It's all in how you carve it... defining a cameo

A cameo is the opposite of an intaglio. It is a portrait or scene carved in relief with a contrasting colored background, while an intaglio's design is incised or engraved into a material. Compare these two rings from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The cameo is carved into a layered agate triplet and depicts a scene with Theseus and the slain Minotaur. The late Roman intaglio is carved into onyx and features the Greek hero Ganymede, cup bearer to Zeus.

 These pieces are part of the Met Museum's collection.

These pieces are part of the Met Museum's collection.

Cameo: Origin of the Word

Sir Wallis Budge (1857 – 1934), an English Egyptologist, Orientalist, and philologist, theorized that the word "cameo" is derived from "kame'o," a word used in kabbalistic language to signify a "magical square" -- a kind of talisman whereupon magical spells were carved.

Cameos... a long -- very long -- history

The cameo tradition is ancient: the birthplace of the cameo was in Alexandria, Egypt, somewhere around 300 B.C. However some researchers claim that the cameo's origins are even older, dating back to early carving traditions when petroglyphs — figures carved into rock — were used to record significant events and communicate information.  Guess when that was? Around 15,000 B.C.!

In more recent ancient times, cameos were a highly developed art form that involved carving details on multilayered gemstones or colored glass so as to leave a white surface in relief against a dark background. Just think! The antique methods of engraving hardstone cameos were similar to techniques we use today. The stones were carved using a drill with changeable heads and a bow wrapped around the drill shaft that was drawn back and forth to make it rotate.

 Medusa cameo ring. Betteridge Collection.

Medusa cameo ring. Betteridge Collection.

Shown here is an ancient Roman agate cameo set in a modern ring of hammered gold. The cameo is sculpted in high relief with the facing head of Medusa, her face framed by serpentine locks with two short wings above her forehead. The agate is circa 2nd century A.D. From the Betteridge Collection.


Cameos... a Renaissance thing

Using shells for cameo carving became widespread during the Renaissance. Most Renaissance shell cameos were white with a grayish background and were carved from mussel or cowry shells.

Directory to the Renaissance Cameo Slideshow

  1. Conch shell
  2. Mussel shell
  3. Shell cameo carved with Cadmus and the dragon. France. 16th Century. From The State Hermitage Museum.
  4. Cameo carved in shell depicting Mars and Venus. From France. After 1503. From The State Hermitage Museum.
  5. 16th Century carved in shell illustrating the Tiburtine Sibyl and the Emperor Augustus. Made in France or Germany. From The State Hermitage Museum.

Cameos were also found in those mysterious cabinets of curiosity which came into vogue during the Renaissance period -- along with automata, giants' bones, mineral specimens, sepia chiaroscuro woodcuts, curious weapons, and unicorn horns.

Cameos for all... or Cameos in the Victorian Era

 Empress Josephine wearing cameos.

Empress Josephine wearing cameos.

Some sources say that the Empress Josephine was responsible for bringing cameos back into fashion and paving the way for their popularity during Victorian times.  It's possible, she certainly liked cameos and she certainly had an influence on the popularity of many wondrous things (such as roses) but it is more likely that once artisans began carving cameos from shell (see above), they became much more accessible... that is affordable.  Here's the story.

Prior to the 1800s,  a cameo carved from a semi-precious stone was still a rare and treasured possession. So cherished they were, as we mentioned, included in curiosity cabinet collections. But the cameos carved by Italian artisans from shell were much easier to create. They advanced their techniques toward production carving. Thus cameos became more affordable and more accessible, at least to folks who could travel to Italy... like the upper class Victorians taking their traditional "Grand Tour." Travelers would often return home with Italian-carved shell cameo necklaces, rings, and earrings.

 Cameos... not just a lexicon of the past

Cameos are still in creation today and still exciting if you look in the right places.  Yes, you can find retro pieces made in various plastic materials.  They have their place and are not necessarily a fashion no-no.  But there are also -- still -- exquisite works of art coming into cameo-being.  Cameos featuring delicate, wind-blown females, whimsical fairy-tale scenes, and fiery dragons.  And today, you don't have to be satisfied with what used to be termed as the "mysterious woman" showcased in a cameo, you can have a cameo custom-carved to set yourself or someone you love "in stone."  We don't offer this service at Grimballs, we're just saying... cameos are still cool.

  1. This sardonyx cameo portrait of the Emperor Augustus was made ca. A.D. 41–54!
  2. Here is a sardonyx cameo of a double capricorn with a portrait of the emperor Augustus. From the Met Museum.
  3. This onyx cameo is engraved with Eros playing the flutes. Greek, 1st - 2nd Century AD. From the British Museum.