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Cameo Materials

If you are reading this article, it is a virtual certainty that you own a cameo or two, or 300, that you bought on line, with only photographs and the seller’s assertions on which to base your decision whether to buy or not.  This article offers tips on how to recognize different cameo materials and how to distinguish those that look very similar one from the other.  Because there appears to be a strong need for this information, the article is being put up as a work in progress.

 Even professional jewelers sometimes make mistakes concerning the material in which a cameo is carved.  Listings identifying carnelian/sardonyx hardstone cameos as shell (example), and vice versa, are seen regularly.  In some cases it is very difficult to be certain whether a piece is coral or shell, carnelian or glass, even when you examine it directly, loupe to eye.  Judging from photos can be even trickier.  There are no absolute rules for how to distinguish similar looking materials one from the other.  However, as long as the seller has provided pictures that are clear and show the piece from many angles, it is possible in most cases to tell what one is looking at, even if unidentified or misidentified by the seller.

There are a number of things—no single one decisive by itself—to look for in assessing what a cameo is likely to be made of:

  • Color: of layers or overall piece; whether layered, solid, swirled, mottled
  • Grain: growth lines (or appearance of them)
  • Edge: thick/thin; regular/variable, rounded/beveled/perpendicular to surface
  • Curvature: back concave or flat.  For bezel set pieces, is the bezel the same width all the way around or does it dip and rise to follow the curvature of the cameo, creating a saddle shape?
  • Translucence: high/low/opaque (Examples)
  • Size: Particularly a consideration when determining whether a piece is coral or conch shell.  The branching structure of red coral limits the size of flat segments that can be cut from it.  A large segment unmarred by predator damage is even rarer.  Items that appear large at first glance often turn out to be constructed of multiple small pieces.
  • Crispness of lines: Very rounded lines, including where figure meets ground, often indicate a molded piece.
  • Chisel marks: Presence a strong indicator of a hand carved piece in natural material; absence of such marks, by itself, is not proof that a piece is not hand carved, but it is one factor to consider when distinguishing molded pieces from hand carved.
  • Undercutting: Makers of vintage/antique molded cameos did not have the advantage of today’s flexible molds.  Designs had to allow clean removal from the rigid mold.  Presence of undercutting is a strong clue to hand carving, but lava a special case.
  • Damage: Cracks & chips can reveal a lot about the material.
  • Setting & Attachment: A hidden back when not necessary (as it usually is if cameo is set in a locket, e.g.) is frequently, although by no means always, an indicator of an artificial material, as is the attachment of the figure to the ground or the cameo to the setting with a rivet or brad.  Quality of the setting relative to the quality of the cameo is another factor to consider, but is by no means decisive by itself.   (Examples)
  • Subject matter: While anything and everything seems to have been carved in helmet shell, carvers in other materials seem to have had, in general, a more limited subject range, with some subjects being seen much more frequently in a particular material (e.g., portraits of great artists in lava; noblewomen in hardstone).

Some properties can only be evaluated with the piece in hand:

  • Texture: grainy/glassy (although some indication is typically discernible by glossy or matte appearance in photos)
  • Coolness to touch
  • Weight for size

The following pages will list points to look for when evaluating a cameo's material and help educate your eye through numerous examples of each material and its lookalikes.

Please note: Cameo Times cannot guarantee that following these guidelines will result in a correct identification in all cases.  Artificial cameos are becoming increasingly realistic and there is no substitute for direct experience.  It is always wise to check on the seller's return policy or other buyer protection measures before buying on line.