Choosing an Antique Cameo
Jewelry has always been a popular gift choice. A fine cameo is a must for anyone's wardrobe of jewelry. Once you develop an appreciation for these miniature works of art you may find them an addicting collectible. You can find many antique cameos for sale on eBay. Develop an eye for quality and uniqueness in order to get the best buy for your money. I will concentrate on cameos of the 1800s since they are readily available, can be of high quality.
What makes one cameo more desirable than another? There are several factors to consider.
- Quality of the carving
- Subject matter
- Type and material used for the setting, if any.
- Material used
Quality of the carving
- From left to right, the first cameo is a simple lady's bust facing to the right. Usually the heads do face to the right. Left facing cameos are less common. This first example is a small unmounted cameo circa the 3rd quarter of the 1800s. The carving quality is good. Condition is also good. A small unmounted antique lady head cameo like this can be found quite inexpensively on eBay.
- The 2nd cameo is actually larger than the first one, but I had to scale it down to fit it into the image. It is a medium sized cameo. It is also a lady bust but the figure faces left, shows more of the figure and is holding a bird. These additional elements add value. The carving quality is good to very good. There is some minimal wear to the facial features due to age. It dates to approximately the same time period as the first example. It is also unmounted. Because it is unmounted, a cameo of this quality can still be found on eBay for a relatively modest price.
- The 3rd example is again a bust of a woman. It is a large cameo with exceptionally fine carving detail. The carver has used all 3 layers of color in the shell to leave some color on the figures turban and garment. It dates from the same period as the previous examples. It is set in its original period brooch setting, of average quality for the time period. The setting has some minor condition issues. The cameo is in very good condition. Obviously this last cameo in this series is by far the better quality piece. Cameos of this quality have been running about $300+ on eBay, which I think is an excellent value for your money.
The more unusual the subject matter, the more desirable the cameo. Some motifs that you may run across include:
- Religious themes such as St. George and the dragon, Rebecca at the well, prophets, saints, angels, Mary or Jesus, women holding crosses, among others.
- Scenic cameos, usually with figures and sometimes also with animals
- Romantic scenes of courting couples and/or cupid
- Mythological - portrayals of Roman/Greek myths
In the upper right corner is a shell cameo depicting Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's "Night". Some people feel that this scene of an angel carrying a child was chosen by women who had lost a child. It is an especially beautiful image.
The shell cameo in the lower right corner is a detailed portrait of an unknown gentleman. Portraits are not as popular, even when well done, unless the subject is very handsome or beautiful or even more rare - a child. If the person can be identified that adds value. If the artist can be identified that is also a plus.
The shell cameo in the lower left is a city scene that I am still working on identifying. It is unusually large and well carved.
The center cameo is a blue and white jasper ware cameo similar to Wedgwood's work. It is molded, not carved. The setting is silver. The subject is a classical scene. Jasper ware cameos of good quality can often be found for reasonable prices. They are an attractive alternative to the carved cameos.
Many different materials have been used to create cameos. The most common is shell. Sometimes mother of pearl cameos can be found too.The example in the lower left corner below is an unusually nice mother of pearl cameo.
Cameos carved from stone are less common and are very desirable. Among stone cameos the most often found are lava stone and agate. Lava comes in a range of colors such as white, beige , brick and black. The example below in the upper left corner is a black lava stone cameo in a classical motif dating from the mid 1800s. The green cameo below is an earlier stone cameo, possibly malachite. Many other semi-precious gemstones have been carved as cameos.
Natural materials such as coral, and ivory can be found as cameos. Bone and celluloid imitations of ivory were also used for cameos. The cameo below in the upper right corner is celluloid. Below it is a Georgian period ivory cameo.
As even these few examples show, cameos can be found both set and unset, and in a wide variety of settings. You do not have to seek a high karat gold setting to ensure that you are getting a good quality cameo. I have some excellent cameos that are set in gold plated brass settings, silver, copper, Whitby jet, and even tortoiseshell. Jet or tortoiseshell can add a great deal to the overall value of the piece. One of my rarest cameos is an Arts and Crafts era portrait of a child that is set in copper.
I recommend avoiding damaged cameos unless they are extremely rare and desirable examples. Damage such as chips and cracks that go all the way through severely devalue a cameo. Shell cameos are a natural material that may exhibit some grain lines. Some of these become more apparent with age. I find that acceptable as long as they are not true cracks.
When in doubt, do nothing. Keep shell cameos away from heat. Some people suggest applying a tiny dab of olive oil over the surface of a shell cameo once year to prevent the shell from drying out and developing cracks. Do not use commercial jewelry cleaning solutions. Do not put cameos into an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. The safest way to clean is to brush gently with a soft brush and clean only with tepid water. If a cameo is in a closed back setting do not use water or any other liquid.
- Noses - In the 1800s long staight Roman noses are seen in profiles. In the 20th century pert, turned up, short noses became popular.
- Anatomy - Elegant realistic classical bodies of the early to mid 1800s gave way to rather heavy matronly ladies in the late 1800s. In the 1900s looser carving and slender bodies with pointed toes show up.
- Hairstyle - Hairstyle is problematic because they are cyclic, and recur years later. However 20th century cameos often have longer loose hair and floating tendrils. A low bun style was popular in the 1840s. The earlier 1800s Empire period favored a Grecian style of short tossled curls.
- Jewelry - Jewelry was usually not depicted in cameo images until the 20th century. Inserting diamond gems as accents into the cameos became popular in the early 1900s.
- Artists signatures - If you can identify a specific artist that will give you possible time range.
- Wear - unless an antique cameo was never used expect it to show some signs of wear. Today there are artists capable of duplicating antique cameos.
The majority of modern cameos are carved ultrasonically, not hand carved. This process produces a textural effect that is detectable upon close examination. If you look at a mass produced ultrasonically carved modern cameo under magnification you will observe a texture like that of newly fallen snow. This is a slightly grainy pitted texture.
Another tip off is the quality and style of the carving. Mass produced modern carving are more uniform. You will start noticing the same cameo model reappearing. The best example of this is the so-called "ponytail" girl. This is a right facing lady bust. The hair is gathered high on the back of the head and falls in loose long tendrils. These modern carvings do not have the artistry and softness of the antique hand carved cameos.
Noses! Fashions change. The preferred profile for antique cameos show a straight Roman nose. In the 20th century a shorter, pert, up-turned nose became popular.
In costume jewelry molded plastic and glass cameos are frequently found. Again the ponytail girl is the most common image used.