Few jewels tell a story quite like a cameo. Three-dimensional sculptures, carved into stones in raised relief, these miniature artworks say so much about the era in which they were created and what was culturally important at the time.
Worn as a symbol of status by men and women since antiquity, the motifs that feature on antique cameos range from ancient mythological scenes to religious iconography, Renaissance art to official portraits. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, when Empress Joséphine was painted wearing a parure of cameo jewellery, that cameos entered the realm of fashion.
The trend for cameos worn as decorative pieces of jewellery quickly spread beyond France’s shores. They were made up and down the coast of Italy for the upper classes embarking on the Victorian tradition of the “Grand Tour” to take home as a souvenir. Queen Victoria, a prolific jewellery lover, is credited with keeping the trend alive in Britain throughout much of the 19th century.
Cameos fell out of fashion in the 20th century, but they are now being appreciated once again thanks to a handful of designers who are giving this classic jewel a new lease of life.
New York-based Amedeo Scognamiglio, founder of Amedeo, specialises in cameo carving. Using skills passed down through generations – his Italian family has been making them since 1857 – he has given the traditional cameo a 21st-century reboot.
His is drawn to the darker side – skulls and snakes feature regularly, alongside monkeys and robots – and each is unique. “The technique of carving cameos has not changed,” says Amedeo. “Master carvers are simply the greatest artists. It’s a solitary craft that takes decades to master. Artists sketching on shells and carving each masterpiece by hand – it requires patience and love.”
With these tools Amedeo Scognamiglio creates his contemporary cameos - a skill he inherited from his family, who have been cameo carvers since 1857.
Some of Amedeo’s most recent creations show a surprisingly feminine side. His Couture Muse earrings, below, could have been created hundreds of years ago if it weren’t for their very contemporary settings. Depicting a trio of basket-clutching ladies carved out of blue agate, they elegantly mix up styles, with the antique style cameos encircled by mismatched tsavorites and sapphires, and finished with one pink tourmaline and one aqua rock crystal drop.
Alongside Amedeo and the other cameo makers who continue to make a living today out of carving gems, there are jewellers who are breathing new life into antique cameos.
Lydia Courteille has been working with them since the 1980s and has made more than 50 jewels incorporating cameos bought in antiques shops or at auction. “They are a nod to the antiques dealer I was before I became a jeweller,” she explains. “It’s also a way to give family jewels a second life. I have worked with antique cameos inspired by the Roman period and many from the 17th century.”
In a previous life, Lydia’s Dressed Cameo ring, below, was a brooch featuring a lady in profile, carved in agate. Today, with a diadem in her hair, a pair of diamond earrings and a hint of a smile, she seems perfectly happy with her newly bejewelled status as the star of this statement cocktail ring.
If you need proof that cameos are back in vogue, head to matchesfashion.com, where the jewels of Brigid Blanco are for sale alongside the latest ready-to-wear from Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Stella McCartney.
Brigid uses antique cameos often in her jewels, for the same reasons as Lydia: “It gives new life to beautiful objects,” she points out. “Often pieces do not speak to the modern world due to their epoch settings or associations, but once they are remounted in a cleaner, more contemporary way, they come alive again as unique pieces of artistry and beauty.”
She is drawn to the characters captured in cameos. “I am partial to cameos featuring men,” continues Brigid. “Many associations of the Victorian age of women cameos are rather sad and old-fashioned, but there are so many bold and individual faces out there with real personalities.”
The faces she falls for are full of character, which is what makes these jewels so fascinating – you find yourself wondering who these people were and what their lives were like. “It is all about the particular face and quality of the carving that attracts me. A ‘good’ cameo to me has a personality and is aesthetically pleasing. While I adore truly ancient ones, they are usually out of reach financially, so I look for cameos with history and reference.”
Matches is a new relationship for Brigid, but one which shows that there is a real appetite for history and heritage beyond the world of antique jewellery. “I am excited to reach a wider audience and I am much encouraged that a big fashion house like Matches recognises that the individuality of my work is desirable for their client.”
Later this year, up-and-coming Russian jewellery brand Yana, whose signature pieces include cameos worked into elaborate earrings and rings, launches at Harrods. At the moment, details are scant, but I look forward to seeing what London will make of this young designer who offers a fashionable new way to wear cameos.
The finest high jewellery examples are works of art themselves. In recent years, Munich-based Hemmerle has been quietly creating some of the most exquisite jewels to feature antique cameos, seamlessly incorporating cultural artefacts into bold and brilliant designs that celebrate the past whilst looking every inch the modern jewel. The quality of the carved horn cameos is plain to see in the earrings below.
It is the same qualities that attracted people to cameos in ancient times that continue to appeal to jewellery lovers today, concludes Amedeo. “In a world of mass-produced products, authenticity and craftsmanship have become the holy grail of luxury. Cameos are a direct descendants of Renaissance art. Nothing exudes art, history, beauty and power in jewellery like a cameo.”