Cameo jewelry has gone in and out of style many times over the roughly 2500 years since its invention, which is likely to be expected given that the art of its carving has endured that long. But they have enjoyed at least two periods of wide popularity in relatively recent history, during the reigns of Napoleon in France and Queen Victoria in England.
Cameos were first carved somewhere between 500 and 300 BC in either Egpyt or Greece. They have had many subjects and served many purposes in various cultures, ranging from serving as a not-so secret signal of erotic desire to portraying scenes of moral virtue to being used as political propaganda. Popes wore them on rings, generals wore them on breastplates and sword hilts.
During his conquering years, Napoleon brought back a love of cameos to France upon his victorious return from Sicily. With him he also brought indentured Sicilian cameo-makers, and set about creating a cameo-carving school in Paris. Napoleon was drawn to the jewelry's reference to the Roman Empire, whose strength he wished to emulate. Empress Joséphine wore a cameo every day, and like all royal style through history, the trend spread from there.
It is ironic then that cameos became as popular as they did in Victorian England, since Napoleon's own popularity never recovered. But Queen Victoria loved cameos, wore them constantly and gave them as gifts. As English women toured the continent more and more, the cameo became a souvenir of their travels. The tastes of these ladies influenced the subject of the cameos, and the rise of the field of archaeology made ancient and mythological references popular. After the death of Albert, Queen Victoria herself commissioned a cameo of the couple to be worn by the officers of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert. She went into permanent mourning and had black cameos created for her out of jet.
Napoleon and Victoria's cameos were most often carved of shell or dichromatic stone. In Victoria's era, however, English commoners were able to to copy her style with the much cheaper Jasperware, a type of unglazed pottery. The earliest cameos were carved from precious stone, but when carvers recognized the relative ease of working with shell, that became the prevailing medium. After WWII cameos enjoyed another brief period of popularity, possibly due to the increasing use of plastics and the rise of costume jewelry.
We have a selection of particularly fine cameos in our Estate and Fashion Jewelry sale, all remarkable for the detail in their carving, the fact that they are made of real shell (as opposed to the current ubiquity of plastic) and their beautiful settings. The Crown Princess of Sweden recently wore the Empress Joséphine's coronation cameo tiara at her own wedding - cameos may be about to enjoy yet another heyday.