I have discussed aspects of antique cameos – materials used, subjects, etc, but it now time to talk about vintage and modern cameos. Cameos are not so popular today but up to about 40 years ago, it was common for females to wear cameo jewellery, whether it was inherited from a mother or grandparent or bought new. Now, it is rare to see a woman wearing a cameo brooch or pendant.
Glass or plastic molded cameos were common in the 20th century and is still used to create molded cameos. Glass has been used for centuries but plastics have also been used since their introduction in the 1880s – first, celluloid, then Galalith in the 1890s, Bakelite in the 1920s and lucite in the 1940s.
However, shell and hardstone cameos are still being produced though in a number of centres such as Naples and Idar-Oberstein, Germany.
Torres Del Greco, near Naples Italy, is a centre for hand carved shell and coral cameos. The carvers do not use machines.
However, most cameos today are carved by machine, using ultrasound machines. In fact, a machine called a pantograph was first used to carve cameos in the early 19th century, if not earlier. The pantograph was developed in the early 18th century to assist with metal and coin engraving, but the machine was also able to create positive images such as cameos. Cameo carvers in Idar-Oberstein, Germany uses ultasound machines once a hand-craved template is produced. Laser and 3D technology are also being used to produce hardstone cameos.
It is possible to detect if a hardstone, usually agate, cameo has been hand carved or cut by machine. The technology leaves a surface described as looking like freshly fallen snow (see A Miller ‘ Cameos Old & New’, 4th edition, p 74-77). Also, the machines cannot undercut, that is, cut away the background around the carving to make it look almost three dimensional.
It is possible too to date cameos by examining the shape of the face, clothing, hair and subject, although it is not foolproof. With faces, early Victorian cameos show straight noses and rounded chins. Later in the century, noses began to turn up a little and chins became thinner. In the 20th century, noses are pointed and turned up or are pug shaped. Chins are very pointed and lips are narrow. Hair styles in the early part of the 19th century are classical but as the cameo habilles (cameos of women wearing a necklace and may be earrings) became more popular, hair styles became loosely tumbled on the head, sometimes falling onto shoulders. Shorter bobbed hair was shown in the 1920s and 1930s. Clothing moved from classical to women wearing current fashions.
Up until the mid Victorian era, common themes were religious, mythological, historical, with gods, Roman soldiers, politicians, then portraits of women became usual. There is often a difference in the fineness and crispness of cameos from early Victorian, late Victorian and vintage cameos.