The most popular cameos today are carved in sea shells, a tradition
that began in the fifteenth or sixteenth century and was popularized
by Queen Victoria of England. Since that time, cameos have predominately
showcased women's profiles, and been worn by women who enjoy the
beauty and craftsmanship of hand-carved cameos.
Yet cameos have not always been decorative jewelry for women. In
fact, at different points in history they have been worn as frequently
by men. While the birthplace of the cameo was nearly 300 years before
the birth of Christ in Alexandria, Egypt, cameos owe their origins
to ancient carving traditions. As far back as 15,000 BC, petroglyphs
figures carved into rock were used to record significant
events and communicate information. In ancient times people used
cameos to depict an ethic or moral, or to make a statement about
their faith or loyalties.
In the centuries since, cameos have been used for various purposes
and decorated with a wide range of carvings:
- Early Greek and Roman carvings featured images of gods and goddesses,
themes from mythology, beautiful women and biblical events.
- Many cameos through history depict living heroes or rulers.
- In the Hellenistic era young women used cameos as charms to
express desire. A woman could wear a cameo depicting a dancing
Eros as a seductive invitation to love.
- During the Renaissance, Pope Paul II was an avid cameo collector.
According to history, this love ultimately led to his death. His
excessive display of carved gems and stones on his fingers kept
his hands so cold that he caught the chill that meant his death.
- Cameos have been used on helmets and military accessories like
breastplates and sword handles, on rings and other jewelry, and
on vases, cups and dishes.
- Women began collecting cameos to prove cultural status during
the Elizabethan period. At the same time, tourist travels to the
ruins of Pompeii were on the rise and women began collecting shell
and lava cameos as souvenirs to remember their travel.
- During the 18th century, men purchased carved gems to mark their
prestige and culture.
- Cameos enchanted Napoléon, who wore a cameo to his own
wedding and founded a school in Paris to teach the art of cameo
carving to young apprentices.
- Not until the nineteenth century, when the popularity of shell
cameos grew reducing the use of hardstones or agate
did profiles become as popular a subject matter as they are today.
Thanks to Anna M. Miller's book Cameos
Old & New for these bits of cameo history.