Artifact Corner: Victorian Cameos

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at these two beautiful cameos. Cameos were a favorite of Fannie Delord Webb Hall, and we have dozens in our collections. The first cameo is not set in anything, meaning it’s not something that can be worn. It may have been set jewelry at some point, but was removed from the setting. The second cameo is one of a set of earrings. It is set in gold, and has leaves and vines surrounding the cameo. The earring is also for pierced ears, which helps us to date it as Mid 1800’s. Both cameos are in great condition. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of cameos.

The cameo is usually a gem, having two different colored layers, with the figures carved in one layer so that they are raised on a background of the other. The first cameos were made about 3,000 BCE. Cameos have been found in Egypt, Summeria, Greece, and Rome. The subject of most of the cameos from this period are mythological and are often referencing their gods and goddesses. This is a roman cameo from around the 1st century BCE, and depicts a nymph riding a centaur. This is carved from sardonyx, a common stone used for carving cameos. Sardonyx is a type of agate whose banding is straight and runs parallel, making it perfect for carving cameos. Other materials that were popular at the time for carving cameos were carnelian shell, which is a lovely peachy color, Mother of pearl, which makes a bluish grey cameo, and a variety of colors of agate. Some cameos were carved of glass, which was considered the cheap version of this popular trend, and therefore made cameos affordable for anyone who wanted them.

Cameos fell out of favor after the fall of the Roman empire, and throughout the Middle Ages, but became incredibly popular again in the Renaissance period. During the Renaissance, Pope Paul II was an avid cameo collector. His passion for cameos may have led to his death, at least that was a rumor that was bandied about at the time. His excessive display of carved gems and stones on his fingers kept his hands so cold that he caught a chill that caused his death. This is in fact not true, he died of a heart attack in July of 1471. But, his affection for cameos must have been a very well known fact for that rumor to survive to this day. Queen Elizabeth I was also a big fan of cameos, and many of the women in her court wore them to curry favor with her and as symbols of wealth. Cameos remained popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but the era that is most well known for cameo collection is the Victorian period. Queen Victoria was an avid cameo collector, as was Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon actually founded a Parisian apprentice school to foster the talents of young cameo carvers. And, just like today, people wanted to copy the celebrities of their day, and so cameo collecting became very widespread. Cameos are still popular in modern jewelry, and certain celebrities continue to don these stunning works of art. Cate Blanchett often rocks this fashion trend.

Fannie Delord Webb Hall was very much a modern Victorian woman. She was fascinated by medicine, travel, and cameos. After she and her husband were married they spent over a year traveling through Europe on their honeymoon. Many of the cameos we have in our collections are likely from this period. Most of them depict figures, but we do have some that depict scenes and buildings, another common theme of cameos at the time. These two cameos are in beautiful condition, and would still be considered fashionable today. We are so lucky to have these beautiful pieces in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,