By Morgana RavenTree
A couple of decades ago, more or less, my best friend gave me a cameo of the goddess Diana, her bow and quiver over her shoulders, a crescent moon on her head. That was the beginning of my obsession with collecting cameos. Over the years, whenever my friends find out I collect something (fans, Elizabeth Arden porcelain, cameos) they start gifting me with those items. Many of my cameos were gifts, though I did buy some at antique or thrift stores and two were purchased on Ebay.
What is a “cameo”? It isn’t what most people think. “Cameo” refers to the method of carving used to produce a piece of jewelry. Basically the surface of a cameo is carved away from the deeper layers, creating a relief, as opposed to being cut into the gem as an intaglio. Signet rings were carved this way since ancient times, as were many amulets. Cameos were used as military decorations, too. For most of its history, cameos were carved from agates or other stones and were worn by both men and women. In the Renaissance, cameos of mythological figures became very popular. In addition to figures, they portrayed scenes from Greek and Roman mythology (Miller 2008, 1-3pp.). Sometimes cameos were carved from alternate materials, like lava, or coral (Comer 2017, 4).
Most people are more familiar with cameos carved from shell. These cameos became common in the Victorian era and were once considered a “cheap” version of the more prized stone cameos. Also, since Queen Victoria’s era, people began to associate cameos with “feminine” jewelry, though even in the 19th century, some men still wore them (Miller 2008, 40). There are also many imitation cameos today. Any cameo that is molded or assembled rather than carved is considered an imitation, though many of them are still quite beautiful and have even become very collectible, like the imitation cameos manufactured by Avon cosmetics in the 1970’s. There are very many cameos that feature profiles or faces of women or girls, but I collect only cameos with goddess/mythological themes. Cameos featuring male figures are less common, though if I found any with mythological themes I would probably get them anyway.
|My first cameo, set in gold, and still the best version of the popular “Diana” image I have ever seen. Amazing details.||My second “Diana” set in silver.
My first Diana cameo (left) is amazingly detailed. On top of her head, we see a crescent moon. Over her right shoulder is a quiver to hold arrows, and over her left is the end of a bow and a bow string. Note the detail on her gorgeous hair. This piece was found at the old flea market (now gone) in Covent Garden, London. Some years later I found another Diana cameo in an antique shop in Burbank, California (right). This one is smaller and a bit less detailed, but still a lovely piece. It is more common to find quality cameos set in gold, but this one is set in silver. The bow behind her left shoulder can be seen more clearly than in the earlier cameo. Over the years I have found other “Diana” cameos of modern, less expensive materials, usually paste or even plastic. Several of my friends have Diana cameos, some shell, some imitation and I sometimes refer to us as the “Diana” club.
|Imitation cameo, or carved from coral?||Authentic carved shell cameo|
Above on the left is a “Demeter/Ceres” cameo of unknown date, but judging by the setting, probably early Edwardian. The backing may be white coral. Coloring has been added to the profile. This one came from a small shop in Burbank. Fruits and flowers decorate the Goddess’s hair and in front of her forehead we see the horn of plenty or “cornucopia”. The cameo on the right is also Demeter/Ceres but obviously less detailed. It does appear to be carved shell, but perhaps the artist was less skilled. There is only a suggestion of a horn in front and fruits/plants in her hair.
|A woman playing a lute-like musical instrument.||Diana the huntress, bow in hand, her hound by her side.|
These pieces are definitely modern – they were produced by Avon! For a brief time in the 1970’s, cameos became popular again. Both of these pieces were found in thrift stores. They are not “real” cameos, being made of some kind of paste or resin, but still quite beautiful. The locket on the left contained a solid perfume (which I had to remove because it smelled really bad) and is not of a goddess. The figure of the woman is playing a lute-like instrument and is dressed in “romantic” style clothing. I’m not sure what historical period if any it is supposed to represent. The locket on the right depicts Diana the huntress. Diana is seen with her bow drawn and her faithful hound by her side. The crescent moon detail is on her head. This locket still contains pressed face powder.
This piece is also an Edwardian shell cameo and nicely detailed. The woman in the center holds a basket of fruit or flowers in each hand, while the other two women hold something above her head, perhaps a wreath of some kind. This one was also found in an antique shop.
|The Three Graces, dancing.|
Carved from shell, I found these two cameos in an antique shop in Salem, MA. On the right we see two figures. Arthur Comer’s book has a similar cameo and identifies the figures as a solder and a woman. When I first saw it I thought it was Athena and another goddess, but now that I look more closely, I can see the identification of a solder and a woman. Does anyone have an alternate interpretation of this one? On the left we see “Leda and the Swan”. The story goes that Zeus was so enamored of the maiden Leda that he changed into a swan and “seduced” her. Of course, today we would use a different word. Both pieces are probably late Victorian.
I purchased the pieces below on Ebay from a shop in Italy that still carves cameos the old way. Both pieces are contemporary, but were accompanied by certificates of authenticity, because they are both carved from shell. The first piece is another Demeter/Ceres. One can see fronds of plants or sheaves of wheat in her hair and there is a suggestion of a “horn” dangling in front of her forehead.
I’m not sure what character or scene the other cameo is supposed to depict. The figure (possibly a woman, but with cameos you can’t always assume) holds the hands up as if in prayer or supplication. There are no other symbols, except that the figure is resting on something. Clouds? Any guesses?
This is the piece I acquired most recently, from a thrift store in Burbank. The proprietor most likely had no idea what she had considering the price of the cameo. She even apologized for the crack at the top! It is not a crack, but a natural flaw in the shell. In this scene a woman is holding up an infant as if offering it to a small figure in a shrine-like structure, a font down below. Everyone that sees this piece has a different interpretation. Is she offering her child to the Virgin Mary? Is she giving her baby to an Anchoress? (In medieval times, an “Anchorite” or “Anchoress” was a person walled up inside a cell in the church with only a small window through which he or she received food and water. Sometimes a child would move in to provide the Anchoress with companionship. Some became quite famous and eventually the cells might develop into a convent. The famous Hildegard von Bingen started as an Anchoress) What is your guess, or have you seen this image before?
I have other cameos, but these are the stars of my collection. I am not interested in collecting cameos not portraying goddesses or mythological scenes, though once in a while I see an “ordinary” cameo that still attracts my interest, such as this example made of black glass.
From time to time, people rediscover cameos and their prices begin to escalate. On the other hand, there are many thrift shop owners that don’t realize their value, so you can still acquire them for a reasonable price.
Cameos are a luxury, to be sure. You can’t eat them or build a house with them, but they do bring beauty into our lives.
Miller, Anna M. Cameos Old & New. GemStone Press, 4th Edition: 2008.
Comer, Jr., Arthur L. Cameos: Timeless Masterpieces of Glyptic Art. Alcjr Enterprises; Revised and Expanded 2nd ed.: 2017.
Morgana RavenTree is the current President of Pagan Pride LA/OC and a past contributor to Southland Pagan Press newsletter.