A Look Back at Cameo Jewelry

A Look Back at Cameo Jewelry

This month, FFF is exploring cameos in fashion during the FFF era, 1880-1930. Cameos existed long before 1880 (like the ancient example below) and persisted after 1930, but 1880 follows the sharp decline of cameos in fashion, just after their apex in the mid-19th century, and carves an interesting slice of cameo history.

Sardonyx cameo of a double capricorn with a portrait of the emperor Augustus. Roman, ca. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14, Sardonyx, gold, H. 1 1/8 in. (2.8 cm), Met Museum, 29.175.4, Public Domain

You may be asking, what is a cameo? My Modern Met offered a great definition in the article, ” A Brief History of Cameo Jewelry and How It’s Still Popular Today” :

A cameo is a form of glyptography, or bas-relief, carving, which historically features landscapes, portraits, and mythological figures cut into a variety of materials, but most often into glass, hardstones, and shells. Cameo artworks were crafted to create two layers on one piece of material, the top of which protruded from its background, creating a multi-dimensional artwork. These detailed reliefs were often used to adorn pieces of jewelry, such as brooches, necklaces, bracelets, and rings.

Cooper, Megan. My Modern Met. May 6, 2020. https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-cameo-jewelry/

If you’re already interested in cameos, David James Draper’s essay “Cameo Appearances” as part of the Met Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays is a must read! He gave further insight as to what makes cameos unique:

The three-dimensionality of cameos, which are usually quite tiny, is attained through intensely concentrated work at close range. Cameos were, and still are, especially prized when the artist manipulated the strata of the stone in relation to the design, exploring the stone’s depths to enhance its visual impact. This was often achieved by playing a pale layer against a dark ground, achieving a strong contrast. Gradually, depending on the complexity of the stone itself, more bands of color were engaged in the design, sometimes even prompting the inclusion of hints of landscape.

Draper, David James. Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. August 2008. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/came/hd_came.htm

Cameos were made from a wide variety of materials and ultimately became a status symbol, as most jewelry items did throughout the ages, but their origins date back to antiquity. In Draper’s essay “Cameo Appearances,” part of the Met Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays, he explains “about the fifth century B.C., the Greeks introduced stones engraved in projected relief—the antecedents of cameos.” The first true cameos appeared around roughly 300 B.C.E. Further examples of ancient cameos can be found here in the Met Museum’s collection of Roman cameo glass, and throughout history in the Met Museum’s collection like the pendant from the 16th century below. Note that gemstones cameos typically had a higher value than glass cameos.

Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland. Sardonyx, with inlaid gold and silver details; mounted in 19th century frame as a pendant in gold, with enamel, pearl and ruby. Cameo by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, cameo ca. 1530–40, frame 19th century, Overall: 2 13/16 x 1 3/4 in. (7.2 x 4.4 cm); Visible cameo (confirmed): 31 x 22 mm, Met Museum, 17.190.869, Public Domain.

Cameos have waxed and waned in popularity since their origin but reached the height of their popularity in the middle of the 19th century. This is especially true as relates to fashion, like the elaborate set below from the mid-19th cen! The 1800s was a period that revived many ancient and prior forms of art and dress throughout its decades, cameos being no exception. Draper explained that for cameos, the popularity of Neoclassicism and the Roman arts brought the carved jewelry both to its height and then its sudden diminished appeal after about 1860 when Neoclassicism lost its hold on the arts.

Parure: tiara, necklace, and brooch. Cameos carved by Luigi Saulini, mid-19th century, Italian, Onyx and gold, tortoiseshell, Met Museum, 40.20.55a–c, Public Domain.

So by the 1880s, the popularity of cameo jewelry had declined but it was certainly still worn. The cameos themselves were cut from a wide variety of stone and shell. Due to the Neoclassical influence in the 19th century, the cameo depictions were often scenes from mythology. However, it could also be commemorative portrait. In the the example from 1870 below, the head of the Prince of Wales has been set into the cameo.

Engraved gold brooch set with a shell cameo of a profile portrait head of the Price of Wales with an engraved signature. 1870, Rome, © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1978,1002.34

In the late 19th-early 20th century, cameos were most often worn as a brooch at the center of the neck like the women in the images shown below, but could also have been worn as part of a necklace, earrings, rings, bracelet, or tiara. These two portraits were panted/photographed around the same time period and are similar in many ways, but the differences I find most interesting. The woman on the left has a more romantic appeal to her. Notice her neckline is lower, she is a little more youthful, and her shoulder slope and wrinkling of the material she wear suggests a more relaxed appearance. She too wears a brooch but it hangs a little lower. The woman on the right is Judge Mary Margaret Bartleme, and she fittingly appears more serious. The high neckline of her lace collar suggests an overlap of Victorian rigidness into the early 1900s. Her brooch is placed higher up on her collar. This seems to suit the seriousness of her work. As a brief synopsis, she was a social reformer and made many firsts as a woman in the judicial system, most notably as the first female judge in Illinois (you can read more about her accomplishments here). In her case, I think the brooch against her high lace collar underscores an accessibility to luxury items and the rigidity of the prior decade, as this style aligns more with the 1890s and early 1900s.

Cameos could also be used in other aspects of fashion outside of jewelry as well. Some examples here show cameo decorated buttons. These were made in Italy in ca. 1880:

Similarly, these button examples are also from Italy ca. 1880, and feature cut stone encircled by metal. Note that many cameos of the Western world in the 19th century were imported from cameo-makers in Italy.

Unfortunately, as the 19th century progressed cameos continued to decline. Another reason for the decline, in addition to the change away from Neoclassical style, is noted in the book Cameos Old and New. Anne Miller wrote that in the 19th century:

“Cameo collecting remained very popular, until scandals and charges of fakes and forgeries discredited many nineteenth-century carvers and engravers. The reproduction of cameos and intaglios caused interest in cameo collecting as an art to decline further. But there was an upsurge in their use in jewelry.”

Miller, Anna M. and Diana Jarrett. Cameos Old and New. 4th ed. Woodstock, VT: Gemstone Press, 2009, p. 364

Presumably, the upsurge Miller referred to took place in the mid-19th century, and then as the Neoclassical style became less popular the prior scandals added to an even sharper fall in popularity. However, the cameo persisted as a form of adornment into the 20th century!

As a later example, the cameo brooch (lower right) below is found in an advertisement from L. W. Sweet & Co. among other jewelry items for women in Picture-Play Magazine. The caption right below the brooch reads: “Genuine cameo brooch in hand-engraved solid gold bezel. $8.” Cameos were certainly still purchased and worn, though less frequently as the 1900s progressed.

L. W. Sweet & Co., Picture-Play Magazine, Dec. 1919, p. 16

In another advertisement from the following year, J. M. Lyon & Co. advertised a cameo brooch in Photoplay Magazine in 1920. Its caption reads: “Cornelian cameo brooch. $25.00.” Cornelian is a type of shell commonly used for cameos that ranges from orange to pink hues.

J. M. Lyon & Co., Photoplay Magazine, November 1920, p. 91

In the 1920s it was still possible to find cameos as an example of jewelry worn as a fashionable item, rather than an inherited heirloom or commemorative item, but it was rare. In this image below, actress May McAvoy is described as having “cameolike” beauty herself. She is shown wearing a large cameo brooch at her neck, a cameo studded bracelet, and matching cameo ring in the lowest image on the page.

Holmer Little, “Permanent Aids to Beauty,” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1926, p. 26

Cameos did not reclaim the fashionable height they once had in the 1860s and were worn less and less frequently as the 20th century continued. Much farther past the FFF timeline, around the 1970s, many mass produced imitations were made as cheaper costume jewelry instead of the true cut stone and shell. However, there are still beautiful examples of cameos today, if increasingly hard to find. As an enduring example of wearable art that dates back to ancient times, we can still appreciate the desirability of a delicate carved image in stone or shell.


-Danielle Morrin

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If you liked this post you might also enjoy:

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Wedding Dresses 1888 – 1930

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