Cameos have long been used as classic ornaments, jewelry and unique objets d’art. These miniature carvings of a figure, symbol or a scene go in and out of style through history but they never really disappear. Just like our favorite red coral, cameos are a fascinating artisan craft with strong Mediterranean roots.
Since antiquity until today cameos displayed allegorical, mythological, historical or religious images. Motifs of gods and goddesses, historic scenes, biblical scenes, Roman soldiers and beautiful women adorned both men and women.
You’ve probably seen the classic cameo or maybe you even have one as a family heirloom. But do you know how cameos are made?
Cameo making is an ancient method of carving in relief on precious gems, shells, corals or other materials like lava stones. Every cameo is a miniature work of art and the most prized ones are hand carved in shell. Master artisans from Torre del Greco in Italy are the most skillful carvers of shell cameos until today and keep the art of cameo alive.
Shell cameos carved in Italy became popular during the Renaissance but the height of their popularity was during the Victorian era. Victorians were in love with Italy and all things Italian including cameos. It is during the Victorian era and thanks to Queen Victoria who promoted it, cameo jewelry depicting a woman’s silhouette became extremely popular.
Cameos can be made in a variety of materials, from shells, precious corals, lava stone to different gemstones. Shells are the most popular material and the most prized shells for carving cameos are those with naturally occurring layers of contrasting color.
Two types of shells are used for cameos and you can easily recognize them:
Carnelian shell- comes in different shades of light peach and orange and is the most frequently used shell for cameo
Sardonyx shell- the most rare and prized shell for cameos due the contrast of the white outer shell and dark brown interior of the shell
Making a shell cameo is a very delicate process and requires time and a skillful master carver.
First the Sardonyx or Carnelian shell is selected and divided in two parts. The part that is thicker and more rich in colour is used for carving cameos.
The part of the shell that will be used for cameo is then cut into smaller oval, round or other shapes.
The back of these pieces of shell are then smoothed and rounded and attached to a wooden stick for easy handling by the carver. The rough, curved outer layer is left exposed for carving.
After drawing a sketch of the subject on the shell the carvers create the image grinding away shell with traditional cameo carving tools called bullini. Hand tools used for cameo making are introduced by Italian carvers several hundred years ago and didn’t change to this day.
Most carvers sit near a window to take advantage of natural light, meticulously carving details of each cameo by hand. When working in bas relief with natural contrasts and organic materials like shells there is little place for mistakes.
Depending on the size and the image details, one cameo can take a few days or even weeks to be complete.
Every shell cameo carving is a true blend of artisan craftsmanship and natural beauty.