Professional Jeweler Archive: Sweet & Serene: Images in a Shell

July 2000

From the Vault

Sweet & Serene: Images in a Shell

Styles and substance change as the cameo evolves

Cameos are a fascinating art form. These little images carved in relief have inspired passionate collectors from their first appearance in the third century A.D. to today.

Cameos are carved in a wide variety of gem material, including chalcedony, emerald, sapphire, amethyst, amber, opal, moonstone, jet and lava. Of all existing cameos, however, the greatest number are carved from shell.

The earliest known use of shell for cameo carving was during the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries, when ancient engraved gems were collected by royalty and new engraved gems were carved in imitation of those classical styles. Renaissance shell cameos are white on a grayish background and probably were carved from the shell of a mussel or cowrie (a tropical mollusk). Because using shell was a new concept then, Renaissance shell cameos are rare.

Shell Game

Though cameos continued to be collected as treasured artifacts, wearing them in jewelry went out of fashion in 1600 and didn’t make a comeback until the mid-18th century, when the ruins of Pompeii were discovered. This sparked a renewed interest in classical design.

Concurrently, helmet shells from the West Indies and Queen conch shells from The Bahamas appeared in Europe as a result of colonization and trade in the Americas. Once the carving potential of these new shells was discovered, shell cameos increased in popularity.

Helmet shells contain white and orange to brown calcereous layers, while the Queen conch contains layers of white and pink. The helmet shell’s coloration is stable, while the delicate pink of the Queen conch has a tendency to fade. This didn’t become apparent for some time, however, and myriad cameos were carved from Queen conch shells during the mid-19th century, when shell cameos reached their greatest popularity.

Subjects and Styles

The subject matter and style of carving has changed over the years. Renaissance and Neoclassic cameos replicated ancient examples; typical subject matter included gods and goddesses from classical mythology and historic scenes of triumph and heroism. Cameo carvers of these periods did their best to keep ancient themes pure and imitated original models closely. Between 1830-1880, however, the Romantic movement was the dominant aesthetic. Society ideally imagined what life was like in antiquity, imbuing these cultures with their own 19th century values. Cameos came to be regarded as decorative objects that provided a link with the past but didn’t have to be true to ancient talismanic significance.

In the 19th century, men bought jewelry as gifts for the women in their lives. Women were considered fragile creatures in need of protection from harsh realities. What men wanted in a cameo was a pretty, feminine image rather than the original severe or suggestive classical deities. Carvers relaxed their approaches and broadened their choices of subject matter.

Although classical subjects remained popular, the emphasis shifted from male to female figures, and these became less identifiable as specific goddesses and more the generic ideal of 19th century beauty. In the Victorian cameo pictured, even Medusa, the fierce gorgon whose visage turned men to stone, was portrayed in a less sinister manner. The writhing snakes on her head are softened, and the crescent moon before her is a metaphor for night. Following Night comes Day, a nymph that looks upward with rays beaming from her forehead, accompanied by Cupid with a torch symbolizing the rising sun.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

A shell cameo portraying “Night and Day” in mid-19th century Romantic style. Courtesy of Eileen Weatherbee Co., Los Angeles, CA; (213) 629-2074 or (714) 720-9286.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications