What to Look for When Buying an Antique Cameo

The cameo has been around since the Caesars ruled the Roman Empire. While the term “cameo” actually refers to the process of creating a raised relief image on an item of wearable or display art, modern usage of the term usually refers to a brooch worn near the neckline. Jewelry collectors – and those who love to wear fashions reminiscent of Edwardian times – prize cameos as must-have pieces to complete their ensembles. What should you look out for when buying an antique cameo?
No carvings or paintings. A bona fide cameo must feature a raised relief. If you find a piece of jewelry that shows carvings in the material of choice, you are looking at an intaglio. Although beautiful in its own right, this type of jewelry does not belong in a cameo collection. Watch out for painted porcelain as well. Artisans frequently create brooches from this material to mimic the classic look of the cameo.
Wide range of material choices. While glass cameos are some of the oldest on record, mid-19th century pieces favored the mussel shell. Since modern-day Italian cameo makers still favor shells, be careful to get the piece dated for authenticity. Truly rare cameos are made of sardonyx or lava. Some agate cameos have been dated to 200 BCE. Unfortunately, the look of the white visage set against a brown backdrop has been copied by plenty of modern jewelry makers as well. As with all antique pieces, it is a good idea to get the piece authenticated prior to making the purchase.
Detail work. The more detailed the execution of the relief, the more valuable the cameo. Edwardian artisans favored the jewel on a jewel approach. Their relief carvings would showcase intricate female heads adorned with jewelry. Some went so far as to add tiny diamonds or rubies to their designs to mimic the jewelry worn by the subject. Others went into great detail when crafting the wisps of a hairdo or curly beards.
Beware perfection or damage. Modern cameo-making techniques include the uses of lasers for cutting. The result is the perfect appearance of the face or subject. Handmade cameos may show very slight imperfections and asymmetries, which most collectors value. That said, be sure to hold up the cameo to the light. This is the easiest method for identifying chips, fissures and expertly treated cracks. Repaired damage brings down the value of a piece considerably.
It is not unusual to find antique cameos in modern settings. For the serious collector, this is a major turn-off. Whenever possible, look for pieces that come in period-correct mountings. A late Victorian-era cameo should come in a highly-adorned setting with plenty of pearls and jewels. Art Deco pieces call for white gold and filigree.
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