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Cameo History

HISTORY AND OVERVIEW OF CAMEOS  
by Preston Reuther 

 

"Diamond Debbie" - Large Shell Daimond

CAMEO ---- A stone or shell cut in relief using the object itself to produce shadings of the carving from the Hebrew word KAMEA----a charm or amulet or Latin CAMMAEUS "engraved gem". These are said to be the root origin of the word CAMEO, but even among experts even this is disputed. Let's look at the two different methods of carvings of a cameo:
 
1. Relief---carved from the front with only the front profile showing or one side as opposed to a sculpture that can be seen from all sides.

2. Intaglio----carved from the rear of the profile or picture. Just when the first cameo was carved is unknown and shrouded in mystery, but we do believe it was in Greece or Rome. Cameos were quite popular in both areas and were carved from stone such as AGATE. Shell was not used until a much later date. Because of their availability and the ease in which they could be carved, shells became extremely popular and eventually the art of cameo carving settled in a small town, Torre Del Greco, at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, located on the Bay of Naples. The tiny town of Torre Del Greco, Italy, today, is still the center of Cameo carving.
 
Over 25 different sea shells are used plus a large array of coral. Most shells originate in the Bahamas, the West Indies, and Madagascar. Two Different Carving Centers and Two Entirely Different Methods The shell and coral carving center of Torre Del Greco uses a method thousands of years old. The use of steel gravers with handles, fitting the hand, are used in a timeless tradition of master craftsmanship. The master carver will select the shell to be used, outline the number of cameos to be obtained from that shell, and then supervise the entire carving process. With these incredibly sharp precision tools, the most intricate details can be obtained. No matter what profile or scene you choose,it is sure to be an "INVESTMENT" that will be cherished.

The other great carving center of the world is Idar-Oberstein, Germany. This is a city that is just as famous for their gemstone and agate carvings as Torre Del Greco is for their shell carvings. This type of carving seems to be much more difficult because of the hardness of gemstones and agates. The types of cameos used in my settings are ultrasonically carved. Let me explain further: The cameos are created from pieces of high quality white agate found only in this region. The agate is first dyed either black, red, green, or blue. Each piece is ultrasonically carved by computer, using a template from the original hand carved work of art. The color is then chemically drawn back out of the face of the stone, thus leaving the face in its original white condition. The finished piece is very resistant to chipping and will not peel, crack, fade, or discolor with age. This explains why agate cameos have turned out to be such an "INVESTMENT" to be handed down from generation to generation.
 
ABOUT ITALIAN SHELL CAMEOS USED IN DESIGNER CAMEO JEWELRY Shells have been used for almost a 1000 years in the cameo business. This was most likely because cameos carved from shell were considered more informal than the cameos which were carved from gemstone material and women could wear them everyday! The tradition began in the fifteenth or sixteenth century and was popularized by Queen Victoria of England. [1837-1901]. (Catherine the Great of Russia also had a large collection). Cameos carved from shell are still the most popular type of cameo sold today. Conch shells provide the carving material for the cameo cutters of Torre del Greco, Italy, the main manufacturing city for shell cameos. The shells from which these cameos are produced are found in the Torresi waters, the Bahamas, in the Caribbean, Central America and in the waters off East Africa, (particularly in Madagascar). Shell divers appropriately select specimens from 90 to 100 feet below the water's surface.
 
Only six out of over 100,000 seashells species existing in the world are selected to make a cameo. This is due to the fact that shell carvers are very particular about the kind of shell used for hand carving cameos. The artist carefully searches the sea shells for signs of flaws or cracks. (There must be no sign whatsoever of either a flaw or a crack). Stress marks and lines or natural growth marks are okay, as 99% of your cameos are going to have some kind of lines in them. The shell must also be broad and colored horizontally with light colors on top of darker colors. Usually, the darker color will be the background and the lighter color will be in the foreground. The carver selects a section of the conch shell and determines where the layers of color are. Then the carver creates a design just for that particular shell that will reveal the colored layers as it is carved, making the finished cameo three-dimensional. After the cameo is carved, it will be polished by hand. By now you've guessed that different types of shells produce different colors of cameos.

HOW CAMEOS ARE CARVED As far back as 15,000 BC, both men and women have been carving petroglyphs - figures carved into rock -to record significant events, form good luck charms, seal documents in place of a signature and communicate information via the carving. People have also used cameos to make a statement about their faith or loyalties. The first documented cameo was carved around 332 BC. The ancients discovered that many gemstones and shells were made of different colored layers. This allowed handcrafter to create a striking contrast between the raised (relief) layer and the flat (background) layer. The carving process for the shell cameo begins in the seas where the shell divers select specimens of the conch shell to be carved. For shell cameos, handcrafters use the outer coating of the shell (cup) and the inner lip, or the part of the shell that leads to the inside of the shell. The shell is cut out to form oval forms, later to be smoothed off by the grinding wheel to obtain a perfect oval. After having obtained the oval, it is then sculptured to remove the whitish shell to reveal the background which creates the contrast in color.
 
All cameos are birthed when the carver selects the shell or cabochon to be used, outlines in pencil the shapes of the cameos that will be obtained from that material and then begins the carving process. The methods used to carve cameos haven't changed in thousands of years. Although modern machinery now assists in the initial stages of the process, the intricate details are still carved by hand. The carvers use very sharp steel gravers with handles that fit the hand of the carver. With these incredibly sharp precision tools, the most intricate details can be obtained. In modern times, both shell and gemstone cameos can be carved ultrasonically.
 
The most important steps in the cutting process are: first layer removal, marking, profile molding, sanding, and placement determination [designing, sketching], engraving, finishing, polishing with oil and oil removal. During this process the sculptor/carver must be very careful that the cameos, especially the shell, are not bumped around or dropped. After it is carved, the future cameo is engraved. The cameo to be engraved is mounted with wax on a wooden stick. After having sketched a picture of what he intends to carve onto the cameo, the engraving begins. Cameos can often be engraved using dental tools! Then, the cameo is cleaned with oil. Finally, after the cameo is formed and cleaned, it is placed in a setting. This is strictly hand-made. The gold frames are most often used for this purpose. Older cameos are set in brass, gold filled, silver vermeil, or silver. Mother-of-Pearl is usually set in silver.

The frames, like cameos themselves, are created in all shapes and sizes, the most popular being the oval. A gold metal ribbon (bezel or gallery wire) is wrapped around the perimeter and folded over the edge of each single cameo. In this fashion no two can be exactly alike in their curvature, thickness and contour. The bezel is then twisted into a decoration, such as braids or ribbons. You can tell a cameo's time period by its frame. Restrained, simple frames surround the early Victorian pieces, in contrast to the jeweled, pearled and diamond settings that came later in that period. Turn-of-the-century and later Art Deco cameos are set in white gold. So we see that everything about a cameo is unique from its very start. No two authentic cameos are alike in any way, just like the people who wear them!

 

 

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