Cameo jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as far back in time as humans were able to carve depictions into stone and rock. The Greeks and Romans carved images of their gods and mythology and other cultures followed suit by carving rulers and heroes.
Its origins served a practical purpose in that early record keeping and writing were also in the forms of engravings. Despite the modern look of a cameo, etchings and engravings could be carved into many different materials. Helmets, shields, glass, breastplates and household items like cups and dishes all featured the same technique.
Roman cameos were in the form of glass or vases, with carvings etched in. Due to glass’ smooth and consistent texture, cameo style artists preferred the material to make intricate work. These early pieces served as status symbols for the wealthy as well.
More modern cameo jewelry still has its roots from the 15th and 16th centuries in the form of seashells. These hand-carved cameos depicted beautiful portraits of significant people because jewelry makers realized that shells were durable yet still easy to carve.
By the 18th century, cameo jewelry began to signify status and prestige as the rocks marked origins and reign. Soon after, cameos took its modern form when shell cameos became a trend, often depicting a Roman woman’s image. Over the centuries, carvers have also discovered the perfect combination for a cameo. Of the 100,000 types of seashells discovered in the depths of the sea, only six types are suitable to make a cameo. This is due to the exact texture needed on the shell; and shell with any flaw or crack cannot be used.
Carvers saved the richer and thicker part of the shell for cameos, using a bullion (Italian carving tool) to dent away finely, grinding the skin and layers of the shell for perfection. The process could take days to complete, but would guarantee an original work.
Vintage cameo jewelry became even more popular with the advent of costume jewelry. With cheaper methods and materials, demand surged for the art form as people could have cheap – yet still long lasting – shells, plastic and glass made with their favorite engravings. Today, this trend continues with more customized colors, designs and features.
Cameo costume jewelry still features the notable classic mysterious woman look, but has become more varied and customized. Other popular designs include intricate backdrops and photographed scenes and because portrait cameos are typically hand-crafted, they remain original. Cameo costume jewelry, due its accessibility, also complements outfits of various styles giving a personal accessory, which is often unique and specific. Cameos can be used on rings, bracelets, pendants, necklaces and earrings as well.