Gemstones & Pearls: Gemology
Carved from Tradition
Among Pompeii's splendid treasures is a man who carves
To find the reigning maestro of the Pompeian cameo carvers,
don't look in an upscale boutique. Luigi DiMartino peddles his
cameos outside old-town Pompeii's archeological park. If clientele
count for anything, he is the unquestioned master. He lists Elizabeth
Taylor and Pope John Paul II (one of whom kissed him) among his
sizable portfolio of clients. He'll never name-drop, though,
and will admit his contacts only if pressed.
At age 70, DiMartino is halfway through his 50th year selling
cameos. He was just beginning elementary school when his father
and grandfather began to teach him the elements of making cameos.
During World War II, DiMartino sat through bombing raids in the
bowels of the Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, lost a brother to
malnutrition, survived a German raid on train scavengers (he
was the only one not executed), and was attacked by Allied aircraft.
By 1949 the tourist trade in Pompeii grew to a level where
he could support himself and his family by selling his cameos.
He's been there ever since.
Art of the Cameo
Cameos date back to the ancient Romans at least. The art of
cameo carving was forgotten as the Roman empire decayed then
revived with the rediscovery of Pompeian cameos in the Renaissance,
though DiMartino admits carvers ever since have tried unsuccessfully
to match the Roman style and technique. The future doesn't look
especially promising. Few young people are willing to invest
the seven to 10 years it takes to learn the art and ever fewer
are entering the field. DiMartino says the art may once again
lie dormant in two or three generations.
What, besides a master's touch, goes into making a truly fine
cameo? Of primary importance is the base material, the shell.
The best are conch shells from Madagascar and South Africa. Great
shells have a hard, dark brown (almost black) base and a thick
hard upper layer of white calcium. Shells with the lighter brown-to-ochre
base normally have thinner, chalkier off-white or pinkish calcium
layers. A darker base and whiter upper layer allows more shading
contrast and subtlety on the cameo. A thick hard white layer
gives more depth and detail.
With cheaper shell material, cameos can be made quickly, almost
mechanically, with a hand die grinder and only minimum hand carving.
With cheaper cameo image edgings, the rise is pronounced but
the taper is minimal so the overall effect is flat. The best
conch shell material, with the dark base and hard and thick white
layer, must be completely worked by hand because of its hardness.
An image carved in fine material, if properly worked, will display
edgings with a great deal of rise and taper, an interior of enormous
depth and gradient contrast. The base color bleed-through will
give a profound three-dimensional look. These cameos will also
be a great deal more expensive than those carved in inferior
The cameo carver's tools are simple. First, the cameo material
is roughed out of the shell using a circular saw. These roughed-out
pieces are rounded and the edges smoothed on an electric bench
grinder, the last machine used if the material is first-rate.
Once the smoothed piece is attached to a wooden dowel with a
hard wax compound, the cameo artist sits at his bench and, with
a variety of awls, simply scrapes away bits of the white layer
until the cameo is completed.
by Charles A. Golden
Charles A. Golden is a historian, amateur novelist and cameo
enthusiast based with NATO forces in Naples, Italy.
||Shell cameo fashioned by Luigi DiMartino rests
atop ruins in the fabled city of Pompeii, where DiMartino sells
his wares to appreciative consumers.
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.