Cameos, valued since antiquity as engraved gems, were exceedingly popular during the Georgian and Victorian periods. Many different materials were used for carving cameos. For hardstone cameos, varieties of agate including onyx, sardonyx and jasper were popular. These stones, with layers of different colors, allowed for depth and nuance in the carvings. Other non-layered gemstones such as malachite, coral and amethyst were were fashioned into magnificent monochrome cameos.
Shell was another popular medium for use in cameo carving because it was light in weight and therefore didn’t limit the size of the piece. Tropical helmet shell was extensively used for its good color contrast and depth of layers. The Cassus rufus variety was white and pink, the Cassus madagascariensis had white and brown layers. The depth of the white layer in the helmut shell was sufficient to allow very high relief with lots of detail.
The methods used for carving these two types of cameos were as vastly different as the materials themselves. Hardstone was cut on a specialty lathe with steel drills and wheels. Carvings using this process took months to complete. Shell cameos could be carved by hand with a burin or engraving tool, taking only days to complete a magnificent carving. These less labor intensive therefore less expensive shell cameos were popular with tourists looking for just the right souvenir of their trip.
The myriad of cameo subjects included figures and scenes from Greek and Roman history and mythology. Renaissance art, classical sculpture, famous paintings and official portraits also provided inspiration. Religious imagery included Christ, the angel of the annunciation, PAX, and the crown of thorns. Cameos were considered “smart” jewelry because of the intellectual nature of the subject being carved. Tourists on holiday, viewing the full sized artworks, were delighted to take home a wearable miniature version as a remembrance.
Empress Josephine is credited with initiating the fashion for cameos. Antique gems from the royal treasury were set by her jeweler, Nitot, in the Crown of Charlemagne and in bracelets for the Empress. A portrait of Josephine wearing a parure of cameo jewelry sparked a multinational trend. During the Restoration in France the fashion died out while in England the trend stayed alive continuing to build. France once again enjoyed cameo jewelry under the rule of Louis Philippe.
Imitations of ancient gem carvings were exceedingly popular with the Georgian and Victorian consumer. The inventory of engraved and carved gemstones of the past was more accessible to Victorian gem carvers than one might think. Catalogues of line drawings depicting famous collections were printed and sold. Plaster casts of these earlier works were circulated among collectors. John Tassie’s glassworks began production of molded replica cameos circa 1791. Nineteenth century gem carvers had access to classical works as well as those of their contemporaries resulting in a great deal of copying and the creation of untold numbers of replicas. Carvers began to sign their cameos in the mid-eighteenth century in an effort to prevent dealers from selling their work to collectors as antique.
A third technique, commesso, joined together layers of different materials such as hardstone, coral, and mother-of-pearl, was a French form of gem carving that resulted in a pictorial relief, not a true cameo.
Gem engraving was often the means for a struggling sculptor to make a living. Engravers from all over Europe and America congregated in Rome, the international center of cameo cutting, to produce these small artworks for the tourist trade. As a result, the sculpture and artwork of Rome both contemporary and antique were the subject of many cameos. The production of cameos representing more recent works of art helped propel the desire for cameos firmly into the nineteenth century.
The relative ability to quickly carve shell cameos permitted the artist to use live subjects. Often portrait cameos were produced after a marble bust had been made of the subject. The gem engraver would later copy the bust as a cameo. By this time photography was available to provide subject matter for cameo carvers. To distinguish carvings “from life” the artist would sometimes make that notation on the reverse of the cameo.
Cameos commemorating a marriage or other event could be produced in any quantity. Even if the live subject was available, these commemorative cameos were usually produced from a photograph preventing long tedious sittings for the subjects and the carver could create as many identical cameos as ordered. This made commemorative cameos available to a wide range of society previously unable to afford such a luxury.
Castellani Heavy Rope Motif with Pearl Frame Surrounding a Cameo of Medusa. c.1870, Sapphire.
© Trustees of the British Museum.
Cameos were imported by the thousands into England waiting to be mounted by the many jewelers specializing in cameos. Jewelers often specialized in one type of cameo or another. Antiquities, coral, mosaic, and even different subject matter often went to a jeweler who carried only that specialty. Many unsigned shell cameos were available to be selected buy a customer to be mounted to their taste.
Many options for mounting were available. Archeological styles, Etruscan revival, plain gold bezel, framed in gemstones or set in intricately created Renaissance revival enameled frames were available to the customer to complete the piece. Rings, brooches, bracelets, lockets and pendants could all be set with cameos. Choice of subject, frame style, material and mode of wear made for an unlimited array of cameo jewelry and offered the wearer an excuse to own multiple pieces set with cameos.
Education of the Infant Bacchus, Sardonyx.
Henry IV & Marie de Medici,
|Joseph Edgar Boehm
Portrait of Mrs. G. Steward.
Vulcan's Forge Vulcan, his wife Venus, her lover Mars and Cupid with two Doves.
The Fall of Phaeton,
Portrait of Bacchus
The Minerva of Aspasios (Styled after an engraved gem by a Greek artist, Aspasios.)
||J.A. GREENOUGH - including a number, date and place.||
Profile Bust – Possibly Horatio Greenough
|Christian Friedrich Hecker
Profile of Alexander
|Paul Victor Lebas
Portrait of Queen Victoria
Portrait of Georg John, 2nd Earl Spencer
|Johann Lorenz Natter
Laureate Head of a Youth, Intaglio,
Roman Bust (Vespasian?)
Portrait Bust of George III
Alexandra, Princess of Wales,
|:Tommaso Saulini||T. SAULINI F.||
Bracelet with Venus, Medusa & Hymen
||L. SAULINI F.||
Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort,
Helmeted Warrior (Minerva?)