Cameos were once far more popular than they are – they were used throughout most of human history.

Some pieces are cut from stones – contrasting Onyx or Agate – and plenty more cut from shells. Some of the more modern ones are casts of carvings; cast in glass, plastic, or ceramics.

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Cameos have, unfortunately, fallen a little bit out of style. I was hoping as we hit the 20’s again they’d come back – you never know, eh?


So – what is a cameo? In its simplest terms, a cameo is a 3D sculpture carved into stone, shell, or another material, in raised relief from its background.

With a modern viewpoint, we probably think of cameos to be faces – but there are many other things depicted in cameos including mythological scenes, religious iconography, official portraits.


The history of cameos

Cameos have a very long history, and the true ‘origin’ of them likely depends on how you define a cameo!

Cylinder seals started to appear in around 3500BC in Uruk. A cylinder seal was an engraved tubular piece of clay or soft stone used to impress images, cuneiform text, or a personal image – they often had a hole running through the centre and were potentially worn as pendants or beads.

Eventually, in the 5th century BC, intaglio carvings began to appear during the Hellenistic period. An intaglio is a flat gem engraved with a design cut into the stone, carved in shallow relief. They were used as seals and eventually were worn as pendants, and then rings.

Cameos, intaglios and other carved stones were extremely popular during the Roman period, some of which were looted from Greece.

Greek and Roman deities, therefore, hold a special place within the tradition of cameos. Roman emperors were often carved onto gems.

Islamic glass cameos have been found in a cemetery used between the 7th and 12th centuries at the Kom el-Dikka site in Alexandria, Egypt.

Later in the medieval period and the middle ages, Christian motifs were often engraved, as the pagan culture slowly became eroded. However, they were not as popular as they had previously been.

The next resurgence in cameo carving was during the renaissance, as Florencian artisans carved items fascinating to those who were dedicated to the studying and collection of Latin, Greek and Roman items. The quantity of antique and ancient cameos was not enough to keep up with the renaissance demand for them, and many even signed their work in Latin or ancient Greek.

In the early 19th century, Empress Josephine of France was painted wearing a parure of cameo carved jewellery, and Emperor Napoleon formed a school in Paris dedicated to the training of cameo carvers – some of whom had been kidnapped in Sicily, and this – along with the famous collection owned by Queen Victoria, started the Victorian fascination with the cameo.

Glass and ceramic cameos began to rise in popularity – as mass production increased, this unfortunately led to a rather sad reality, as in some cases old ancient or antique works were copied for mass production and then hidden, damaged, recut, or even destroyed to prevent their identification – as the mass produced items were fraudulently signed with real and sometimes imaginary ancient names.

In some cases, materials available in antiquity were even used for the fakes, which makes the identification of them extremely difficult – even now.

As time went on, imports of shells from the African coast allowed for the creation of cheaper cameos, carved in shell rather than hard stones – these cameos were often much larger than the older specimens.

During the 20th century plastic imitations began to appear in huge numbers, and now plastic pieces can be purchased for pennies.

Several well known celebrities including Beyonce have worn cameos within the past decade leading to a temporary resurgence in interest. There are few hardstone carvers still working currently, with a small industry still existing in Italy. Vintage cameos from the 18 and 1900s are available to purchase online at relatively affordable prices, but of course, there are many fakes and an experienced eye can be needed to avoid disappointment.


What are they made from?

Organic materials

  • Carnelian shell” – Cypraeacassis rufa – an internal red colour with a pale pink outside. Not related to Carnelian – somewhat misleading!
  • Coral – typically red corals from the Mediterranean.
  • Jet – a fossilised wood; form of Lignite
  • Ivory
  • Sardonyx shell” – Cassis madagascarensis – a rich brown base and white to offwhite surface. Not related to Sardonyx – somewhat misleading!
  • Tortoiseshell
  • Various shells including Strombus giga and Cyprea tigris.


Inorganic materials

  • Agate – a banded form of Chalcedony producing cameos with various colours.
  • Ceramics – pressed ceramics, including Wedgewood.
  • Lava – typically monochrome, often made from tuff, welded tuff or basalt.
  • Onyx – a banded form of Chalcedony producing cameos with black and white layers.
  • Sardonyx – a banded form of Chalcedony producing cameos with brown-red, white, and black layers.
  • Various forms of gemstones, including turquoise, lapis lazuli, amber – even emerald, etc.
  • Various plastics and resins, including vulcanite and celluloid.
  • Various types of glass have been used since antiquity.


Cameos were mounted in a range of different materials, including silver, gold, pinchbeck, gold-rolled and gold-plated base metals, base metals, and even sometimes jet, plastics, or bone.


Famous cameos, carvers, and collectors

Famous Cameos

Notable Carvers

Famous carvers include Giovanni Noto (1902-1985), Tommaso Saulini (1793-1864), and his son Luigi Saulini (1819-1883)

Notable collectors

  • Pope Paul II – pope from 1464-1471, who collected a huge amount of art and gemstones.
  • Queen Victoria – responsible for the Victorian boom in interest of cameos.
  • Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine – large collections of Italian and Greek styled cameos, and creators of a college dedicated to gemcutting and engraving.

Further reading

It is difficult to find articles that are ‘balanced’ – most are about the subjects of the cameos, or the materials, or the art of the period itself. These are, hopefully, somewhat balanced.

Books (Amazon UK)