A cameo is a stone or shell cut in relief.
The Hebrew word is Kamea from the Latin cammaeus meaning engraved gem. The small scene is thought to attract health and good fortune. Some materials used include agate, jet, coral, onyx, ivory, bone, and gemstones. In 15,000 B.C. petroglyphs figures were carved into rock to record significant events. Cameos were found 300 years before the birth of Christ in Alexandria, Egypt.
The cameo may have been carried across Asia to the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great’s army. Cameos first were seen on the Nile Delta in Alexandria about 330 B.C.. The stone’s outstanding sculpture qualities appealed to powerful potentates and helped spur the cameo’s centuries-long position as the jewelry of emperors.
Napoleon, who considered himself as the inheritor of the reigns of Caesar and Augustus, copied their taste in jewelry, as well. The Couronne de Sacre Napoleon’s gold-plated coronation crown, was studded with dozens of antique Roman cameos. Napoleon established a school in Paris that specialized in carving cameos.
Ancient and Renaissance cameos were made from semi-precious gemstones, especially in types of onyx and agate. Glass cameo vessels such as the famous Portland Vase, were developed by the Romans. Sir Wallis Budge thought that the word comes from Kame’o, a word used in kabbalistic slang to signify a “magical square” or a talisman whereupon magical spells were carved.
In ancient times a cameo often was worn as jewelry or as signet rings and large earrings. Greece artisans made cameos in the third Century B.C. They were popular in ancient Rome, especially in the family circle of Augustus. The Great Cameo of France is the largest flat engraved gem known from antiquity.
The designs classically carved on to cameo stones were either Greek or Roman mythology, or portraits of rulers and important dignitaries. History records that agate portrait cameos often were gifts from royalty to their subjects. These 2,000 years old cameos are either displayed in museums, or are held in private collections.
Queen Victoria in 19th Century England was a cameo-collector. Her favorites were cameos carved from shells. Victoria transformed the medallion of monarchs into a piece of beauty and femininity. The gem of Julius Caesar’s eye had become a Victorian symbol of beauty.
The Russian empress, Catherine the Great, owned more than 32,000 cameos! When she could not find antique gems, she ordered hundreds of glass-paste imitations from Scottish sculptor James Tassie. Today, Catherine’s vast cameo collection can be seen in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Cameos were carved by hand, usually working from photographs of the subject. There was usually only one copy and today’s machine-made cameos use an ultrasonic carving processes. President Thomas Jefferson set blue-and-white Wedgwood Jasperware cameos into his home Monticello’s fireplace mantel in Charlottesville, Va..
I have a blue cameo locket that opens up to show two small photographs inside. The engraved profile of a young woman stands out in white above the pale blue background. It is quite pretty. Wearing a cameo is similar to putting on a sacred memento of quiet beauty right next to your heart, with precious photos inside.