NEW YORK — Among the most classic pieces in the realm of jewelry is the elegantly simple cameo. Typically featuring portraits of women or mythological scenes, cameo jewelry has been carved for centuries out of hard natural materials such as stone, but shell cameos might be the most beautiful examples of the form.
Shell cameos are typically made from mollusk or conch shells. These can be thin and challenging to carve without cracking, so only skilled artisans attempt to transform them into jewelry. Seashells with an apricot orange or coffee color on the outermost layer and an under-layer of creamy white are best suited for cameo portraits. The juxtaposition of the two colors helps the portrait stand out.
Long before the advent of photography, wealthy families commissioned artisans to carve portraits of their family members, usually wives or daughters, from seashells. It is said that carvers were encouraged on occasion to subtly improve the faces of their subjects, such as trimming a wide nose or restraining a prominent chin to yield an image more alluring than the sitter was in real life.
Collectors of shell cameos consider several factors, from the setting of a piece to how ornate and well-made it is. In general, highly detailed cameos tend to bring the largest sums, and Italian-made cameos are always sought-after.
The quintessential cameo portrait showcases a close-up of a woman’s face, with allegorical scenes from mythology appearing almost as often. That doesn’t mean contemporary-looking portraits are off-limits, however. Indeed, cameos with unexpectedly modern imagery can command strong prices. A large 14K gold and diamond cameo of a woman holding a tennis racket sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018 at Dan Morphy Auctions. This cameo brooch, which graced the cover of the 1995 book Tennis Antiques & Collectibles, features finely carved detail in the woman’s hair and the netting of the tennis racket. The addition of diamonds in the earrings and bracelet she is wearing renders the piece even more delightful. No detail has been spared, and the setting is well executed with a twisted gold rope border.
A handsome piece that reflects both cameo styles is a Neoclassical example carved in 1850 in Italy showing Hercules in profile, wearing a Nemean lion headdress. The person who created it gave it their full and undivided attention, as evidenced by the lavish curls of Hercules’s beard, the waves in his hair, and the teeth of the lion. The shell cameo earned $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Artemis Gallery in June 2020.
Loose cameos don’t tend to lose value, as they can be set into a piece of jewelry of the owner’s choosing or repurposed into art. Such was the case with a grouping of 10 shell cameos dating to the 18th century that someone framed in two sets of five — they would look great made into a necklace or a pair of bracelets. In keeping with the mythological themes that prevail in this genre of jewelry design, the cameos portray the Labors of Hercules. The 10 sold together for $5,068 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Lyon & Turnbull.
Literature also inspired cameo-carvers, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A large 19th-century oval gold mounted carved shell cameo showing Ariel, a character from the play, riding a bat earned $4,223 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Lawrences Auctioneers Ltd. In Shakespeare’s story, Ariel is akin to a fairy spirit and performs magic to help his master, Prospero.
Shell cameos tend to take the forms of large brooches or necklaces, but they can be especially striking when incorporated into bracelets. A pair of early Victorian shell cameo bracelets, set in gold that perfectly complemented the cameo coloring, went for £2,500 (about $3,016) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2018 at Fellows. The bracelets also demonstrate that cameos need not be oval or round, as they boast rectangular panels carved with scenes of Venus disarming Cupid.
Shell cameo jewelry has been prized by wealthy nobles for centuries and collected by the most modern of celebrities. While some might regard them as old-fashioned, their popularity shows no sign of fading.