Today cameos have lost the artistry of the past. With the advancement of technology the care and craftmanship of carving has been replaced with ultrasonic engraving.
In 1805 the gem engraving of cameos from hard stones and shells was introduced as an artistic level of excellence at the French Academy for Gem Engraving. In Italy the shell craft was equally as strong. These cameos were highly collectible from between the late eighteenth century to 1840.
A renewed interest in cameos sparked with the archaeological digs of Pompeii, mid to late 1800’s. Lava cameos from Mount Vesuvius were created in attractive variety of colors. It was common to see a bracelet or necklace with a variety of colorful cameos in a series. A Romantic-Gothic style took form through images of mythological creatures and scenes. The late nineteenth century brought a new interest of combining diamonds, pearls, and precious stones into the carved cameo. Other important cameo materials that became of interest to the artist were, lapis lazuli, ivory, coral, and jet.
Sometimes it is difficult to date a cameo. Costumes and faces help in establishing a time period in which a cameo was made. Look at the profiles of the figure. The nose of a figure has gone through many changes over the years. The early years of the 1800’s saw portraits of figures in the classical Greek and Roman profile with the straight nose. By the mid-nineteenth century the profiles changed to a female with a jowly look. It was also at this time that the Classical ideals and myths inspired the cameo artists. From 1917 to 1930 the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse captured the eye of the cameo artist. With this interest many cameos were carved with the actresses wearing costumes from their most celebrated roles. In 1980 the profile changed again to the “cover-girl” look. The turned up nose and mane of flowing hair gave rise to many cameos carved from shell in this fashion. These can range in price today from $100 to $800.
There many factors that are taken into considerations when evaluating the value of a cameo. Age certainly accounts for some of the value. Observation of profiles, facial features, body proportions, subject matter and attention to the amount of detail is the next considerations for value. The material it is made from, natural, dyed, composite are also taken into consideration. The harder stones are much more difficult for the artist to carve from. The deeper the carving and the more layers used in the design, the more valuable. But how do we tell the machine made from the hand carved? One clue is that machine-carved cameos have precise lines that are sharp to the touch. A hand-carved cameo will show undercuttings and tool markings, also the line work will look more fluid.
Cameos are a precious art that took skill and true artistry. To find the old ones is to find a treasure.