How Italian Shell Cameos Are Carved
by Preston Reuther
As far back as 15,000 BC, both men and women have been carving petroglyphs - figures carved into rock -to record significant events, form good luck charms, seal documents in place of a signature and communicate information via the carving. People have also used cameos to make a statement about their faith or loyalties. The first documented cameo was carved around 332 BC. The ancients discovered that many gemstones and shells were made of different colored layers. This allowed handcrafter to create a striking contrast between the raised (relief) layer and the flat (background) layer.
The carving process for the shell cameo begins in the seas where the shell divers select specimens of the conch shell to be carved. For shell cameos, handcrafters use the outer coating of the shell (cup) and the inner lip, or the part of the shell that leads to the inside of the shell. The shell is cut out to form oval forms, later to be smoothed off by the grinding wheel to obtain a perfect oval. After having obtained the oval, it is then sculptured to remove the whitish shell to reveal the background which creates the contrast in color.
All cameos are birthed when the carver selects the shell or cabochon to be used, outlines in pencil the shapes of the cameos that will be obtained from that material and then begins the carving process. The methods used to carve cameos haven't changed in thousands of years. Although modern machinery now assists in the initial stages of the process, the intricate details are still carved by hand.
The carvers use very sharp steel gravers with handles that fit the hand of the carver. With these incredibly sharp precision tools, the most intricate details can be obtained. In modern times, both shell and gemstone cameos can be carved ultrasonically.
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The most important steps in the cutting process are: first layer removal, marking, profile molding, sanding, and placement determination [designing, sketching], engraving, finishing, polishing with oil and oil removal. During this process the sculptor/carver must be very careful that the cameos, especially the shell, are not bumped around or dropped.
After it is carved, the future cameo is engraved. The cameo to be engraved is mounted with wax on a wooden stick. After having sketched a picture of what he intends to carve onto the cameo, the engraving begins. Cameos can often be engraved using dental tools! Then, the cameo is cleaned with oil.
Finally, after the cameo is formed and cleaned, it is placed in a setting. This is strictly hand-made. The gold frames are most often used for this purpose. Older cameos are set in brass, gold filled, silver vermeil, or silver. Mother-of-Pearl is usually set in silver.
The frames, like cameos themselves, are created in all shapes and sizes, the most popular being the oval. A gold metal ribbon (bezel or gallery wire) is wrapped around the perimeter and folded over the edge of each single cameo. In this fashion no two can be exactly alike in their curvature, thickness and contour. The bezel is then twisted into a decoration, such as braids or ribbons.
You can tell a cameo's time period by its frame. Restrained, simple frames surround the early Victorian pieces, in contrast to the jeweled, pearled and diamond settings that came later in that period. Turn-of-the-century and later Art Deco cameos are set in white gold.
So we see that everything about a cameo is unique from its very start. No two authentic cameos are alike in any way, just like the people who wear them!
Preston Reuther is a Master Wire Sculptor that has been collecting, buying and selling cameos for close to 20 years. He has written several e-books and produced over 34 jewelry making dvds. Visit his antique cameo collection at cameojewelry.com or Contact Us