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.
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!
Facts to Know
- 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.
- The opposite of a cameo is an intaglio, where the design is carved below the surface. (Intaglios were used as wax seals.)
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!)
- Julia Rothman-designed safari cameo stencils (template here) printed on clear Avery shipping labels (you could also use contact paper or etching stencils)
- etching cream
- x-acto knife
- paint brush
- drinking glass or other object for etching
- Print the Julia Rothman-designed safari cameo stencils onto your Avery labels.
- Using an x-acto knife, cut out the stencils.
- Adhere the stencil to your clean glass.
- Paint the etching cream onto the glass according to package instructions.
- Wash off etching cream after the appropriate amount of time has elapsed (usually 5 minutes, but check your package).
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