By: Jenna Curry
Fashionable women from the Renaissance onward were keen on collecting the carved gems known as cameos, which were commonly worn on jewelry as a symbol of elegance and high status. Queen Elizabeth I introduced the concept of using these carved gems—worn on brooches or pendants—as payment for a service or favor. At one time, Catherine the Great of Russia had more than 400 in her personal collection. And Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, is believed to have broken up some of the family’s jewelry in order to create perfectly coordinated suites.
The cameo produces an effect opposite to that of its predecessor, the intaglio gemstone, which was often used to create impressions in wax or clay for seals. Whereas the design of the intaglio is cut into the stone, cameo carvers cut away from the gem to create figures on a raised surface. These miniature sculptures, which could be made out of anything from shell to lava to agate, were placed on earrings, bracelets, stickpins and both women’s and men’s rings. Cameos could be the length of a centimeter to almost a foot, and larger ones were widely used on crowns, vases, dishes and other decorative objects.
The earliest examples date back to the fifth century B.C. In fact, many art historians believe that the birthplace of cameos was Alexandria, the Egyptian city founded circa 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great. Early cameos were carved with hand-powered drills and often depict figures from Greek mythology such as Zeus or the three Graces. Other popular motifs include naturalistic forms, portraiture and images from famous paintings.
A variety of factors contribute to the appeal of cameos. In addition to their durability and aesthetic value, “some stones were believed to carry powers,” says Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, whose exhibition Carvers and Collectors: The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems runs through Sept. 7 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. “Amethyst, for example, was thought to have the power to undrunkify you.”
Some carvers used multicolored stones to their advantage: They could add depth to the cameo by creating colorful layers displaying more than one subject. “At first glance there might be a portrait or profile, but when you look at the cameo from different angles, there might be three subjects from three different carvers,” says Lynne Arkin, a specialist of fine jewelry at Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco.
For first-time collectors, antique cameos generally range between $50 and $50,000, depending on their subject, age, condition and material. According to Peter Schaffer of A La Vieille Russie in New York, the middle range for agate cameos is $3,000–7,000, and early Greek and Roman cameos are generally worth many thousands of dollars.
It is, however, difficult to date cameos because many subjects were repeated throughout history. The ones with images of royal figures will increase the value. For example, the 3.2-centimeter 16th-century citrine portrait cameo of King Phillip II of Spain (shown at top left), which had been lost for about 100 years, sold at Bonhams last December for £62,400 ($92,700), against an estimate of £30,000–50,000. Provenance increases the value of even the most beautiful, detailed piece of jewelry, Arkin says. “If the subject can be identified without question, then the cameo was probably of that period.”