioned by the Queen to produce unique pieces of cameo jewelry.
After the Italian campaign of 1796, the fashion for cameos and intaglios began being brought back to France from Italy. Napoleon was fascinated by their beauty and perfection and had some mounted for himself. They were immediately set in tiaras, necklaces, bracelets and earrings mounted in gold bezels, sometimes decorated with seed pearl borders connected with delicate gold chains.
French master goldsmiths of the seventeenth and early 18th centuries often provided extremely accomplished settings for contemporary cameos like a Louis XIII openwork pendant of enameled gold in ‘pea-pod’ design and set with precious stones. The Napoleonic classicism in France brought cameos once more into fashion, not confined to splendid diadems, bandeaus and combs set with cameos that the Empress Josephine would wear, as seen in their portraits painted by Gerard & David in 1807, but throughout Europe and at all levels of society.
Around 1805, Italian carvers started using shell for their cameo creations which, by the Victorian era, became widely appreciated as an inexpensive medium and optimal for carving. Victorians used shell for less formal cameo ornaments to be worn during the day and agate, onyx or sardonyx for more formal pieces.
Discoveries of archeological sites in Italy and Egypt renewed interest in classics and influenced the motifs used for cameos during the Victorian era. Motifs in vogue included gods and goddesses from the Greek and Roman mythology and themes related thereto such as Bacchante maidens adorned in their hair with grape leaves, the Three Graces who were the three daughters of Zeus and the like. Naturalism remained the favorite cameo theme par excellence and Victorians’ love for gardening was translated into cameos depicting flowers and trees. Another novelty during the Victorian era was the emergence of the ‘anonymous woman’, a motif frequently used by cameo engravers without necessarily diminishing the popularity of commissioned portraits. The anonymous or the ‘idealized’ woman would generally be a Romanesque, with classical Roman features and an upswept hairstyle. The new vogue gave birth to cameo habille which depicted the portrait of the idealized woman wearing jewelry such as earrings or a necklace.
In the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries in England, the passion for cameos and intaglios led James and William Tassie to make faithful copies in glass paste, while Josia Wedgwood produced a loose variation of the art in his jasperware and black basalt medallions and intaglios which became popular in other European ceramic factories like Sevres, Berlin and Fuerstenberg. Like many others, the firm of Wedgwood continues to meet the undying demand for cameo portraits, but rarely are cameos to be found in jewelry since the late 1930’s.
A hard-stone, gem or shell into which a design is cut in relief, often making use within the design of the naturally occurring contrasting colors in the stone. Several types of shell with contrasting layers are ideal for interesting relief and reverse relief shell-cameos and intaglios. Shell is cut with a sharp edged tool or a point while hard-stone is drilled, making the former a whole lot easier.
By the middle of the 19th century, cameos were fashionable once again, this time they were larger and bolder than during Napoleonic times and carved in high relief from onyx, stained chalcedony and amethyst, dramatically displaying contrasting colors, best exemplified by ‘Saulinis’ of Rome. Shells imported from Africa and the West Indies were used for larger carvings, while habill’s cameos were gem-set, subjects provided by Ares, Minerva, Diana, Dionysus, Zeus, Medusa, Heracles and Demeter. From the mid 19th century, female subjects were preferred to male subjects perhaps a consequence of the more important role acquired by women in society at the time.