We often think of shells and hardstones when we think of cameos but many other materials have been used to create them. Certainly, hardstones like agate, which has distinct banding, were the main materials used for cameos in the ancient Greek and Roman times, together with sardonyx, onyx, carnelian agate, jasper and tiger’s eye. However, transparent and translucent gemstones like amethyst cameos were common in the Roman era. The Romans also made glass cameos, often created by pouring melted glass into clay intaglio moulds.
With the popularity of the Grand Tour, which occurred during the Georgian and Victorian periods when wealthy people undertook tours of Italy, Egypt and Greece, in particular to admire Roman ruins and Renaissance architecture, cameos carved out of coral were sold as souvenirs as were cameos carved out of lava.
In the 1760s, James Tassie, a Scottish gem engraver and modeler, worked with a professor of physics and gemstone enthusiast, Dr Henry Quin, to develop a hard, fine-textured white paste glass that was able to take impressions from molds. Further development saw the paste able to be used as a transparent and an opaque substance. Tassie produced portrait medallions of famous figures of the time as well as royalty and classical figures and duplicated many famous engraved gemstones and intaglios as well as creating cameos. The cameos were usually an opaque portrait face on a plain black, blue, red, green or white background.
Well-known artists created the molds for Tassies’s work. Josiah Wedgewood used many of Tassie’s molds in producing his iconic blue and white jasperware. Tassie’s nephew continued his work after his death. Some of Tassie’s intaglio molds are being used today in Venice.
Jet was a popular material for carving into cameos in the Roman era but then lost popularity. However,Queen Victoria’s extended mourning for her husband in the 1860s onwards led to a thriving jet jewellery industry. Shell carvers from Naples were invited to England to ran classes for jet carvers and so many jet carvers specialised in carving portraits of classical and famous people. Later in the century, though, many specialised in flowers, fruit and foliage. Jet was also used to frame shell, lava and tassie cameos.
Ivory was another cameo medium, coming from India, with European centres being established in Dieppe, France and Erbach in Germany.
By the end of the 19th century, though, glass and the new plastics had become the most common medium for cameos.