Antique cameos are beautiful works of art, as well as jewelry. According to Vintage Jewelry Lane: “the word cameo specifically describes a relief image which is raised higher than its background and which has been carved from only one material.” They generally feature portraits of people or nature scenes. Cameos can come in the form of a pin, necklace, brooch, ring or bracelet. Cameos have been in existence since ancient times; a cameo made from agate, dated from around 332 B.C. was found in Alexandria, Egypt. The Victorian era saw a renewed interest in classics and many cameos from that time featured Greek gods and goddesses from mythology. In order to identify an antique cameo, a jeweler’s loupe is needed to closely examine the cameo to date it and also to tell if it’s fake.
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Examine the cameo to identify the material. Cameos can be made from various materials: shell, stone, coral, lava, plastic, glass or ivory. The type of material can indicate what era it is from. During the Victorian era, many cameos were made from shell. Jet was not used until the 19th century. Plastic is used in modern times and can look very similar to shell. To tell the difference between shell and plastic, look at the back of the cameo. A shell will have a curved back. You can also use a hot needle to test it, if it melts, then it’s plastic. If it is shell, then check to see if it’s carnelian shell, which is older or if it’s emperor helmet, which is brown and white and used in modern times.
Examine the setting of the cameo. White gold was not used until 1919, so any cameo setting with that material is modern. Older cameos are not set in gold, but in brass, pinchbeck (metal alloy of copper and zinc), gold-filled (gold layer over another metal), silver vermeil (gilded silver) or silver.
Examine the portrait of the cameo. Check the physical features of the portrait. A long Greco- Roman nose indicates it was probably made before 1850. An upturned, pert nose or Barbie-like features means it is modern. Up-swept curls indicates it is from the Victorian era, shorter curls mean it was made in the 20th century.
Examine the portrait’s fashion style, the style indicates the era it was made. If it depicts a classical scene it is probably from the 18th or 19th centuries.
Examine the cameo through the jeweler’s loupe. Check for hairlines and stress-lines; many antique cameos have developed these over time. Modern mass-produced cameos can look similar to antiques, but there are some ways to tell the difference. Mass-produced cameos look similar to shell, but have a grainy, pitted texture, similar to fallen snow. Modern cameos are also often poorly carved and show little attention to detail.
Do a little research and study the different eras and their fashions. Some knowledge of history, along with the fashion of different eras is helpful in the identification of antique cameos.
References and ResourcesCameo Heaven: Cameo Tutorial
Antique Cameos: Quality, Age, Rarity, Condition
Victorian Bazaar: The History of Cameos
Vintage Jewelry Lane: Cameos -- Miniature Works of Sculptured Art