If you have ever seen a movie set in the Victorian Era, a small, oval brooch with a carved figure might have caught your eye. It would often be displayed on the collars of the dresses, just under the chin, or gracing the plunging neckline of a bustier, but sometimes it could be seen as a glistening ring or a pair of earrings. The portrayed subject would usually be a feminine side profile, of pale material and in stark contrast with a darker background. We are talking about the cameo, a piece of jewelry with an extremely antique tradition.
The word “cameo” derives from the ancient Arabic word “gama’il”, blossom, and describes a jewel where an image is carved in relief on a seashell or a layered stone - usually onyx. Cameos are fragile and require an incredibly delicate touch: the subject of the portrait is cut out from the material, meaning that what is not to be portrayed needs to be removed. Embedded in silver or gold, enriched by gems, cameos can be turned into rings, pendants, earrings, or even crowns – like the notorious Tiara of Cameos, belonging to the Swedish Monarchy.
Although in the collective imagination cameos are associated with the austere Victorian fashion, their origin is much much older. The first cameos were found in Crimea, buried in tombs dating back to 281 BC – the Hellenistic age. When Greek Culture was absorbed by Romans, cameos became the number one jewel choice for many Roman nobles. This accessory became so popular that many Greek artisans moved to Rome in flock to work. Romans used to portray different subjects on their cameos, particularly curious is this one that shows a hand pulling an earlobe. Can you guess its meaning?
Romans and Greeks thought that memory resided in the ears, and the writing “MNHMÓNEYE” (mnemoneie) is in fact an imperative to remember. With all probability, these cameos were a pledge and a gift between lovers. One of the most important, crafted during Roman Age, is the Augustan Gem made for emperor Octavian Augustus, and the Great Cameo of France made by Dioskourides in 25 AD.
Left behind during Middle Ages, cameos were rediscovered during the Renaissance. All of Europe was shaken by a frenzy for Classicism, which brought the spotlight back to Roman and Greek culture and aesthetics. This is when an unknown Italian artisan from Torre Del Greco, near Naples, decided to start carving seashells. Italian artisans were already experts in the processing of coral and, with this new technique, their craftsmanship boomed, making Torre del Greco the stronghold of the cameos jewelry.
Up North, above the English Channel, the cameos caught the attention of none other than Queen Elizabeth I, that became so fond of them she started to gift this elegant jewelry regularly to relatives and hosts. With this, the popularity of Italian cameos and Neapolitan craftsmanship was sealed. You can’t be the go-to gift destination of The Queen and not be longed after by all of Europe!
But it was Queen Victoria of England that ultimately made cameos the must-have accessories for every refined lady. The Queen’s preference, together with the archaeological discoveries made in Italy and Egypt, fueled the interest in this jewel that lasted during all 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Among the findings, the most frequent were cameos with mythological themes such as the Three Graces and other goddesses, which prompted Victorian artisans to focus on feminine figures and profiles.
Cameos became so popular that, in 1876, it was decided to open a proper School for Carving on Coral and Artistic Design at Torre del Greco, which still is the worldwide capital for the creation of cameos.
The school gained such notoriety that it became a destination for diplomatic occurrences, as a way to show off Italian craftsmanship. You can see in this picture Prince Hirohito of Japan visiting it with a royal delegation in September 1921.
We are very proud to say that our cameos are produced with love and respect in Naples, right where the technique for this mesmerizing jewel came to completion.
Afrodite by MG has always been fascinated by the beauty and delicacy of cameos, which are only made with natural ingredients, in small workshops overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Afrodite by MG cameos are the signature touch of a modern woman, who knows she can be independent and romantic at the same time. You can find her at the beach, enjoying a glass of wine and a sunset, a book on her lap, dressed in gold, mysterious smiles, and pearls.
Benedetta R Fanelli
Benedetta R. Fanelli 25, Milan. Art Historian graduated from Brera Academy of Fine Arts with a master degree in Management of Fashion from Bocconi. Benedetta has always been enamored with luxury and greek mythology, and she loves to tell stories behind our jewels.