The Victorian fascination with all things historic is never more apparent than in the cameo jewel. Cameos of this era embody the interest Victorians held for all manner of Grecian and Roman subjects as depicted in the myriad of allegorical, mythological, historical and religious images of the time. Gods and goddesses, rulers, historic scenes, biblical scenes, Roman soldiers and maidens were popular subjects for cameos, which were worn by men and women, with some wealthy patrons commissioning their own carved likenesses. Even Queen Victoria succumbed to the beauty of cameos and routinely wore them, setting the trend in fashionable society – no middle or upper-class woman’s accessories were complete without a cameo of some type.
Our forthcoming auction “A Private Collection of Vintage and Antique Jewellery” on Monday 20 September 2021 presents a wonderful opportunity to acquire perhaps your first elegant and iconic cameo, or another to complement your collection.
The following factors may help you to best determine the value and desirability of a cameo piece:
Most cameos of this period were carved by hand from seashells (typically the conch or helmet shell), usually by Italian artisans. To create a cameo, the raised relief image is revealed by carefully carving a piece of material with a flat plane where two contrasting colours meet, removing all of the top colour except the image. Shell was easier and quicker to carve than stone, therefore these cameos are generally more affordable and easier to obtain.
Cameos that were carved from stone such as sardonyx, banded agate, labradorite, malachite and other quartzes tend to command higher prices. Unlike the soft shell, hardstone is a less forgiving material that requires a different skill level and stylistic competence to utilise the naturally occurring contrasting colours in realising the artistic vision of the craftsman.
The greater the level and fineness in the detail, the more valuable and authentic a cameo typically is. High quality carving will be immediately noticeable through the three-dimensionality of the image paired with a close attention to every aspect of fine detail including delicacy of facial features, strands of hair and loose curls and the ruffles in the collar as in the portrait of the youth of lot 105.
The mount or frame, is one of the most important determinants of age and value. As almost always with antique pieces, non originality will have impact on value. The mount will be different depending on the period within which the cameo was produced for example, early Victorian cameos (1833-1851) often feature confined, simple frames as opposed to the jewelled, pearled, more ornate versions that followed decades later (1875-1901) as we see in lot 104.
The condition of the cameo is another factor that affects the price. Most antique cameos have stress lines or hairlines due to their age or softness of material, particularly those of organic origin such as shell or coral. These stress lines, incipient cracks, or very tiny chips are acceptable (within reason) and should not significantly impact the value.
Overall, the most important factor is that the carving should be crisp and not worn so that your cameo jewel remains the timeless classic antique that continues to captivate to this day.
Patricia Kontos, Senior Fine Jewels & Timepieces Specialist