Cameos, in the traditional sense of figures carved into rock, date as far back as 15,000 BC. Since then they have held a range of symbolism and uses, most commonly being incorporated into jewellery. It is believed that cameos are good luck charms, and have also been used to represent an individual signature or to make a statement about a persons loyalties or faith.
Originally, cameos were created by carving into a rough seashell. Shells would be collected from all over the world by specialist divers who would normally select specimens of the conch shell. Carvers would then use the outer coating (or cup) of the shell and the inner lip (or part that leads to the inside bit of the shell), cutting out an oval form which would later be smoothed by a grinding wheel to achieve a perfect oval.
The oval shape is sculptured to remove the whitish shell and reveal the underneath contrasting colour, which becomes the background. Despite a dramatic change in modern technology and machinery, the intricate details of cameos are still carved by hand.
Sharp steel gravers are used with handles which specifically fit the hand of the carver. Due to the precision of the tools, these intricate details can be obtained. After they are carved, cameos are engraved by being mounted with wax on a wooden stick.
Once it is formed and cleaned with oil, the cameo is placed in a setting, most often a gold frame. Frames are created in all shapes and sizes but the most popular kind is the oval. A gold metal ribbon is normally wrapped around the edge of the cameo and folded over, before being twisted to form a decoration, such as ribbons or braids.
No two cameos are alike due to the delicate and artistic process taken to make them. A cameos time period can be gauged by its frame, with simple frames being common to the early Victorian Period, jewelled, pearled or diamond settings being made later in the Victorian period, and turn-of-the-century or Art Deco cameos being usually set in white gold.