While nowadays the word cameo probably conjures up images of celebrities popping up unexpectedly in movies, it also refers to an important method of carving in jewellery.

Nowadays the word has quite a broad meaning, referring to a material carved with a raised relief, usually depicting a face or other picture and we caught up with Laurelle Antique Jewellery to find out a little more!

While cameos are now usually worn as necklaces or brooches, in ancient times they were used for signet rings, or even large earrings, although their large size would have probably even sent Pat Butcher running scared, so they were mainly appreciated as works of art.

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The history of the cameo stretches back as far as Ancient Greek and Roman times, when they were usually carved from stone, and contained portraits of rulers of dignitaries, inspired by the hieroglyphics and other wall carvings that have existed as early as 15,00 BC.

Some glass versions of Roman cameos do exist, although they are extremely rare with only 16 complete pieces known to exist.

The oldest piece known to exist from this era, (the Farnese Cup) dates back to the 2nd century BC, and the largest surviving cameo from this era is the Great Cameo of France.

While production of cameos has continued throughout history, their popularity dropped, save for a couple of revivals such as during the Renaissance, and during the 18th and 19th centuries.

At around this time cameos started to be carved out of shells, such as mussels and molluscs as well as other tropical shells discovered during exploration to the New World.

This led to cameos becoming something of a souvenir and a symbol that the wearer was wealthy enough to travel the world.

Pope Paul II was known as an avid collector of cameos during the Renaissance period, and it’s even rumoured that the excessive number of cameo rings on his fingers kept his fingers so cold that he caught the cold which caused his death! (Although numerous other rumours exist, including that he died from indigestion caused by eating too much melon!)

The revival of the popularity of the cameo was cemented in Europe by Napoleon’s support of the glyptic arts (carving), and especially by his coronation crown, which was decorated with multiple cameos.

Napoleon even set up his own school in Paris dedicated to teaching apprentices the art of cameo carving.

Here in Britain, Queen Victoria played a major part in the rising popularity of the cameo back when her grandfather King George III was on the throne, and by the end of the 19th century the pieces were being mass produced.

Nowadays modern cameos are often dyed to create strong contrasts, such as white on black or white on blue.

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Jack Hund

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