past & present: cameos + diy project & cocktail recipe


At Brimfield in May, I was completely and unexpectedly blown away by the cameos sold by Michael Weinstein (of the Bundy Museum). One of the absolute best things about flea markets is finding things that you never knew existed and didn’t realize you needed. Cameos certainly weren’t on my shopping list, and while I may not have needed a cameo, one did find its way home with me! They have such a long and fascinating history that I hope you’ll forgive our moving into the jewelry realm a bit here (though they do have a place in Dec. Arts history! But we’ll get to that.). The silhouette form of the cameos inspired a Julia Rothman-designed template for a safari etched cameo glass project + cocktail recipe, so even if you’re not into the jewelry side of things, we’ve got you covered on the home front!

Images above: 1. Silver Horse Cameo, $1290; 2. Late 1800s Cameo Ring; 3. The Fall of Phaeton, French 1828–1896 via The Metropolitan Museum; 4. The Education of the Infant Bacchus, Italian 1780–1851 via The Metropolitan Museum; 5. Georgian Snake Fob, $3450


image above: Cameo portrait of Augustus carved from a three-layered sardonyx, Roman about AD14-20 via The British Museum

What Exactly Is a Cameo?
A cameo is a small stone or shell that is carved in raised relief — the upper layer is cut away in raised relief while the lower one is revealed as a blank ground. Ancient cameos were made from semi-precious gemstones. Various types of onyx and agate were particularly popular. Any stone with a flat plane where two contrasting colors meet could be used for cameo work. These are called “hardstone” cameos. Less expensive versions of the hardstone cameo are made of shells or glass.


images above from left: Portrait of Isabella d’Este in her sixties by Titian and the Gonzaga cameo from her collection now at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Cameos in Cabinets of Curiosities
As with other elements associated with ancient culture, cameos surged in popularity during the 16th century. The Renaissance artists developed their own technique, using the shell of a mussel or cowry to carve their cameos rather than hardstone. (This is why the Renaissance cameos are typically white on a grayish background.) Not only were cameos worn as jewelry, they were prominently featured in Cabinets of Curiosities, as well. My personal favorite Renaissance collector (yes, I actually have a favorite!) is Isabellea d’Estes, Marchesa of Mantua. Long before Virginia Woolf declared the need for a room of one’s own, this Renaissance woman built her own Cabinet of Curiosities or studiolo. She was an amazing patron of the arts. Today, she is remembered by historians for her collection of paintings, but she loved small decorative art objects, including cameos.


And if you’re not into jewelry, Julia Rothman created cameo-like safari animal stencils to etch on highball glasses! (Downloadable templates after the jump!)

CLICK HERE for more cameo history, a modern cameo shopping roundup and a glass etching project with cocktail recipe!


image above: Crown of Napoleon, also known as Crown of Charlemagne, made in France in the 19th century, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Another surge of interest in cameos occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries as part of the Neoclassical movement and the popularity during that time for all things ancient. In fact, the Neoclassical revival began in France, where even Napoleon’s coronation crown was decorated with cameos.


image above: Daguerreotype of an unidentified woman, ca. 1850, George Eastman House Collection

In Britain, the cameo revival first occurred during King George III’s reign. His granddaughter, Queen Victoria, was such a major proponent of the cameo trend that they would become mass produced by the second half of the 19th century.


image from left: Carving a shell cameo in Torre del Greco, Italy, and a cameo carved from a Sardinian conch from 1925 via Modern Jeweler

After World War II, inexpensive jewelry made out of synthetic materials such as celluloid and bakelite became popular. In addition, natural resources like jet and amber were used to make cameos. In the late 20th century, plastic and glass were used. Today there are still shell cameo carvers working in Torre del Greco, Italy. Located at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, the area has an abundance of lava, coral, and shell, making it the perfect spot for cameo design.


I couldn’t resist wrapping up the history section with a few examples of fun (and inexpensive!) cameos on the market today. You certainly can get a little cameo style from nearly any store!

Images above: 1. Cameo Wallpaper, $108; 2. Lulu Guinness Cameo Umbrella, $54; 3. Cameo Charm Stack Rings, $20; 4. Smiling Skull Ring, $25; 5. Cameo Charm Necklace, $25

Facts to Know

  1. As with other collectibles, rarity and not age determines value. So Renaissance cameos are actually more valuable than Roman ones, because so many cameos were produced in ancient Rome.
  2. The opposite of a cameo is an intaglio, where the design is carved below the surface. (Intaglios were used as wax seals.)

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DIY Project: Safari-Animal Cameo Highball

Etching cream! Really, is anything more fun? But I wanted an updated silhouette, so I enlisted the help of Julia Rothman to come up with something snazzy. Inspired by a cameo silhouette, Julia designed these fantastic safari animals. Don’t feel limited to only using them on highball glasses. I think these guys would look so cute on a mirror in a child’s room! (Who am I kidding? I’d love them in my room!)

Materials Needed

Project Steps

  1. Print the Julia Rothman-designed safari cameo stencils onto your Avery labels.
  2. Using an x-acto knife, cut out the stencils.
  3. Adhere the stencil to your clean glass.
  4. Paint the etching cream onto the glass according to package instructions.
  5. Wash off etching cream after the appropriate amount of time has elapsed (usually 5 minutes, but check your package).
  6. Ta-da!

Rum and Tonic
Now that you have such cute safari-themed glasses, you certainly need something to put inside them! This recipe comes from Jessica Pigza of the Handmade Librarian. Inspired by the idea that explorers would have wanted to drink something with quinine because it was thought to prevent malaria, Jessica suggested we fill our safari glasses with a rum and tonic, since tonic water has quinine in it and rum seemed appropriately dark and safari-like. There was a little bit of skepticism from the imbibers present at the testing site, but rest assured, these were duly tested and deemed delicious whether or not you were actually on safari.

  • 1.5 ounces rum
  • 5 ounces tonic water
  • splash of lime juice
  • garnish with wedge of lime
cailen

silhouettes are so huge right now. love the glass etching craft…i think i could probably handle it : )

julia

Nice Amy! Those came out so fun! It’s funny- I imagined it the opposite way- the black would be the etched part- but I love it this way!

maranda

feel free to dive into the jewelry realm ANY time! :) love this post!!

claudia

great article! interesting stuff, and I love the etching tutorial (not to mention the drink recipe!). one question/clarification: in the part about value as related to rarity and age, is there an error there? if renaissance cameos are more valuable than roman ones, then wouldn’t rarity and not age determine value (instead of the opposite, which is how it’s written)???

amya

hi claudia! thanks so much for your close reading! you are exactly right! :) it is rarity and NOT age! thank you so much! -amy a.

Rebecca

Wonderful post! I’m so glad to read that other people have as much of a fascination with cameos as I do!

ApplesandOnions

SO appreciative of this post. I inherited a few beautiful cameos from my grandmother but am always shy about wearing them because I think they scream PRIM! Maybe now I’ll have some of them re-set to look more modern.

That cameo from the British Museum is beyond beautiful.

amya

ApplesandOnions – You totally should wear them. I had my cameo from Brimfield mounted on a mesh bracelet and I love it! -amy a.

Fatima

I’ve never even heard of etching cream… great! Wonder if it would work in a window.

annkent

My grandmother has a pair of beige cameos encase in white gold which hang from silver wire. They are earrings and they are most lovely jewelry I have ever seen.

Katie

Fabulous project. I’m so inspired to start collecting funky high ball glasses to etch! Could be a nice personal touch for wedding decor. Also, great cameo article. I’m sure you have a list of fascinating design topics a mile long, and I thank you for sharing all of your knowledge and creativity!

Bonnie!

My eye went from the pastrami sandwich to the red cameo ring and misconstrued what it saw — meat ring, argh! Very disconcerting and funny. I love cameos, and in fact will be inheriting one. I don’t mind waiting, though. Also wouldn’t mind more posts on jewelry! I recently learned that (long ago) men in India wore lavish pearl necklaces.

cannwin

::sigh:: I went to Italy 11 years ago and had the distinct pleasure of seeing cameo’s carved. I have wanted one ever since. They are so timeless and beautiful.

Someday… someday.

Wes

I inherited my grandmother’s cameo pin and it sat in my jewelry box unworn for years until it dawned on me that I could have it reset. Duh! I had it put on a “slide” that fits onto a gold necklace — really pretty and I always get compliments when I wear it! Thanks for another great post.

margaret

Lovely article….I enjoy wearing a floral cameo my late mother-in-law picked out for me in Italy a few years back. I wear it on a leather rope, casually, usually layered with other necklaces, and always receive compliments!. Cameos can definitely be worn today!

Katarina

I’m so thrilled to see this how to! I just bought a glass front cabinet (5 ft tall x 2 ft wide) for my bathroom and I plan to etch the large pain of glass with an art deco stencil.

Alicia

Thank you so much for the cameo post! I love cameos and have been looking for an antique one nearly everywhere. Haven’t given up on it yet ;-)

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