Cameo Jewelry

CameoPortraitWhen you think about cameo jewelry, typically the first thing that comes to mind is Great-Grandma’s shell cameo brooch with the portrait of a lady. But there are many other types of cameo jewelry. For example, rings, pendants, earrings, and bracelets. And, these are not necessarily just portraits. There are beautiful cameos depicting mythological and pastoral scenes, cupids and angels, as well as animals. Most of the time the cameos you’re likely to see will be shell, but there are other materials that have been used over the years. Some being:

  • Precious gemstones
  • Agate
  • Onyx
  • Lava
  • Glass
  • Coral
  • Gutta-Percha*
  • Ivory
  • Mother-of-Pearl

This material is a rubber-like gum derived from the resin of trees in SE Asia that was used in making jewelry beginning circa 1840.

Cameo Defined

A cameo is a method of carving an object, i.e., shell, such that the finished product has a raised image… also referred to as relief. (1) It is widely accepted, particularly when taking about antique cameos, that the background should be a contrasting color to the relief image. This color-distinction is achieved by using an object or medium that is layered in at least two contrasting colors. When the image is carved into the top layer, the contrasting background color is left exposed.



Cameo Technique

agatecameoSome of the earliest cameos were the ones made from gemstones with the emphasis on using banded agate. Again, the artist looked for pieces to use where various colors met on a flat plane. These cameos are often referred to as ‘hardstone’ cameos.  (The ‘blue’ cameo to the right is an agate cameo.)

Hardstone cameos were primarily used up until the 15th and 16th century when shell cameos came into their own. The earliest shell cameos were carved from simple mollusk shells. However, beginning in the mid- 18th century, new shell varieties were discovered during European expeditions. These were brought back by the explorers and their beautiful colors created a new demand for cameos carved from these shells. Shell cameos reached their peak after 1850. Many different types of shells have been used for cameos and art work, however, the two favorite shells for carving then and collecting today were and are:


  • Helmet Shell – from the West Indies
  • Queen Conch – from the Bahamas & West Indies (Note: Cameos made from this shell tend to fade over time.)



More recent good-quality cameos, those carved since the late-19th century, were carved using the Bullmouth Helmet shell. Its preference being due to its coloration. The top-layer is whitish with the under-shell being a rich orange-brown. Its length is also a plus in that it can be up to 6 inches long. Cameos using these shells are still being carved today with some of the finest examples of artistry coming from Italy.

It should be noted that while the Bullmouth Helmet shell is preferred, the Emperor Helmet shell is the most highly prized for carving. With its shell having a layers of white to dark brown, it is produces some of the most beautiful cameos when in the hands of a master carver.


When shopping for cameos, be aware that not all cameos are one piece. There are some more modern cameos being produced that are assembled. For this type of cameo, the relief image is carved first and then set onto a background of contrasting color. Look for separation lines between the background and the carved top portion.

Shell Preparation (Modern)

One a shell has been selected they are marked with a series of ovals that are cut into blanks for the carver. The design is cut using a scraper tool (bulino) . While many different shaped tools are used, to help increase production grinding wheels are also used to speed up the process.

Once the carving is complete, the shell is soaked in olive oil, cleaned with soap and water, and polished with a hand brush.

Buying a Cameo

Before buying a cameo you should decide what type of cameo you want. This includes the presentation (ring, brooch, etc.) and the preferred material used for the carving. You then want to take a close look at the quality of craftsmanship as well as the overall jewelry value.

  1. Is it a true cameo and not one that is ‘assembled’.
  2. Do you like the cameo material and is there any damage to the cameo or mount?
  3. It the carving detailed and lifelike? Look for softer, refined carving rather than sharp edges, straight lines and broad strokes or gouges.
  4. Look for contrast of color. The more contrast, the more dramatic the cameo. Has the artist used the gradation of color to the best advantage. I’ve seen carved cameos where the artist used veins of color in a shell to highlight the subject’s hair adding to the overall appeal.
  5. What type of metal has been used for mounting? Gold… silver….vermeil….goldwash…..base metal?  And what type of closure is used. Both of these will impact the price and may offer a clue to age.
  6. Are there precious stones or pearls set in the mount? Are any of these missing?
  7. Finally, is the overall appearance of the cameo attractive?

Cameos are often passed down from  generation to generation, taking with them their own unique history. For this reason they are more than just a piece of jewelry. Want to learn more about cameos and antique jewelry?

The reference books below are available on Amazon.




(1) –


Comments are closed.

Visit the Original Texas Antique Mall for Shows, Trade Days and More

Texas Travel Guide - Get tourist, travel information for Texas
NOW Find
by Region

Dog training in home, distance education in East Texas