Victorian Cameos

Throughout history royal figures have set the tone for fashion. Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed wearing cameos, and Catherine the Great maintained an impressive collection of them. The enthusiasm for cameos in the French court of Napoleon I saw a liberal use of carved gems as jewelry.

The cameo proved to be a versatile fashion accessory that survived the whims of changing fashion during the nineteenth century in England. Queen Victoria preferred cameos, and her example helped keep the cameo popular during her reign.

During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), fashion trends changed with each decade. When Queen Victoria began her reign, lockets and necklaces were common. By the 1840s, women's clothing was more confining than ever, covering everything (including the ears). Brooches came into demand. The emphasis turned to jewelry for the hand, and rings and bracelets were the vogue.
The ears and hair came into view in the 1850s. Ladies wore such accessories as diadems and earrings. Necklaces and lockets became popular again in the 1860s as necklines began to drop. Fashions moved toward a Romantic Movement as the 1870s began with feminine frills and elaborate jewelry.

The 1880s saw a different approach to jewelry with simple necklaces or beads representing the only accessories fashionable women wore. As the nineteenth century came to a close, jewelry made a return with smaller pins and dainty pieces.

The intaglio, carved below the surface, came before the cameo. In ancient times, an intaglio served a purpose whether it was to seal letters or to mark property. While women wore intaglios in Victorian times, men wore them as watch fobs or as scarf pins, and signet rings were also common.

The cameo is the opposite of the intaglio. A cameo is a portrait or a scene carved in relief with a contrasting colored background. Gemstones were the material of early cameos. In the nineteenth century, carvers utilized a variety of materials such as stone, shell, lava, coral, as well as manmade materials.

Materials Used in the Making of Cameos

Italian carvers began using shell for their creations around 1805. By the Victorian Era, shell had become appreciated as a medium that was easily carved and inexpensive. Unlike carved gems, shell cameos offered the advantage of being less formal and could be worn during the day.
Stone cameos of this period came from agate, onyx, or sardonyx. This material offered many colorful layers for carvers to utilize. Although carvers preferred stone, it was not always plentiful, and these artisans looked to other mediums for their designs.

Mt. Vesuvius provided an abundance of lava in many colors that carvers used to design intricate carvings. Lava was a soft, delicate substance. The work of talented carvers produced breathtaking high relief works of art in portraiture and classical scenes.
The cameos made from lava were less expensive and appealed to ladies who traveled to Italy. Women treasured these compact souvenirs and liked the status of wearing jewelry that showed that they had been on the Grand Tour.

During the nineteenth century, the waters near the Italian town of Torre del Greco became the location where an abundance of coral was discovered. Victorians believed in the power of coral and thought it could ward off evil. Although the most sought after colors of this sea product were red and black, coral cameos exist in a variety of colors.

Carved gems had been an indulgence for the rich, but William Tassie changed jewelry forever when he invented a glass paste in the 1760s. With his carefully guarded secret paste recipe, he copied casts of famous and ancient cameos and intaglios. He imitated the look and texture of these pieces.

The cameos, known as Tassies, depicted not only classical subjects but also portraits of royalty or important figures of the day such as scholars or philosophers. The masses began to purchase expensive looking yet affordable Tassie cameos. When Tassie died, his nephew continued the business, producing imitation cameos well into the 1800s.

Josiah Wedgwood, who bought molds from Tassie, developed a method to create a cameo from a substance known as jasper ware. Through a firing process, a stoneware design was fixed to a blue ceramic background.

Wedgwood's cameos became world famous, and the blue background of his cameos became known as Wedgwood blue. The subjects of the cameos were classical. Wedgwood manufactured intaglios as well as pieces intended to decorate furniture. Wedgwood continues to produce cameos to the present day with a variety of colored backgrounds.
Popular Motifs

Discoveries of archaeological sites in Italy and Egypt renewed an interest in the classics that influenced cameos of the Victorian Era. Motifs included gods and goddesses from mythology. The challenge that remains to collectors is how to identify these figures.

While carvers produced an array of motifs, some gods and goddesses appeared more often than others. Apollo, the god of music, was shown with a lyre while Artemis (Diana), goddess of the hunt, was often portrayed with a crescent moon on her head. The symbol of an owl accompanied Athena (Minerva), the goddess of war and wisdom. Demeter (Ceres), goddess of the harvest, held a stalk of wheat. Dionysus (Bacchus), known as the god of wine and fertility, wore grape leaves and/or grapes in his hair. Eros (Cupid), the god of love, had bows and arrows and was sometimes shown with other animals. Hermes (Mercury), a messenger for the gods, wore wings on his hat, and Poseidon (Neptune), the god of the sea, held a trident.

Examples of other subjects who are figures from classical mythology but not considered gods or goddesses are Bacchante maidens (followers of Bacchante), adorned with grape leaves in their hair. Subjects related to Zeus are The Three Graces, who were the daughters of Zeus; and Leda, a woman shown feeding the eagle (Zeus).

The Three Muses or individual muses appear with musical instruments. Psyche, known as the bride of Cupid (Eros), with butterfly wings in her hair or on her shoulder, was a common gift from a man to his wife, or a suitor to his beloved.

Scenes showcased the talent of cameo carvers and proved to be popular with cameo enthusiasts. Classic scenes from Greek mythology, such as a depiction of Zeus with his chariot, were common. In the 1860s, Rebecca at the Well became a common motif. This scene contained a woman, a well, and a bridge. The portrayal of Rebecca at the Well varied with added elements such as a house or trees. The quality of the carving also varied from a dreamlike carving to a more detailed one.
Naturalism appealed to Victorians. The large number of magazines and books devoted to all aspects of horticulture bear evidence to this fact. The Victorians' love of gardening translated into cameos that depicted flowers. The floral motif continues to be popular as a subject for modern cameos.

The Emergence of the Idealized Woman

A prized souvenir for a Victorian woman was a cameo with her likeness by an Italian carver. While commissioned portraits were the vogue, another kind of portrait appeared with the anonymous woman. Cameo carvers could fashion such images quickly in shell or lava, and tourists created a demand for them.

By the 1850s, the features of the women depicted on cameos had changed. In previous years, carvers had created images of Romanesque women with classical features such as long, straight noses and Roman dress. Women wanted a likeness more similar to their own. Modified images on cameos showed women with upturned noses, jewelry, and upswept hairstyles.
As the likeness of the anonymous Victorian women shown with jewelry became commonplace, cameo designers took the idea one step further with the cameo habillé. The cameo habille´depicted the portrait of an idealized woman adorned with jewelry, and tiny diamonds on the cameo represented jewelry such as earrings and a necklace. This type of cameo has found great popularity and continues to be produced in the present day.

The industrialization of the Victorian Era made mass production of jewelry possible. As portraiture became the mainstay of cameo carvers, the anonymous woman became a common subject for cameos. Detractors saw this motif as the beginning of the decline in cameo design. Carvers could produce these cameos in quick assembly line fashion on shell or a variety of other materials. The anonymous woman was molded into cameos from manmade materials such as glass or celluloid.

Dating a Cameo

To date a cameo with accuracy, one must act as a detective gathering clues. Many hours and even years of research and study are necessary to train the eye. For a collector with an interest in history or art, the time spent studying cameos can be rewarding.

Magnification is vital in looking at a cameo. A jeweler's loupe is a necessary tool in examining the quality of a carving and determining the material the cameo is made of. Such close inspection can help a collector discover if the cameo has been carved as one piece or has been assembled from different materials and glued together.
The motif on the cameo can provide a timeframe for its origin. If a shell or stone cameo contains a classical scene, it may have originated in the 18th or 19th centuries when such subjects were popular. The anonymous woman on a cameo indicates that it comes from the Victorian Era, while the cameo habillé did not become fashionable until later in the nineteenth century.

Physical traits sometimes reveal when a cameo was carved. A long Roman nose denotes that the piece originated before 1850. If the nose is slightly upturned, it can be dated after the mid-nineteenth century. A more pert nose is typical of the turn of the century or later. An upswept hairstyle in a woman's portrait indicates a late Victorian cameo while shorter curls are indicative of the early twentieth century.

The medium that carvers used provides clues to the history of the piece. Shell cameos have been popular for centuries although this material was in wide use during the Victorian era. Shell cameos have a slight translucent quality that can be detected when held to the light.

Lava has been a popular choice for carvers since the 17th century, but the abundance of this limestone material came from Mt. Vesuvius during the nineteenth century. One can say with a great deal of certainty that a large majority of lava cameos originated in the nineteenth century.

Jet is another material that gained popularity in the nineteenth century because of its discovery in Whitby, England during the Victorian Era. Materials common in the early years of the 20th century were celluloid, Bakelite, glass, gutta-percha, and amber.

For the past twenty-five years, carvers in the Idar-Oberstein region of Germany have produced stone cameos using a laser technique. According to Anna Miller's book, Cameos Old and New, the use of a loupe allows the collector to detect that the cameo is machine made. Through magnification, one can discern a snowy appearance on the surface of the cameo. Also, the cameo feels rough to the touch.

To learn about cameos, it is important to spend time handling them. This will help the collector learn the feel of the different materials. Tapping a cameo lightly against one's teeth will aid in discerning the difference between stone, shell, or other materials.
Asking questions and spending as much time as possible examining cameos can provide valuable knowledge for a collector. Museums with exhibits devoted to the history of cameos are also worthwhile. Finally, for questions about signatures on a cameo, or when in doubt about the material of the cameo (especially with gemstones), it is best to consult a knowledgeable appraiser or jeweler.

While the cameo evolved throughout the Victorian Era, the coming of the Industrial Age signified a change in the way jewelry was made. The Victorian Era produced fine examples of cameos in all materials. With such popular subjects as scenes, classical motifs, and portraiture, Victorian cameos represent a form of art that offers something for everyone.

References used for this article were Cameos: Classical to Costume by Monica Lynn Clements and Patricia Rosser Clements; Cameos Old and New by Anna Miller; Victorian Jewellry Design by Charlotte Gere; and Victorian Jewellry by Margaret Flower.

Written By: Monica Lynn Clements
Source: New England Antiques Journal