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Picture Perfect

Victorian cameos present beautifully detailed portraits in miniature of a variety of subjects from idealized women to mythological scenes and historical figures.

By Phyllis Schiller

Late Victorian hand-carved shell cameo pin/pendant with diamonds, set in 14-karat white gold, circa 1900. Photograph by
Katie Karlsen for A. Brandt and Son.

Intricately carved adornments made from a variety of materials from hardstone to shells, cameos date back centuries to ancient Greece and Rome and beyond. These portraits in miniature, hand-carved in relief against a contrasting colored background, were prized by royalty, from Catherine the Great to Napoleon. But it was in Britain, during the reign of
Queen Victoria, that cameos reached their zenith of popularity with both royalty and
the middle classes.

   Queen Victoria owned many cameos, says Judith Anderson, Bijoux Extraordinaire and the Jewelry Experts, Manchester, New Hampshire. “When her husband, the Prince Consort, Albert, died, she had cameos carved of his likeness, made from jet, bog oak and onyx. As you get toward the last part of the Victorian era and into the Edwardian period, King Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandria, was quite the trendsetter and frequently wore a lot of cameos set in platinum and encrusted with diamonds.”

A “Grand” Accessory
   During the Victorian time, wearing a cameo was a fashion statement, explains
Annette Brandt, A. Brandt and Son Antique Jewelry, Narberth, Pennsylvania.
“It started with the royal family and what they were wearing at the time, which people would emulate.”

   What helped cameos become a jewelry staple was the fact that Victorian families on
a “GrandTour” of Europe, would stop in Italy, where artisans carved cameos of Greek
and Roman women, historic personalities and mythological scenes to sell to tourists, points out Anderson. In Pompeii, “visitors could purchase a cameo carved out of the lava of Mount Vesuvius and have it mounted in a stylish setting that would be worn as a brooch or pendant. Cameos done in lava were fairly high relief or high profile, with a good amount of detail,” says Anderson. “Other materials included pink and oxblood coral, which were plentiful along the Italian seacoast. Cameos were also carved out of banded hardstone, like black and white onyx, and brown/orange and white sardonyx.”

   “A lot of women wore cameos on their bodices,” continues Anderson, “or at the waist. Men also wore cameos, on hats and jackets. There were cameo stickpins and hatpins and rings. But by far, most cameos were done as brooches and pendants.”

A Variety of Materials
   According to Anderson, the most prevalent form of cameo during the past 100 years is the shell cameo — with background colors ranging from the pinks of a conch shell to light browns of helmet shell and the grays of abalone. “Most of the time, cameos were a tan or brownish color background.”
   “I think the shell cameo was more casual, less formal, more ‘everyday’ wear,” points out Brandt. “A hardstone cameo would be more eveningwear. They were more difficult to carve because the matter is a harder surface and you need more of a skilled craftsperson
to depict the subject, and so they were more expensive.”

   “In the early part of the Victorian era, the frames for the cameo were fairly lightweight, simplistic, using 9-, 10 - or 12-karat gold,” says Anderson. “Seed pearls might be added but not other gemstones. In the middle years, pieces were very heavy and bolder; the cameos tended to be fuller, more three-dimensional. There were a lot of Classical Greek and Roman motifs as well as influences of the Architectural Revival style, with frames in heavy ribbonlike or geometric patterns. Better-quality pieces were done in 15- or 18-karat gold.” In the late Victorian era, continues Anderson, “they did a lot more engraving, but it was linear, not as ornate. You’d see black enamel incorporated. A platinum frame might have black enamel and line tracery. A yellow gold frame might have enamelwork in blue or black around the frame.”
   Another factor in the late Victorian era was the prevalence of diamonds. “During the
end of that century, there were coral cameos and shell cameos with rose-cut diamonds
and old mine cut diamonds around the whole frame,” says Anderson. The figure within a better-quality cameo was also “dressed” in diamonds, points out Jeff Russak, owner of Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers, Litchfield, Connecticut, “from a diamond necklace to earrings and tiaras. I find that this is very emblematic of the rise of diamonds to their position of being the most prominent gemstone.”

A Collector’s Joy
   While most retailers admit the popularity of basic cameos go in and out, depending
on the fashion cues of the moment, for collectors, the appeal of a beautiful cameo is
always in style. “Collectors look at the carving and the emotion they get from the cameo,” says Brandt.

   According to Benjamin Macklowe, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in
New York City, “The more collectible are hardstone cameos, depicting mythological figures or scenes from antiquity. The most collectible have unusual subject matter such
as profiles of African men or women, perhaps ‘dressed’ as royalty. Macabre subjects
such as snakes or skulls are hard to come by and quite desirable as well.”

   “Victorian cameos always seem to attract some segment of the jewelry-buying public,” says Lisa M. Stockhammer-Mial, president of online retailer The Three Graces. “The most in-demand cameos are those with pretty subject matters, especially depicting women, in hardstone or semiprecious stone, or with exceptional carving or less common subject matter. Often the subjects are taken from classical antiquity, such as Ariel, Flora or Medusa, or scenes from mythology, such as Leda and the Swan. There are also always collectors seeking specific materials or subject matters that have particular meaning for them and those who love the imagery and symbolism.”

Criteria of a Fine Cameo
   As with all antique jewelry, condition matters. There should be no hairline cracks or crazing to the cameo, points out Brandt, and look for more recent repairs to areas of higher relief, such as the nose. Russak first checks that “the nose is defined and the cheekbone
has dimensionality and then that the hair is fluid and lifelike.”

   The quality of the carving, how finely the piece is made, is crucial, agrees
Stockhammer-Mial. “Materials are also a factor. All things being equal, generally hardstone or semiprecious materials are more valuable than shell cameos. Subjects rarely seen can be highly desirable.” According to Anderson, it’s not only the historic value but the detailing of the cameo that allows it to tell a story that is important. “The higher-relief cameo is worth more than a lower relief because it has more three-dimensionality to it
and more depth and imagery.”

   What makes a cameo desirable, sums up Russak, “is that it is a reflection of our ideal
of Victorian femininity. It’s just beautiful. Is there any moment in time when beauty is not important? I think we’ll always appreciate that. Beauty never goes out of style.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2013. To subscribe click here.

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