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Cameos: Minuscule Marvels

The word ‘Cameo’ refers to an engraving technique opposed to intaglio. it has become common to use the same word to define the gemstones engraved with that particular techniques, and the jewels made out with them. Their value lays in their striking beauty, which in turn comes from the intriguing relationship between small size and huge complexity.

Reliquary pendant made of onyx, early seventeenth century, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY SA

The production of cameos dates back to the Greek and Roman periods, when they were made from semi-precious gemstones,particularly onyx and agate. In more recent times, other materials, such as shell and glass, have been used in order to respond to the demand of consumers. These kinds of cameos were popular in the sixteenth century; following the revival of classical motifs brought up by Neoclassicism, between eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cameos returned to be a desirable item in Europe, causing a sort of explosion in the production of cheaper versions of the semi-precious ‘originals’. Of course, materials created different categories of objects, which then defined people owning the cameos: the most precious were also the ones requiring more skill and ability, and were displayed by the higher strata of society.

Cameos are made by cutting away background material to make a design in relief. The technique is really complex and the ability of the artist lays in turning the natural flaws and layers into precious details that mark the uniqueness of the piece itself. That is how the quality of a cameo is judged: by the accuracy of the design, the smoothness of its lines and the grace of the overall appearance of the object. In their ‘artificiality’ – their double essence of natural stones reshaped by skilled craftsmen – cameos can be considered an example of how human work can act on nature and, in some ways, change it according to taste and desires.

Golden pendant enamelled and set with an onyx cameo of Marie de Medici by Georges Bissinger, 1865, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY SA

Given the importance of the human factor, cameos developed as a techniques but turned quite quickly into an art; interestingly, the artistic value wasn’t that much in the creativity in the choice of the motif, but more in the manneristic attention for displaying the technique, made even more difficult by the size and preciosity of the gemstone. As for the motifs, many craftsmen were either copying antique pieces or reproducing popular designs selected by their clientele; one particular motif that was widely used was the portrait, which could either recall eminent personalities of the past, celebrate contemporary icons or indeed, acquainted and loved ones.

Brooch and earrings in agate with golden frame, Courtesy Centraal Museum, All Rights Reserved

The mannerism enclosed in such care for details takes full form into the rather minuscule space of the cameo, which from its exteriority seem to acquire at least part of its value. In terms of use, cameos, once considered pieces of art that were to celebrate events and important personalities, were also used jewels by male and females alike. Brooches, pendants and rings were the most common montages for cameos, which were donated as gifts and also bought as souvenirs of travels and Gran Tours, circulating within different nations and acquiring new meanings according to their forms and diffusion.

Thanks to our content provider, the Europeana Fashion Portal holds many exquisite examples of cameos: brows the collection and dive into the microscopic grandiosity of these objects.

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