A cameo is defined as a a method of carving an object such as an engraved gemstone, item of jewellery or a vessel. It nearly always features a raised relief image and originally cameo only referred to works where the relief image was of a contrasting colour to the background. To do this the stone, or other item, was worn down to a flat surface where there was another layer of colour. This meant that these beautiful masterpieces required great skill and techniques to make, meaning each one is a beautiful, miniature work of art.
The early examples of cameos were Roman and there are some stunning examples, and the are often made in layered sardonyx, a stunning stone made of layers of sard and onyx, meaning the material was perfect for cameo work. Onyx, agate and even layered glass were used to create some incredible pieces, and there are some great examples of these ‘Hard Stone’ cameos that still survive today. Roman cameos would often contain images of Gods and Godesss, images from mythology, emperors and other leaders. Today we think of cameos as adorning the necks of ladies, but during Roman times these small pieces of art were mostly worn by men.
In the Hellenistic era young women were starting to wear cameos as an expression of desire, they would be carved with images of Aphrodite and Eros to show signs of passion and love, a way of showing they were open to love.
Cameos have also been used on helmets and other military accessories and Napoleon adored them so much that wore a cameo to his wedding and founded a school for gem engraving. They were so popular that Louis XV owned a cabinet of 82 cameos. One of the most famous producers of cameos around that time was Jacques Guay after being taken under the wing of Madame De Pompadour.
Women in the Elizabethan period started to collect cameos as a form of proving their status as the pendant started to replace the brooch as a fashion piece. The cameo would often be suspended on a ribbon or chain. This was also when cameos started to be made mostly out of shells rather than carved stones.
It is the Victorian era though with which most people associate the cameo as it is by far one of the most common motifs in Victorian jewellery. The reason for this is mostly likely that Queen Victoria herself increased their popularity. It was also then that they have mostly depicted a woman’s portrait rather than gods or emperors.
These days the cameo seems to have fallen out of fashion and it thought of as your grandmothers style, but with the rise in Steampunk culture and the still strong goth culture faux, resin or glass cameos, are making a small, if some what fringe come back.