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Cameos and Intaglios

24 July 2018

Cameos and Intaglios

Beautiful, carved images used for personal adornment have cast their romantic spell over people’s imaginations for thousands of years.
As both a sentimental keepsake and a work of art, concentrating major drama into a minute space, the cameo is one of the most treasured sculpted images. A cameo is a small scene or figure carved in relief.

An antique cameo brooch, with a hardstone cameo of a lady, with a Roman hairstyle, on a brown background, in a double row gold frame, with a rub over setting, a twisted chain and engraved surround. There is a loop at the back so the brooch can be worn as a pendant. circa 1875

This modern Italian word, meaning “to engrave”, is thought to have come from the ancient Arabic word “khamea”, meaning “amulet”. Folklore relates cameos’ mystic capacity to attract health and good fortune. The enduring popularity of the cameo attests to its delicate power to beguile generations of wearers and viewers alike.

A vintage shell cameo, depicting the Muse, Terpsichore, of Greek Mythology, with a lyre and wearing a laurel wreath, mounted in a scalloped yellow gold pendant frame. Terpsichore was the protector of dance; she invented dances, the harp and education. Her name means “Delighting in Dance” from the Greek words terpsis “to delight” or “terpo” to be amused and khoros “dance”. She was depicted wearing laurels on her head, holding a harp and dancing. Circa 1940.

The word cameo specifically describes a relief image raised higher than its background and carved from one material. In contrast, if the artist carves down into the stone to hollow out a recessed image, the resulting work is called an “intaglio” (pronounced with a silent “g”). Intaglios and cameos can be made in any material, even latex or plastic, but the most popular are of stone, coral, shell, glass and fine metals. Originally, intaglios had a practical as well as decorative purpose. When brushed with ink or wax, the intaglio can be used as a seal or identifying stamp to mark a letter or document.

A pair of antique Wiese intaglio cufflinks, set with cornelian intaglios, mounted in 18ct gold. The intaglios depict a child’s head; the bust of a philosopher; Hygeia, the Greek goddess of hygiene, with a serpent around her neck, this intaglio is dated to circa third century A. D. and Gryllus, a Greek mythological character, who was half man, half pig, with two faces, one on his stomach this intaglio is dated to circa second century A. D.. The cast mounts depict three rows of rope style wire twists, with a beading surround, in fine gold, with carabiner fittings, with French eagle marks, signed Wiése

A significant portion of superior ancient cameo carving came from Greece and Rome, and to the present day, Italy has remained the major center of cameo cutting. Other countries also have enjoyed their heydays. France became a renowned cameo center during the Renaissance (14th through 16th centuries) and remained the dominant style setter through the mid-1700s. England’s jewelry design came into its own with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The United States boasted fine quality cameos with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s rise during the Art Nouveau period in the early 1900s. Germany glittered as an important centre for cameo production after World War II, as some of Europe’s finest glass cutters from Czechoslovakia migrated to Bavaria and other German states.
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Emma Reeves
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