While shell was used for carving cameos from at least the 11th century, it became more commonly used than hardstones, such as agate, around the 15th and 16th centuries as suitable hard gemstones became harder to locate. There are only a few examples of shell cameos existing from the 15th and 16th centuries because of the fragility of shells. Carving shell is easier than carving hardstone and so a new industry was born.
The main shells used for carving cameos are the cornelian shell (Cassis Rufa), the male helmet shell (Cassis Tuberosa), the sardonyx shell (Cassis Madagascariensis), and the tiger shell (Cypraes Tigris). Conch shells were also used to carve pale pink cameos, looking similar to angel skin coral. Some cameos are carved out of mother of pearl, resulting in a translucent, opalescent cameo.
It is usually easy to identify cameos carved from shell as they have a slightly concave back. It is also possible to detect the striations in the shell with a loupe. I will discuss some ways to identify if a shell cameo has been hand-carved or machine made in a later post.
Sicilian and then Neapolitan craftsmen established centres of excellence in carving shell cameos. Napoleon encouraged carvers to move to France from Italy to create cameo jewellery, establishing a ‘Prix de Rome’, an arts scholarship, for carving in 1804. There was also the continuing fascination with the Grand Tour and Italian and Greek history which led to a continuing trade in souvenirs, with jewellery pieces featuring micro mosaics, pietra dura and cameos, particularly shell and lava ones. Queen Victoria wore shell cameos until she went into mourning but she ensured their popularity for many decades.
The subject matter continued to be Roman gods and goddesses, statesmen, politicians, and famous writers, with some of scenes representing mythological stories. Cameos from the last part of the 19th century show carvings of female profiles. One particular style created in the Victorian era but still made today are cameo habillé, meaning ‘dressed’, where the female head is decorated with a diamond set necklace and earrings.