Monday, February 22, 2016

02.22.16 Cameo Appearance

The Oscars are coming up this weekend - and especially this year - there's no way to know who will or won't show up - so I thought this might be a good week to write about "cameo appearances".

The origin of the word cameo is unclear, but it has made its way into the English lexicon to refer not only to carved jewelry, but to literature and theater as well.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a written cameo as "a short literary sketch or portrait", a reference to the raised portraits in cameo jewelry.

Literary cameos involve references to historical or fictional characters as an homage or to establish a time period.  From this came the notion of a "cameo performance" - a brief, uncredited appearance in a live production or film.  The director Alfred Hitchcock, was famous for his cameos - making a very brief appearances in most of his films.

Cameo ring from my MIL
I have two beautiful cameo pieces - both gifts from my mother in law.  A ring, that she bought while traveling in Italy, and a family heirloom - a convertible brooch/pendant.

A cameo is a raised face, figure or scene that is created by carving into shell or stone (generally jasper or agate) to create a two toned, three dimensional piece.  Cameos date back to biblical times, with references to them as early as the second or third century BC.

Photo credit: Wikipedia
One of the oldest, largest and most spectacular examples of a cameo is the Great Cameo of France.  It dates to the early part of the first century AD, and is believed to show the lineage of Julius and Claudius as Roman emperors.

Cameos had enormous popularity during the days of the Roman Empire, but with its decline, they fell out of favor.  Cameos resurfaced as art and jewelry during the Renaissance. The Medici Family, of  Florence, once part of the Roman Empire, is credited with bringing back the cameo as a form of jewelry through their support of the fine arts.

Josephine Bonaparte
Photo credit: National
Museum of Sweden
Members of the aristocracy and the ruling classes often commissioned cameo portraits of themselves - Napoleon's wife, Josephine, Catherine the Great, and Queen Victoria all possessed cameos with their own likenesses on them.  During the late 18th and early 19th century, cameos - set in rings, brooches and pendants - outranked all other types of jewelry in popularity.

The value of a cameo is not generally based on the type of stone or the metal in which it is set, but in the level of complexity and detail in the relief.  The more extensive or unusual the carving, the greater the value.  While profiles or portraits were relatively common, full body carvings or complex landscapes are rarer and more highly prized.
Cameo pendant from my MIL

Traditional cameos are still carved by hand, but technology for computerized carving and molding of cameos has enabled production of much lower priced (albeit lower quality) jewelry.

More than many other forms of jewelry, cameos really do tell a story - each a sculpted portrait or scene from history.  Though my collection is small, it is certainly a treasure.

Until next time.

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