A cameo is a kind of jewelry produced by artisans, or craftsmen, who engrave a bas-relief, or raised, image on a range of single-colored or multicolored materials. In the eighteenth century cameos were made of onyx, sardonyx, ivory, agate, coral, seashell, lava, and glass. If the substance was multicolored, one color was uncovered and became a background for the image engraved on the second color. During the eighteenth century, cameos came in all sizes and shapes; occasionally they were made of separate materials that were glued together. Cameos often were worn on a velvet ribbon or incorporated into an ornate design as a pendant or a pin.
The images on cameos were far-ranging. There were idealized portraits of women's heads and shoulders, posed in profile. The women pictured had classical features, and their hair was shown in great detail. Occasionally, carvers were commissioned to create cameos of specific women. Popular images on cameos also were flowers, groups of people, mythological gods and goddesses, and mythological scenes.
Shell was an especially popular material for cameos because it was inexpensive, readily obtainable, and easily carved. Shell cameos were worn informally during the day, while those made from rarer and more expensive gems were donned with formal evening wear.
Starting in the eighteenth century, with the dawn of the industrial age, cameos were mass-produced. Historical figures from Russian empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796), to Britain's Queen Victoria (1819–1901), were known to collect cameos.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Miller, Anna M. Cameos Old and New. 3rd ed. Woodstock, VT: GemStone Press, 2002.
[ See also Volume 1, Ancient Greece: Cameo and Intaglio ]