Your Guide to Buying Vintage Cameos

Cameos are a classic piece of jewelry or artwork that features a base unit with a decorative top section. Cameo jewelry includes brooches, rings, bracelets, and lockets. With a cameo brooch, wearers can use them to enhance a blouse, scarf, or purse while other forms will adorn a person’s hand, wrist, or neck. When shoppers consider buying a cameo, they may look for a product that has a carved profile depiction of an elegant woman. However, the miniature art piece is available in numerous styles, sizes, and materials. The accessory is an elevated engraving formed into stone, shell, glass, coral, or another gem material. Additionally, artisans carve the design into the top section of the chosen base substance. After completing the initial carving, jewelry crafters will remove more material to make a background. A similar accessory is the intaglio, which is a design that artisans form into a material’s surface.

How Artisans Make Cameos

When carvers create a cameo, they will have a sharp steel gravel that includes a custom handle. The tool ensures precision. Therefore, artisans can create uniquely detailed pieces on a small scale. The first step is to remove the initial layer. The carver will then mark and sand the cameo while choosing the proper place to form the design. The next step is to engrave the figure and polish the finished product with oil. Artisans must use caution to avoid damaging the piece during its creation.

Types of Cameos

Consumers can purchase cameos that artisans make from a variety of hard materials including lava, stone, and glass. Depictions may feature soldiers, women, and flowers as well as animals, landscapes, and divine beings. If cameo buyers locate an item that features several different images like a woman and a flower arrangement, then they will have the opportunity to purchase a rare metamorphic adornment. Valuable historic pieces are available, and shoppers may be fortunate enough to locate a Cameos Habille, which portrays a figure accessorized with its own jewelry. In fact, the cameo figure’s jewelry may include precious metal enhanced with tiny diamonds. Artisans made Cameos Habille beginning in the Victorian era until the Edwardian age. Another type of cameo is banded agate, which is a hard stone that jewelers also call sardonyx. Banded agate cameos are the rarest form of the accessory as their formation occurred from skilled artisans who created detailed scenes using three or four separate layers featuring various colors. With the different layers, carvers made hair in a lighter or darker shade than the coloring that they used for the face. In addition, they may have carved a fancy lace collar in white to contrast the figure’s taupe colored clothing while the cameo’s background may be brown. Carvers made lava cameos using stone that they harvested from the Vesuvius volcano. Modern jewelers have come across pieces that date back to the 17th century. The style became widely held during the Victorian era when travel to Italy was popular. Since lava is a softer stone than other materials, the substance was easier for artisans to carve than shell. In the past, lava cameos were less expensive than shell pieces. Today, their value is higher because the softer material is more easily damaged, which makes them rare and expensive. With vintage cameos, buyers will locate a larger number of shell-formed pieces on the market.

Types of Shell Cameos

Vintage shell cameos are the most affordable option. In addition, artisans use conch shells to create the beautiful products. Consumers will find items carved from carnelian, sardonyx, and mother of pearl on today’s cameo market.


Shoppers may purchase cameos featuring two different types of sardonyx. One is a durable stone while the other comes from shells found in the waters off East Africa, the Bahamas, the Caribbean Islands, Italy, and Central America. When an artisan from the past selected a sardonyx shell, they were making the most expensive type of shell cameo. The material is thicker than other shell options while offering carvers light coloring on the exterior and a dark brown interior. The color combination is ideal for forming cameos since they usually have a white design and a dark background.


As the most popular shell used for cameo carving, a large number of items made from carnelian are available. The conch shell is found in various colors such as orange, peach, or reddish-brown. Quality pieces will have a greater contrast that includes a light-colored carved figure over a dark background. Carnelian shells are usually located off West Africa’s coast.

Mother of Pearl

When buyers find a cameo made from mother of pearl, they will have the option to buy an item carved from one of the rarer shell materials. Artisans locate the substance from the interior of mussels or oysters. In addition, mother of pearl is fragile and hard to carve. With the material, consumers will have a piece that emits a pale blue shade. It will also have a radiant appearance, which may remind the owner of a traditional pearl.

Buying Tips

While shopping for vintage cameos, keep several factors in mind. Be sure to check an item’s condition and quality. Also, review the metal mounting to confirm a solid attachment, and look for cracks or breaks. Since a gemstone engraving is a piece of art, review each accessory based on subject, detailing, composition, proportion, completion, and its overall creation.


When assessing a cameo, consider that hard stone will usually be a higher quality item. Look for indications of dyeing, which is customary in new cameos and coral versions. If the preference is for a valuable vintage piece, then don’t buy a two-piece cameo as these models contain a main subject formed from one type of stone that is glued onto a separate color background. With this type of composite cameo, buyers will have a piece of lesser value.


Be sure to analyze the carved area closely to determine the cameo’s artistic worth. With enhanced and crisp detailing, buyers will have a more valuable piece. If a consumer is purchasing an item for value appreciation, then the piece’s artistic composition is important since collectors will not desire a poorly carved cameo. Furthermore, avoid purchasing a piece with excessive wear. With coral and shell, carvers form their designs in soft material. Moreover, tool marks may indicate a vintage piece while a lack of markings may determine a newer cameo because lasers often make contemporary items.

Carving Depth and Signature

A cameo with a deeply carved design is more valuable. In addition, signed pieces often signify quality as skilled artisans will either prominently display their signature or they will hide it in the figure’s hair or clothes.


When buyers are cameo collectors, they may study items to determine the popular topics and themes of past eras. While assessing antique and vintage cameos, collectors will come across indicators that will help them establish dates such as the material used and tool patterns.


A cameo that features a child or a man is more valuable due to its rarity. In addition, full scenes, faces, and complete figures are also high-quality accessories.

Cameo Care Tips

Cameos require extreme care since they are made from delicate materials. When dusting items, be sure to work gently around the cameo’s deep ridges. Ridge areas are likely to feature the most grime, but dusting can scratch a cameo. Therefore, after cleaning the piece, rinse it with warm water. Also, dry a shell cameo with a soft cotton towel. Once the adornment is clean and dry, owners can add a small amount of oil to the piece for maintenance. Be sure to use oil at least once a year. Furthermore, purchase mineral oil as olive oil can cause it to yellow. Do not scrub a cameo, and avoid soaking it in water. After maintaining the piece, store it in a lined jewelry box that is set away from moisture, heat, and lights.


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