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The art of a carved cameo is not to be disputed. There is work involved, you need an artisan, a skilled craftsman to do it right. The history of the cameo is an ancient one, dating back as far as 3000-3500 B.C. in the form of scarabs and assorted hard stones. The word cameo describes a relief image raised higher than its background and carved from one material. In contrast, if the artist carves down into the stone to hollow out a recessed image, the resulting work is called an “intaglio”. Cameos from the Roman imperial time were similar to the cameos today. During the height of Roman civilization there was great wealth, style and adornment. Wealthy families collected engravings of mythological events and portraits of loved ones. The collecting of old Greek engraved gems, became a popular status symbol in Roman society. Signet rings, earrings and objets d’ art were popular cameo choices. The Farnese Tazza (a large cup) is one of the oldest cameo objets d’ art in existence. During the Roman period glass and hard stone (agate and sardonyx) were the primary cameo mediums of choice, although occasionally, shell was used.
Empress Josephine is credited with initiating the fashion for cameos in the early 1800’s. She had many suites of cameo jewelry and sparked a multinational trend. The most famous parure of cameos, pearls and diamonds was created for her by the jeweler Nitot in 1809, the same year Napoleon divorced her to enter into a second marriage with the hopes of getting an heir. The parure consists of a tiara, necklace, bracelet, earrings and a brooch. The cameo parure is part of the Swedish crown jewels and starting in 1961 has been worn by every Swedish royal bride to date.
The shell cameo became popular during the Renaissance and made a huge comeback in the Victorian era. During the second half of the 19th century, cameos would become mass produced as a popular souvenir for tourists that made the Grand Tour of Europe.
If you look back through history there have always been masters in their field and the art of cameo carving is no exception. The list is long and continues to present day. Here is a small list of the masters; Niccolo Amastini, Italian, 1780-1851. Georges Bissinger, French, 1860-1890, exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Vienna and in 1873, and 1878 at the Paris Exhibition. Guiseppe Girometti, 1779-1851, noted gem engraver, medalist and sculptor. He won numerous prizes for his hardstone cameos. He worked as head engraver at the papal mint. Joseph Greenough, American, 1848-1879. He trained as a sculptor from a family of sculptors and is thought to have learned shell cameo carving during the time he spent in Italy. A more recent carver was Wilhelm Schmidt, Idar, Germany, (a gem cutting capital of the world) 1845-1938. He studied gem carving in Paris then moved to London and carved Renaissance inspired cameos set by Brogden, Giuliano and Child & Child. He was famous for carving cameos in opal matrix.
So, as with most fashionable, well crafted items, cameos have gone in and out of fashion, never really leaving for those who appreciate the art form. You might even have a cameo in your jewelry box! Today, there is a new vigor and attraction to cameos. They are making a huge comeback and have become a fashion necessity. The fashionable cameo designer of today is Amedeo Scognamiglio. Mr. Scognamiglio is from a family of cameo manufacturers, M&M Scognamiglio, that began in the early 1800’s in his hometown of Torre del Greco, Italy, which has produced coral and cameo jewelry since the 1700’s. He is one of the cofounders of the fine jewelry company Faraone Mennella by RFMAS. In 2006, Mr. Scognamiglio opened Amedeo, a boutique in New York with a twist on traditional cameo carving. His designs are contemporary, playful and unique. There are traditional designs for those that want them, but me, I like the skull cameos, the fun, unusual cameos. I desperately want a ring and a bracelet or maybe a skull pendant….. Love, love, love his work!
Fun Rings, Amedeo Scognamiglio. Photo courtesy of Amedeo.
Cameo tiara (part of parure) belonging to Empress Josephine, circa 1809.
Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden wearing the tiara on her wedding day in 2010. The cameo tiara (part of parure) belonged to Empress Josephine, circa 1809. In 1823 the diadem became part of Josephine’s granddaughter, Josephine of Leuchtenberg’s dowry upon her marriage to the future King of Sweden, Oscar I. It is now part of the Swedish Crown jewels.
Skull Ring, Amedeo Scognamiglio. Photo courtesy of Amedeo.
Cameo Bracelet, Amedeo Scognamiglio. Photo courtesy of Amedeo.
Hardstone cameo necklace, late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Bvlgari 18 karat yellow gold ring inset with an antique carved coral cameo. Photo courtesy of Bvlgari.
Elizabeth Locke, hammered gold, frosted glass cameo, cultured pearl and diamond clip-brooch, from the Doyle’s, June 20, 2013 sale. Photo courtesy of Doyle’s.
Carved cameo necklace from Amedeo Scognamiglio. Photo courtesy of Amedeo.
Victorian carved lava cameo bracelet, souvenir jewelry for tourists during their Grand Tour of Europe.
French or Italian cameo with a bust of Christ, circa 1600. Script engraving on the back. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Castellani, circa 1870, carved sapphire cameo of Medusa. Photo courtesy of British Museum.