By Susan Spicer-McGarry

The earliest cameo known was carved by an ancient human ancestor in Indonesia more than half a million years ago into the shell of a now extinct palm-sized freshwater mussel Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis. The ancient carvings, concluded by researchers to have been made with a shark tooth, go deep into the calcium carbonate shell. Though whitened by time, when fresh the shell had a leathery dark brown outer layer which when incised revealed its light substratum creating a simple multidimensional design of contrasting colors. And though the tools would change — over many millennia the same technique of carving away one layer to reveal another would be perfected by cameo artists to create the beloved and enduring cameo.

Shell cameos are carved bas-relief by hand into the surface of the shell of a species of large sea snail, Cassis rufa (Cypraecassis rufa) a marine gastropod mollusk commonly known as the cameo shell or bullmouth shell.

In the hands of a skilled cameo artist a shell with two to four color layers can become a cameo with intricate features of contrasting colors. These detailed reliefs were sometimes carved into the surface of an intact shell to create a whole shell cameo. More often cameos were carved from segments of shell and used to adorn pieces of jewelry.

Profile cameos generally depict a woman facing right, some face left, even fewer are full-face. Highly detailed, hand-carved cameos featuring women with elaborate hair styles, jewelry, hats, or intricate clothing, or tableaux, mythological or historical figures, men, children, mother and child, multiple figures, portraits of identifiable individuals, animals or birds are uncommon and highly prized by collectors.


Shell cameos became popular during the Renaissance with the height of their popularity occurring during the Victorian era when men wore cameos as stickpins, watch fobs, cuff links, and rings. Cameo pendants, earrings, necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and rings were worn by women.

Victorian cameos, circa 1837-1901 most frequently depict an idealized woman in profile with intricately styled hair and Grecian clothing. Cameos rendered of women wearing gold and diamond jewelry, such as a bracelet, earrings, tiara, or necklace are known as habillé — French for dressed — became popular in the 1840s.

Over the years cameos have maintained an abiding presence among collectors and as treasured family heirlooms. Today, with the recent resurgence in Victorian and Edwardian fashions inspired by popular television series and movies, cameo jewelry is on trend.

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