AskDefine | Define cameo

Dictionary Definition

cameo n : engraving or carving in low relief on a stone (as in a brooch or ring)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A piece of jewelry etc, carved in relief
  2. A single very brief appearance by a prominent actor or actress (or other notable) in a movie or song.
    Famous comic book writer Stan Lee had a cameo in the Spider-Man movie, he was on screen for perhaps 10 seconds but aficionados distinctly remember him.


relief work

Extensive Definition

For the "brief appearance" see Cameo appearance. For other uses, see Cameo (disambiguation).
Cameo is a method of carving, or an item of jewellery or vessel made in this manner. It features a raised (positive) relief image; contrast with intaglio, which has a negative image.
The term "cameo" also refers to a proof coin that has frosted lettering and features, providing attractive contrast with the mirrored fields of the coin. The terms "deep cameo" and "ultra cameo" describe cameo coins having the boldest, most attractive contrast.


There are three main materials for Cameo carving; Shells or Agate (called a Hardstone cameo), and glass. Cameos can be produced by setting a carved relief, such as a portrait, onto a background of a contrasting colour. This is called an assembled cameo. Alternately, a cameo can be carved directly out of a material with integral layers or banding, such as (banded) agate or layered glass, where different layers have different colours. Sometimes dyes are used to enhance these colours.


Cameos are often worn as jewellery. Stone cameos of great artistry were made in Greece dating back as far as the 6th century BC. They were very popular in Ancient Rome, and one of the most famous stone cameos from this period is the Gemma Claudia made for the Emperor Claudius. The technique has since enjoyed periodic revivals, notably in the early Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. Queen Victoria was a major proponent of the cameo trend in Great Britain, where Hellenism suffused all aspects of culture. The visual art form of the cameo has even inspired at least one writer of more recent times, the 19th-century Russian poet Lev Mey, who composed a cycle of six poems entitled (Cameos, 1861), as reflections on each of the Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Nero. In 1852 Théophile Gautier titled a collection of his highly polished, lapidary poems Emaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos).

Roman Glass Cameos

During the Roman period the cameo technique was used on artificial glass blanks, in imitation of objects being produced in agate or sardonyx. These glass cameos were produced in two periods; between around 25 BCE and 50/60 CE, and in the later Empire around the mid-third and mid-fourth century. Roman glass cameos are rare objects, with only around two hundred fragments and sixteen complete pieces known, only one of which dates from the later period. During the early period they usually consisted of a blue glass base with a white overlying layer, but those made during the later period usually have a colourless background covered with a translucent coloured layer. Blanks could be produced by fusing two separately cast sheets of glass, or by dipping the base glass into a crucible of molten overlay glass during blowing. The most famous example of a cameo from the early period is the Portland Vase.

Shell Cameos

The earliest known use of shell for cameo carving was during the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before that time, cameos were carved from hardstone. The Renaissance cameos are typically white on a grayish background and were carved from the shell of a mussel or cowrie, the latter a tropical mollusk.
In the mid 18th century, explorations revealed new shell varieties. Helmet shells ( Cassis tuberosa) from the West Indies and queen conch shells ( Strombus gigas) from the Bahamas arrived in Europe. This sparked a big increase in the number of cameos carved from shells. Conch shells carve very well but their color fades over time. Modern sources for the best quality conch shell are Madagascar and South Africa.

Cameo subjects

Classically the designs carved onto cameo stones were either scenes of Greek or Roman mythology or Portraits of Rulers or important dignitaries. In history, agate portrait cameos were often gifts from royalty to their subjects. These antique cameos, some more than 2000 years old are either displayed in museums or are in private collections.

Notable historic cameos

Gemma Augustea Cameo – Roman, After 10 A. D. Two-Layered onyx
Gemma Claudia Cameo – Roman, 49 A.D. Five-layered onyx Herophiloska Cameo – Roman, 14 to 37 AD This portrait of a man with laurel wreath is probably of Emperor Tiberius. The work is signed "Herophilos Dioskourid[ou] ("Herophilus, son of Dioscorides). The colour of the glass was intended by the artist to imitate turquoise.
Agrippina the Elder Cameo-Carved in Italy in the period of 37 – 41 AD. The carving is a three layer agate.
Ptolemaic double cameo-Hellenistic, 278–270/269 B. C. Eleven-layered onyx;
"Blacas Cameo"-Roman, about AD 14–20. This was carved from a three layered sardonyx. It is a fragment of a larger portrait of the Roman emperor-Augustus.
"Gonzaga Cameo" Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II. Sardonyx. 3rd century B.C.
"The head of Flora Cameo" – Benedetto Pistrucci. AD 1812 In this cameo the top red-brown layer has been carved into roses. The face is carved from the white layer. The collector Richard Payne Knight purchased the Flora cameo from an Italian dealer, believing it to be Roman. The Italian carver Pistrucci claimed to have carved it himself. Payne challenged Pistrucci to carve a copy to prove his claim. The ensuing publicity earned Pistrucci several commissions.

Modern cameos

Modern cameos are carved into layered agates. The layers are dyed to create strong color contrasts. The most usual colors used for two layer stones are white on black, white on blue, and white on red-brown. Three layer stones are sometimes made. The colors are usually black on white on black. The layers are translucent, this allows the artist to create shading effects by removing material to allow the background layer to show through. This way a very realistic, life-like quality to a figure can be achieved. For example thinning the top black layer on a three layer stone changes its color to shades of brown. Removing material from the white layer creates shades of blue or grey depending on the color of the base.

Ultrasonic machine carved cameos

The majority of modern agate cameos are carved with the aid of the Ultrasonic Mill. This a process where multiple copies of a master design can be produced very quickly by pressing a master die onto the agate cameo blank. A film of diamond slurry is used to aid cutting and the die vibrates ultrasonically in a vertical motion. The master is often hand carved by a skilled cameo artist. The result is a cameo that has a satin surface texture described as "freshly fallen snow", (FSS) by Anna Miller. This texture and the lack of any undercutting are used by appraisers as markers to prove that the cameo is machine-made.

Hand-worked portrait cameos

These cameos are carved by hand usually working from photographs of the subject. The fact that there is usually only one copy made means that the tooling costs involved rule out the ultrasonic carving process.
There are very few people working in this field as this is one of the hardest challenges for any gemstone carver. The combination of a highly developed artistic ability, craft skill and many years of experience are needed to be able to create life-like portraits.
It is quite rare, these days, for subjects other than portraits to be carved by hand as agate cameos. The traditional themes of classical scenes from mythology or a standard image of a young lady, are more likely to be made with the help of the ultrasonic carving machine as a limited collection of typically 50 – 200 pieces.

Shell cameos

Today the most popular shells for carving are the bull mouth carnelian shell ( Cassis rufa) from the East African coast; this has white and orange or white and brownish-orange layers. The most highly prized shell for carving is the emperor helmet shell ( Cassis madagascariensis ). This shell has white and dark brown layers and is known as sardonyx shell, and looks similar to the layered agate known as sardonyx.
The world center for cameo carving in shell is Torre del Greco, Italy. The shells are first marked with a series of ovals in a process called signing, then cut into oval blanks for the cameo carver. The actual cameo is mainly cut with a metal scraping tool called a bulino, an invention of Jewish artisan Antonio Cimeniello. A number of metal gravers are used: flat-faced, round and three-cornered. To speed production, grinding wheels are used to quickly remove excess material. When the details are completed, the shell is then soaked in olive oil, cleaned with soap and water and selectively polished with a hand brush.


  • Cameos Old and New
  • Classical Gems: Ancient and Modern Intaglios and Cameos in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
  • The Content Family Collection of Ancient Cameos-Ashmolean Museum
  • Corals and Cameos – The treasures of Torre Del Greco
  • Catalogue of the Engraved Gems and Cameos, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman in the British Museum
  • Antique Cameos in the Hermitage Collection


cameo in Catalan: Camafeu
cameo in German: Kamee
cameo in Spanish: Camafeo
cameo in French: Camée
cameo in Italian: Cammeo
cameo in Lithuanian: Gema
cameo in Japanese: カメオ
cameo in Polish: Kamea
cameo in Portuguese: Camafeu
cameo in Russian: Камея
cameo in Slovenian: Kameja
cameo in Swedish: Kamé
cameo in Ukrainian: Камея

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

anaglyph, bas-relief, boss, cameo glass, catalog, cataloging, cavo-rilievo, character, character sketch, characterization, cut glass, delineation, depiction, description, details, embossment, evocation, glyph, glyptograph, graphic account, high relief, image, imagery, impression, intaglio, intaglio rilevato, intaglio rilievo, itemization, limning, low relief, mask, medal, medallion, particularization, photograph, picture, plaquette, portrait, portraiture, portrayal, profile, relief, relievo, rendering, rendition, representation, sculptured glass, sketch, specification, vignette, vivid description, word painting
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