Temple Illuminatus

By Dennis Gaffney

For hundreds of years, the faces of cameos have looked out from necklines, lapels and waistcoats. For the collector, there are two ways to bring these beauties home. The first, and least expensive way, is to buy a cameo carved from a seashell, for under $1,000. If, however, you want an antique cameo durable enough to pass on to your grandchildren, your best bet is the more expensive hardstone cameo.

Stones of Beauty
The finest cameo jewelry is hardstone, a term that refers to a wide range of semi-precious and stone materials. Agate is the most popular. "It was the choice for master carvers," explainsBarry Weber, president of Edith Weber & Associates of New York City. Agate is amazingly durable; some Greco-Roman agate cameos date back as early as 200 BC.

"Agate is hard to carve and took more talent to use than other, softer materials," says Weber. Many cameo carvings take advantage of the stone's multicolored layers. Hence, the classic cameo: the cream-colored profile of a woman carved in relief on a brown background.

Rarity, not necessarily age, determine a cameo's value. "Renaissance cameos are more valuable than Roman ones because the Romans produced more of them," Weber says.

For connoisseurs, the most desirable agate cameos are those that incorporate three or four layers of color into the portrait. The hair might be medium brown, the skin white, the dress a contrasting tone, the background darker still. Coral is another colorful cameo stone, popular during the Victorian era as a symbol of good luck. Cameos carved from colored stones such as opal, lapis, emerald, amethyst and ruby will satisfy those with a taste for the exotic. However, these are even rarer and can be much more expensive.

Image Counts
The face on a cameo was usually important to the buyer who commissioned it. Cameos could portray a beloved family member or even the important figures of an era, such as George Washington or Louis XV.

Weber says that the most important thing to consider when purchasing a cameo is the subject that's carved on it. "I'm a sucker for a pretty face," confides Weber. Among the most valued cameos, however, are "metamorphic" ones. These include several subjects, such as a man and an eagle, within one carving. "This is where the carver was like a sculptor, looking into the stone and seeing the potential within," Weber says.

Crisp detail is also essential. Ideally, you should be able to see a thin wisp of hair or even the weave of a fine lace collar. The stone should be without major cracks or chips. Hold it up to light to search for damage.

The Right Setting
Whether you're looking for earrings, broaches or rings, always look for an original setting. "In the field, we look down on remounted cameos," Weber points out. Restrained, simple frames surround the early Victorian pieces, in contrast to the jeweled, pearled and diamond settings that came later in that period. Turn-of-the-century and later Art Deco cameos nestle in white gold, often with filigree.

Go For the Real Thing
But all of your careful research could be for naught if you haven't bought an authentic cameo. "Fakes have been around since ancient times," laments Weber, referring to those cameos that are not carved from a single piece of stone. "It's easier to carve two pieces of stone and glue them together than it is to master the art of cameo-carving," notes Weber. "With good magnification, you should be able to see the fake, but it can be difficult."

Your best bet? Find a merchant you trust. "Reputation is a word-of-mouth affair," says Weber, whose own firm has sold antiques and fine jewelry for three generations. "If a cameo seems to be too good to be true, it probably is."

Finally, ask for a guarantee in writing, because once a purchase is made, it can be hard to get a refund later. Always request a bill of sale that gives a detailed description of the item and an assertion that it is an authentic, antique hardstone cameo. The name and address of the seller should be included along with a promise of exchange or replacement if the product is found to be problematical.

Protect yourself and you'll come away with an heirloom to treasure, and a smile that will match the beauty of your cameo.

"Many important books on Lalique are in French," Nick notes. "So it's a wonderful way to practice your French." 

For more on cameos Barry Webber recommends:
Warman's Jewelry, by Christie Romero, 1998.
The Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

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Replies to This Discussion

thank you for this Sunkat. My mom had a cameo or two.  I don't really know what became of them.  It would have been nice to pass something down to my daughter.

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