I have always loved cameos. I received one as a birthday gift years ago, white carving on a brown background set in an antique gold broach, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of jewelry. Not because I wear it all the time, but because of the history of the gift. My history.
Recently my mother, sister and I were sorting through my grandmother’s jewelry. Among the dozens of bird and animal pins—she loved wearing them for her kindergarten students—were several cameos. Some were plastic, others looked to be rather old. Since GGG (she signed her cards this way for years—it stands for Great Grandmother Grace) didn’t collect fine jewelry, the old pieces were probably her mother’s. Looking at those wonderful pieces got me thinking about the history of the cameo.
The cameo is much older than I thought. Though the origins are still under dispute, most think the word “Cameo” comes from the Hebrew word KAMEA, meaning a charm or amulet, or from the Latin CAMMAEUS, meaning "engraved gem".
Historians believe this carving tradition came from
, nearly three centuries
before the birth of Christ. Early Greek and Roman carvings featured images of
gods and goddesses, mythological scenes and biblical events. Some immortalized
rulers or heroes. During the era of Helen [323BC – 31/30BC], women wore cameos
depicting a dancing Eros as an invitation to perspective lovers. Alexandria, Egypt
They’ve been used on military uniforms, rings, watch fobs, pins, amulets, vases, cups and dishes. They became a collector’s item during the reign of Queen Elizabeth to demonstrate status and wealth.
popularized the cameos made of sea shells. Napoleon wore a cameo to his own
wedding and founded a school in Victoria
to teach the art of cameo carving to young apprentices. Paris
Stone, shell and coral are the materials most often used for the carvings. In stones, you’ll find agate and less often, turquoise.
Shell is probably the most commonly used material, because of its availability to carvers in all locations and financial situations. Among the shells used are Cornelian, Cassis Madagascariensis, Empire Helmet or Conch, Sardonyx, and Strombus Giga
The cameos we’re most familiar with show a young woman, hair and dress appropriate to the period of the carving, in various colors.
I still don’t know the origin of the lovely pieces in my grandmother’s collection, but that doesn’t matter so much. I appreciate them for their beauty and the history they represent—my history.
Do any of you own cameos? Do you know where they came from?