Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs

Updated May 3, 2021
Cameo Jewelry

Closely associated with the Victorian aesthetic, people often stumble across cameo jewelry in their grandmother's or great-grandmother's jewelry boxes. These bas-relief carvings have been created to depict practically every character imaginable, and their pristine appearance lends them an aged, but contemporary, quality that not all antiques have. Check out how this style of jewelry came to be and why it's still so popular with people today.

History of Cameo Jewelry

Cameo jewelry has been around since antiquity, though most people recognize it from the pieces made during its peak moment of popularity in the Victorian period. Ancient intaglios, which were tools used as a seals and markers, had hollow carvings that could be stamped onto documents. They were the dominant type of relief accessory being created at this time. In the fifteenth or sixteenth century, cameos and their raised bas-relief designs were first introduced. Interesting motifs were carved into the top layer of stone, shell, coral, lava, and many other materials to create decorative pieces to wear. A resurgence in popularity for these pieces came in the Victorian period where people began preferring the classic profile design over every other style, a design which is often used today.

Cameos in Modern Culture

Although some people have always loved wearing vintage jewelry, there's been a marked return towards wearing cameos and other vintage pieces in modern fashion. The unique beauty of cameo jewelry has captured the hearts of occasional jewelry wearers and jewelry lovers alike. In addition to purchasing vintage cameos, there are many vintage-inspired pieces available for sale today.

Typically cameos feature a profile or other design in a white, cream, or light shade, while the revealed layers are darker - often black, blue, bronze, rust, or pink, depending on the materials the cameo is made out of. Special artistic cameos, however, are also designed using full-color reliefs, or with various accents of color, to brighten and accentuate parts of the design.

Types of Cameo Jewelry

The most popular traditional jewelry featuring cameos is in the form of brooches, pins, and necklaces. However, there are other types of jewelry that feature cameos including lockets, charms, earrings, rings, bracelets, spaced cameo necklaces, and even navel rings. Since these pieces have a timeless appeal, you can find them on practically every type of accessory imaginable.

Popular Motifs

Although the profiles of the Victorian era are often thought of regarding cameo jewelry, there are also dozens of other designs available. For example, the earliest cameos from antiquity were focused on creating reverent representations of their patron Gods or Goddess. Cameo accessories featuring astrological zodiac signs are one example of the unique ways that contemporary artists have adapted this style for modern tastes. Whether you're interested in an authentic antique piece or want something with a modern flair, there's a multitude of focal subjects you can find. Some of the relief designs you'll see carved onto antique and vintage cameos include:

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Dolphins
  • Insects
  • The Virgin Mary
  • Praying hands
  • Angels
  • Flowers
  • City scenes
  • Mermaids
  • Mother and child
  • Families
  • Flags and patriotic symbols
  • Birthstone pendants
  • Sports themes
  • Disney characters
Vintage cameo

Typical Shape and Style

Cameo designs are usually affixed to jewelry made in yellow gold, white gold, or sterling silver. Gemstones or pearls are sometimes added to embellish these designs. Although the oval is the classic cameo jewelry shape, there are many other shapes cameos can be designed in, including:

  • Square
  • Teardrop
  • Pear
  • Round
  • Heart
Cameo Augustus Cdm Paris

Cameo Jewelry's Value

Jewelry is one of those consumer goods that varies wildly in price; jewelry cost is so dependent on a multitude of factors that it's nigh impossible to encompass all the price ranges associated with cameo jewelry. However, there are a few consistent rules for evaluating cameo jewelry that you'll discover. Antique and vintage pieces are often going to be worth more than antique/vintage-inspired. This does occasionally differ when it comes to the cost of the materials involved; modern pieces made out of luxurious gemstones are going to be worth more than shell antique examples.

Brooch with Cameo Bust of Ellen Walters

Some cameos can be pretty valuable. For instance, this unique Edwardian profile cameo was carved into a large citrine stone and set into 18K white gold and is currently listed for a little over $2,000 and this Art Nouveau pink cameo brooch is listed for a little over $515. Meanwhile, this pair of modern cameo earrings with drop pearls is listed for only $153. If you're trying to buy cameo jewelry, it's important to remember that with jewelry - you get what you pay for - so even a modern piece that's worth investing in is going to cost you a bit of money.

Your Grandmother Has Never Been So Fashionable

Fashion is cyclical, and past trends are always returning to be reinvented by modern designers for people to incorporate into their contemporary dress. With the recent resurgence in Victorian and Edwardian style, cameo jewelry has been making a comeback. So, if you want to get ahead of this trend, you might want to take your grandmother out for lunch and see if she'll let you borrow her favorite cameo brooch for the weekend.

Cameo Jewelry: A Rich History of Intricate Designs