Shell Cameo, Jewelry History

Cameos are jewelry carved with a raised image. The word cameo comes from the Hebrew/Arabic word “kameo” meaning amulet or charm. They come in several materials and date back to Ancient Greece and Rome. They were usually were carved from a hard stone like agate, as well as glass.

Using conch and other shells became popular in Europe during the 16th century. In the last photo I have shown a cameo tiara which belonged to Empress Josephine and is housed in the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Palais Massena in Nice, France. Empress Josephine also had a wedding tiara made of cameos and precious gems which has been handed down. Today it is the crown of Queen Sylvia of Sweden.

Cameos often depict mythological gods and goddesses. The cameo pin pictured with the beautiful lady watering an eagle is the Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility. The eagle represents Zeus, who changed forms. So this cameo depicts Venus nourishing Zeus. It dates from the mid-19th century. The smaller ring is a Roman soldier wearing his battle helmet, another popular theme.

The large conch shell shows how a cameo artisan would carve out a cameo into a piece of jewelry. This cameo has very fine detail, showing a lady with grapes in her hair. The carving is of fine quality. Part of determining the quality of a cameo is the translucency of light from behind the cameo. Here you can see fine detail. This piece was probably a grand tour souvenir. Cameos are fancy, delicate and whimsical but also have deep meaning and a rich history.

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