Antique Cameos Through Time



Cameos Through Time

Cameos are gems formed by sculpturing in relief stones with layers of several colors, so as to form a picture on a light or dark ground, on which the face, the drapery, and the hair are represented by different tints. Onyx, sardonyx, and chalcedony are the stones most commonly used for cameos, though any stone that is susceptible of cutting may be employed. The outline of the design is drawn on the stone from a model of the exact size in wax, which has been copied from an enlarged drawing, after which the gem is engraved by the cameo-cutter with a diamond point fixed on a sort of fly-wheel. The process for cameos is one that demands great skill and care, while it is extremely slow and laborious; and it is not strange that finely cut cameos rival in cost the choicest diamonds, which, sparkle as they may, can never hold their place against works of art.


Cheaper and softer materials are employed for inferior cameos, for which a kind of shell is chiefly used.  This is easily carved, and having a high polish and several delicately tinted layers, produce beautiful effects in cameos. It is, however, very brittle, and lacks the durability which is one of the great advantages of the stone cameo. It is a singular fact that we know the delicacy and exquisite grace of Greek art better from the perfectly preserved cameos in the museums, which today show as exquisitely chiseled outlines and as fine a polish as in the days of Phidias and Praxiteles, than from the bronzes and marbles, which have come down to us mutilated and disfigured. After a lapse of more than two thousand years, these wonderfully hard stones forming cameos exhibit little trace of the ravages of time, and attest their antiquity by their superior polish.

The Egyptians were the first to practice cameo-cutting, and specimens both of cameos and of intaglios with depressed figures are often found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. The Greeks carried the art to almost ideal perfection; and two of their artists, Dioscorides and Aulus, introduced it into Rome in the reign of Augustus, where it soon became a fashion.

The topazes, emeralds and sapphires worn in cameos in the days of Augustus and Tiberius are worth a king’s ransom and are among the objects most eagerly sought by curiosity hunters among the buried treasures of the capital. But with the decadence of Rome this art, with all others, declined, until it was quite lost in the obscurity of the Dark Ages. 

It was revived in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the Medici cameos rivaled the Greek gems in beauty; while in France Coldoré executed beautiful designs. From that time cameos were held in high esteem until, after the fall of the first empire, in 1815, by some vagary of fashion cameos went out of vogue, and were seen only in cabinets.



Daguerreotype Collection, Prints & Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-2140]


In the late 1850s a new caprice of fashion brought cameos again into favor, and since that time the demand for them has increased every year. The styles of cameos most in vogue, and which have the advantage of a permanent interest, are historical portraits, like Mary Stuart, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth, Margaret of Tuscany, etc., cut on a black or brown stone, with cream-colored figures. This kind of stone in cameos is preferred as giving the best background, while the cutting is better displayed by a cream than a plain white.

The finest cameos in the 1870s are cut in Paris, though it is said that the best specimens are sent to the United States, which are constantly absorbing the most costly productions of modern Europe.  The subject is therefore one of interest to admirers of cameos which has the highest claim to be considered a work of art.



Photo courtesy of Sunday and Sunday Fine Antique Jewelry


The Vienna Exposition, which brought together so many exquisite articles, was especially rich in the department of cameos, and some of those exhibited there were declared by competent judges to rival the antiques in artistic design and exquisite workmanship. The first prize was taken by Georges Bissinger, of Paris, who had likewise carried off prize-medals at the Paris Exposition in 1867 and at the Salon des Beaux Arts in 1868. Among the finest cameos exhibited were “Cupid in Prison," ”Faust and Marguérite,” Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Napoleon III, Marie de Medici, Anne of  Austria, Diane de Poitiers, and other interesting personages.



Photo courtesy of Sunday and Sunday Fine Antique Jewelry


In selecting subjects for historical cameos, in which beauty should be regarded as well as sentiment, it should be remembered that a woman’s face is usually more effective than that of a man, and that a picturesque dress adds much to the beauty of the gem. For instance, in cameos, the Mary Stuart coif, the Elizabethan ruff, the Medici fraise, and the Marie Antoinette coiffure are much more striking that the austere coiffure of Isabella of Castile.



Photo courtesy of Sunday and Sunday Fine Antique Jewelry


The setting of cameos, too, should not detract from the beauty of the cameo, or divert attention from it by too much magnificence. A plain gold rim is in better taste than a circle of large pearls or diamonds, whose splendor would attract one from the art to which they should be accessories. The frame of a cameo should never outshine the picture.

From Harper’s Bazaar, 1874

PHOTOS: Images of three Victorian cameos courtesy of Sunday and Sunday Fine Antique Jewelry []