Italian Cameos: The Difference in Color, Shape, and Design Unravelled


The Italian cameo is a longstanding member in the world of fine jewelry. The detail, rare materials, and elegance have made it a sought after item by centuries of royalty and nobility alike. Though the world of fashion has changed significantly since those times cameos still emanate a sense of luxury, and are a must for any fine jewelry collector. Cameos come in three different types of raw materials, and each material speaks about how the cameo was made, where it was made, and how valuable it is. Below is a description of the three main different kinds of cameos for the jewelry collector wanting a bit more info, or for the novice interested learning the basics. Cameos naturally are made out of many types of materials, though the three we have listed tend to be the most prevalent in the market.

Sardonyx Shell Cameos are the most rare and valuable of the three. This is for multiple reasons, however the most prevalent reason is that sardonyx shells grow at a very slow rate, and therefore the are not harvested in abundance. A limited number of sardonyx shell cameos are produced every year.

Sardonyx shells are also desirable due to their color pigmentation. Sardonyx has a pure white mid layer and a beautiful deep red to chocolate brown interior. This provides each cameo with striking color contrast, adding to its elegance. Both types of shell cameos are hand carved by artisans who have been specifically trained in one area of detail. This means that one artist has spent their working life trained to carve noses or hair while another is trained to carve flowers. Only a master carver has the experience and know how to carve a cameo in its entirety, therefore the majority of cameos on the market have gone threw an assembly line type process where multiple carvers add their expertise to every piece.

Cornelian Shell Cameos are more common as this type of shell grows much more rapidly, and is harvested on a regular basis. The majority of shell cameos are made using Cornelian shell. This shell coloring is different than Sardonyx. Cornelian shells tend to range from orange to pink hues, detracting from the amount of color contrast between the base colored part of the cameo to the carved out profile. Cornelian shells also have less white coloring between the layers, meaning that the profile or object being carved will not be a pure white like on Sardonyx shells. The object being carved will have a tinge of the orange or pink of the base of the shell. These two reasons are why Cornelian shell cameos are more widely seen and purchased.

Cornelian shell cameos are also created in the same way of Sardonxy shell cameos. The assembly line of artisans carve their expertise into every shell. There is however one major difference in the process that is attributed to Cornelian shell cameos that Sardonxy lack. The amount of layering in the carving of Cornelian shells cameos can include the top outside layer of the shell, mid layer for the profile, and the bottom base layer adding a level of complexity and hue to the overall beauty of the cameo.

Another determining factor in Cornelian cameo creation is the actual decision of while type of design is put on which piece of shell. Sardonyx shells are more uniform in nature, and therefore do not have as many natural rises and falls like a Cornelian shell. The layout of the shell becomes critical to which design in carved into it. For example, a shell with a large bump will tend to have a flower motif carved into the raised area instead of a profile. Profiles need to have a somewhat flat surface in order to be carved properly.

There are also many types of non shell cameos in the modern market. Many cameos can now be produced using semi-precious stones instead of fragile shells. Agate is one such stone that is commonly used in modern cameo production. This specific stone was selected for use due to its high white mineral content, allowing the profile and motifs to still have a white coloring. Agate can also come in a variety of different colors, allowing for a wider selection in color contrast.

The majority of all Agate is quarried in Northern Europe, and therefore differs from the shell versions which are harvested in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas respectively. Also agate cameos cannot be carved by hand due to the hard nature of the stone. Agate stone cameos are cut using modern laser technology. This has both positive and negative repercussions for cameo enthusiasts. Negatively the agate cameo is not technically an artisan item, as it is made by machines, however this does allow a cameo to be exactly reproduced. The ability to perfectly reproduce popular designs gives consumers an increased availability of exactly what they want.

Another defining difference between stone cameos and shell cameos is the actual shape of the cameo. Shell cameos are convex in shape, allowing the design to protrude from the metal setting. Stone cameos being more uniform in nature are not convex but flat on the underside. They also lay flat within their settings.

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About Pierotucci

Since 1972 Pierotucci has been designing and producing classic Italian Leather goods for men & women, including leather bags, leather handbags and purses, leather jackets and leather accessories such as wallets, gloves, belts and much more.
This entry was posted in Florence and its artisans, Italian Shell cameo art, Italian Traditions and Culture, The perfect Italian gift. Bookmark the permalink.

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