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Cameo Jewelry Articles

History of Ivory Cameos

The History of Ivory Cameos

by Preston Reuther


Think ivory cameos, and you will probably visualize a small locket with the profile of a woman embossed on it. The woman on an ivory cameo usually had an aristocratic appearance with exquisite aquiline features, slender neck, hair tucked up in an elaborate hairdo, and wearing jewelry. The relief was generally carved on white ivory that added a touch of delicateness to the piece of cameo jewelry. The ivory cameo is a piece of jewelry that has centuries of history attached to it and has graced personalities as luminous as Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine. Ivory cameo jewelry bear the unmistakable imprint of the artisan's skill and as such were much coveted by the royalty and hoi polloi alike. Its appeal has still not waned.

The Aesthetic and Artistic Appeal of Ivory Cameos

An appreciation of the aesthetic and artistic appeal of ivory cameos will help you understand why this piece of jewelry has enthralled many people throughout the ages. Although the relief portrait of a lady is one of the most popular cameo motifs, this piece of jewelry also sports many different types of designs. The portrait of a scholar, a powerful ruler, or a noble philosopher were popular designs on ivory cameos, and these pieces of jewelry were worn as a mark of respect, love, and/or to show allegiance.

Ivory cameos depicting scenes from mythologies, religious figures, floral patterns, and motifs with a Roman influence were also popular at one time. These ivory cameos were more than just beautiful pieces of jewelry; they were treasured as mementos that preserve a slice of history, tell a touching story, or reveal an intriguing past.

Ivory cameos are fine pieces of jewelry that are treasured not only for their exquisiteness but also for their exclusivity and sophistication. In the olden times, high-quality materials like ivory, mother-of-pearl, shell, coral, bog oak, Gutta-percha, lava, and even rare and precious and semi-precious stones were used to make cameos. These pieces of jewelry were expensive but those who appreciated beauty realized that such a work of art was actually priceless.


Tracing the History of Ivory Cameos

The ivory cameo has an interesting history and a rich lineage. This piece of jewelry dates back to the times of Alexander the Great. The ivory cameo stole hearts and mesmerized lovers of beauty right from the time when they started being marketed. At that time, they were made of rare and precious stones like agate, sardonyx, and onyx. The cameos soon gained popularity and began to be worn in the salons of 18th-century Europe.

From royalty to ladies from the upper echelons of the society, the ivory cameo had managed to stun everybody with its exquisite craftsmanship. In fact, such was the popularity and widespread appeal of ivory cameos that Napoleon Bonaparte, himself a fantastic admirer of these pieces of jewelry, brought well-known cameo carvers from all over Europe to Paris so that the style-conscious Parisian on the street could have access to what was once deemed to be the privileged possession of a few wealthy individuals.

Napoleon even started a school for cameo carvers to spread the art and craft of ivory cameo-making amongst the artisans of France and make these exquisite pieces of jewelry more accessible to the public. During his reign, cameos were even embellished onto pieces of furniture. Expert cameo carvers were much in demand and were heaped with orders to craft customized pieces. For instance, upper-class European ladies traveling on the Grand Tour and arriving in Italy demanded lava cameos with the head of a woman wearing no jewelry carved on it. For these ladies, these cameos were status symbols to be flaunted and manifested the image to anyone they met that they were well-travelled.

This motif was common on the cameos that can be traced back to the 19th century, and it is believed that the woman portrayed was of Roman origin. According to art and jewelry historians, during the 19th century in Rome, ivory cameos with detailed three-dimensional designs used to be made extensively.

Some such specimens were unearthed during an excavation in Pompeii, the site of a devastating volcanic eruption. To a large extent, the demands of these upper-class ladies set the trend for the kinds of motifs that were featured on the ivory cameos.

The Evolution of the Cameo-Making Process Like the designs carved on ivory cameos, the cameo-making process too has undergone several changes throughout the ages. New insights into the properties of various stones, the invention of new tools, and the development of the manufacturing processes have led to these modifications.

For instance, the use of glass paste simplified the manufacturing process and also brought cameos within the reach of the common man. Ingenious artisans like James Tassie from Scotland made Plaster of Paris molds of famous cameo designs and recreated these using the glass paste technique. This ensured that the common man on the street could flaunt a famous cameo design—possibly one worn by the royalty or a wealthy individual—without needing to spend a fortune. Needless to say, these lesser-priced jewelries were no less beautiful than their pricier counterparts.

As cameos became popular as pieces of adornment and began to be demanded in large numbers by diverse sections of the populace, carvers were compelled to look for simplified manufacturing methods that retained the quality of the pieces without escalating their prices. The cameo-makers discovered that shell was a durable yet soft material that could be used to carve designs on the pieces. Furthermore, it was easy to carve on shell.

The Present-Day Ban on Ivory Cameos For all the popularity of ivory cameos, admirers may be distressed to know that the sale of these pieces of jewelry has been banned by the US government. Persons found trading in ivory cameos will be punished. This ban comes in the wake of global efforts to curb ivory trade and protect the endangered African elephant population.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has also petitioned and managed to bring on tougher export-import restrictions that will make it prohibitively expensive for individuals to trade in these items even overseas. The ban on the trade of ivory products in 1985 has created an incredible demand for  the ivory cameo that was once priced at hundreds of dollars to ones priced in the thousands of dollars if they were carved before 1985

 At the other end of the spectrum, the ban on the trade of ivory products has imparted a vintage appeal to old ivory cameos. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has exempted certain types of ivory cameos from the clutches of the ban. For instance, ivory cameos that were manufactured 100 years ago and imported to the United States before 1990 are exempt from this rule

Rules and Dates

The owner of the object must, however, show the documents to prove his claim and seek exemption. Owners of ivory cameos that were legally imported to the United States after 1990 can also trade in these items. Additionally, these owners must furnish evidence that the ivory cameos in their possession have not been modified or repaired since December of 1973. The ivory cameo is that one rare piece of jewelry that has a checkered history. From adorning royal personalities to ending up on the banned items list, the ivory cameo has never failed to make headlines.

********************************************************************** Preston Reuthe is a jewelry designer  that has been showing, selling and collecting cameos of all kinds for over 20 years. He has written over 1000 jewelry design articles, produced over 50 videos on handcrafted jewelry and has several cameo shops on line.

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