Shells have been used for almost a 1000 years in the cameo jewelry business. This was most likely because cameos carved from shell were considered more informal than the cameos which were carved from gemstone material and women could wear them everyday! The tradition began in the fifteenth or sixteenth century and was popularized by Queen Victoria of England. [1837-1901]. (Catherine the Great of Russia also had a large collection). Cameos carved from shell are still the most popular type of cameo jewelry sold today.
Conch shells provide the carving material for the cameo cutters of Torre del Greco, Italy, the main manufacturing city for shell cameos. The shells from which these cameos are produced are found in the Torresi waters, the Bahamas, in the Caribbean, Central America and in the waters off East Africa, (particularly in Madagascar).
Shell divers appropriately select specimens from 90 to 100 feet below the water's surface. Only six out of over 100,000 seashells species existing in the world are selected to make a cameo. This is due to the fact that shell carvers are very particular about the kind of shell used for hand carving cameos. The artist carefully searches the sea shells for signs of flaws or cracks. (There must be no sign whatsoever of either a flaw or a crack). Stress marks and lines or natural growth marks are okay, as 99% of your cameos are going to have some kind of lines in them. The shell must also be broad and colored horizontally with light colors on top of darker colors. Usually, the darker color will be the background and the lighter color will be in the foreground.
The carver selects a section of the conch shell and determines where the layers of color are. Then the carver creates a design just for that particular shell that will reveal the colored layers as it is carved, making the finished cameo three-dimensional. After the cameo is carved, it will be polished by hand.
By now you've guessed that different types of shells produce different colors of cameos. The most valuable cameos are those with the greatest color contrast. As every cameo is a handmade work of art, colors will vary. No two are alike!
The carnelian shell is the shell most frequently used for cameo carving. Most carnelian shells originate in West Africa. Cameos carved from carnelian shell may be reddish-brown, peach or orange.
The most costly cameos are those which are carved from the sardonyx shell. The sardonyx shell has a thick outer wall and a dark brown interior. When it is carved it often resembles marble, hence the higher price of its cameos. Just like the shells that they originate from, cameos carved in sardonyx shells have a dark brown background and white foreground.
Some cameos are even carved in mother-of-pearl, producing a cameo of a muted pale blue color.
The most popular motif for a cameo carved from shell is the face of a woman. So, when you see a woman's face on a cameo, you may deduce that it is made of shell.
However, in recent years, China has been able to manufacture fake cameos made of plastic which have the feel of shell. In addition, some modern-day imposters are carved from resin! How can you tell the difference? First, have all of your cameos evaluated by a trained jeweler. Second, note the color of the cameo. Most plastic cameos have a different coloration than shell. Third, perform the "hot needle test". If it melts, it's plastic!
Since cameos made of shell are especially delicate, they will require special care. While dusting, pay attention to the deep ridges in the cameo where dust is likely to collect. Dust can scratch a cameo, so it is important to keep it as dust-free as possible. After you dust it, you may rinse a shell cameo with warm water, drying it afterward with a soft cotton cloth. Afterwards, wipe the cameo down with a little oil. They should be oiled at least once a year. It is recommended that one use mineral oil. Olive oil, if it is not completely removed, may turn a cameo yellow. Shell cameos are easily damaged, so avoid using soap, harsh cleaners or commercial jewelry cleaners. Remember, use a light hand! Do not scrub the cameo! And do not leave it to soak! Shell cameos may be stored in a clean, dry place, away from heat and bright lights. It is preferable that the jewelry box containing the cameo be lined. Follow the above guidelines and you will enjoy your shell cameo for many years to come!