Buyers Guide to Cameo Jewelry [Custom, Antique, Fashion]
Cameo jewelry can be either be a cheap fashion accessory, a valuable antique or a highly prized work of art hand carved in gemstone or shell cameo by a highly skilled artist. Custom made to order cameos can be carved with portraits of people or pets from your photographs. Other cameos often have classical scenes or stylized portraits of women.
This guide is organized to focus on the higher quality, made to order, cameos first. One expert tip is to sort by price, when you search for cameo jewelry. By default search results focus on the highest volume, cheapest offers first. So a search for buy cameo jewelry will return pages of cheap plastic cameos worth $20 – $50. Click on the Sort by: Price-High to Low and you will see the finest quality cameos first.
Luxury Bespoke Cameo Jewelry
These are hand carved by a master artisan, usually a portrait carved from photographs, sometimes, historical figures, animal studies, abstract designs. Portraits can be carved into Gemstone, layered Agate, and shell.
The jewelry setting can be a simple bezel in Silver or Gold or a custom designed Jewel accented with Diamonds, Pearls or Gemstones.
Made to order, One of a Kind, Hand-Carved Portrait Cameos
All portrait cameos are hand carved by a master artisan. Production techniques do not work for one-off pieces. This is the pinnacle of any carvers art and experience, skill, artistic talent and a deep knowledge of Anatomy and portraiture are needed to create an accurate life-like portrait.
The Portrait Artist
Do they have a proven track record, an international reputation, experience in this field? Have they created portrait carvings for celebrities, many examples of previous commissions? Reviews and testimonials from customers who are happy with their work.
Can you call them Directly, talk one on one. Do they care about getting the very best result for your gift? Focused on getting the best for you.
Ask if they are experts in this field. Have they studied anatomy and portraiture techniques? Have they studied the great masters of portrait sculpture and portrait artists?
Do they know how to about the camera’s limitations? Many do not know that a camera lens distorts the actual image. An expert portrait artist will correct for this. Learn more about this in my portrait photo guide.
Custom Made Portrait Cameos in Layered Agate
Known as hardstone cameos. These are the most highly prized of all cameos. The Ancient Greeks and the Romans created some superb cameos that are now displayed in Museums or private collections. These highly prized portrait jewels were often gifts from Emperors or Royalty to their subjects.
This tradition is kept alive by a small number of experienced and very skilled gemstone carvers who specialize in creating hand-carved portraits.
Hardstone cameos are far more durable than cheaper cameos carved into a shell. Your gemstone cameo will last for thousands of years, well past the time that a shell cameo has deteriorated. Larger cameos take more time to carve and are priced higher than smaller sizes. The complexity of the portrait, number of people and detail in the background all factor into the price.
Complex Inlaid Gemstone cameos can be made where colored gemstones are inlaid into the white cameo. Examples include inlaying black onyx to create eyes for portraits of dogs and cats.
Three-layer cameos are also available. Carvings can be in high relief, low relief, shadow technique,or even reverse intaglio. Smaller cameos are often used for signet rings, earrings or cufflinks. Prices can range from $1500 – $9500.
Portraits Carved into Gemstone
The cameo carved onto a single color gemstone. Can be the most expensive, Price and availability of the gemstone is a major consideration. Portraits can be carved onto Emeralds, Aquamarines, Amethyst, Citrine, Moonstone, Opal, Lapis Lazuli, Bloodstone, Jasper, Rock Crystal, Sapphire and other gemstones. Here is a guide to gemstones for cameos.
Prices from $2000 – $50000
Hand carved, one of a kind, Gemstone Cameos
These cameos are often carved with scenes from mythology, figures from history or wildlife carvings. Replicas of some of the most famous Ancient cameos are often carved this way.
Gemstone carvers from Germany and Russia specialize in these cameos carvings. Some of these can be very large, carved into bowls, or vases and take many months to complete.
Prices are based on how long each carving takes so the price range can from $2000 to over $35000.
Antique Cameo Jewelry for Collectors
Antique cameos are very highly valued. Those that have a provenance that links them to famous rulers such as Napolean can sell for very high prices. Check out my guide to record auction prices for cameos.
There are a few high-end retailers who specialize in Antique cameo jewelry.
- Lang Antiques carries high quality and more expensive antique cameos from $1000 – over $7000.
- Ruby Lane often has cameo jewelry, typically below $1000.
- Medieval Rings sometimes has very fine cameo rings up to $10000.
You can also find very fine antique cameos from auction houses. Subscribe to their catalogs to get advance notice of portrait jewels before they come up for auction.
- Dupuis is a Canadian auction house
- Christie’s is worldwide
- Sotheby’s is also multi national
- Bonham has a good jewellery catalog
Estate liquidators can be a good source, here is Fine Estate Liquidation
Torre Del Greco in Italy is the center of the shell cameo industry. Hundreds of carvers work many creating items for the tourist trade. Some are making higher quality carvings. However, stylized portraits of girls with upturned noses and flowers in their hair are the rule. While Gemstone cameos can have a variety of background colors, shell cameos take their color from the shell material. So they are either brown, red or pink.
You can pay less than $100 to $600 for lower quality cameos. Some cameos are much higher in quality and can cost thousands of dollars. For a good, curated, source in the United States for Italian Cameos, contact Lovina Rutt at The Cameo Collection.
Sardonyx Shell Cameos
These are the best shells for carving, identified as a white layer on a brown background. Used for the finest cameos by the best carvers. There are three varieties.
Male King Helmet Shell – Cassis Tuberosa
Considered to be the best shell for creating the finest quality carvings. The male has a thicker shell than the female.
This extra thickness allows for carving a cameo with a high relief.
Expect to pay $2000+ for larger cameos.
Emperor Black Helmet Shell – Cassis Madagascarensis
This is known as the Sardonyx Shell. The colors are white and chocolate-brown.
This shell is more expensive than Carnelian shell. This is reserved for the best carvings by the most talented shell carvers.
A good hand carved cameo will cost $1500 on average.
Queen’s Black Helmet Shell – Cassis Madagascarensis Spinella
This is a unique company based in Panama. Their Sardonyx shell cameos are carved from the Queen’s Helmet Shell- Cassis Madagascarensis Spinella by the Wounaan Indians of the Darien rainforest. The subjects are drawn from the local flora, orchids, exotic flowers and animals such as lizards, frogs, and toucans.
Rainforest Designs design their own cameos and sell their cameos either set into Gold or Silver jewelry from $1000 – $15000 +. You can also purchase cameos unset. You could then take them to your local jeweler to create jewelry for you to wear. They do not make custom portrait cameos.
Bull Mouth Helmet Cassis Rufa
The cheapest and the most widely used of the shells used for carving cameos. The layers are yellow-white on orange red.
This shell is used mainly for the cheapest cameos aimed at the tourist trade. Less experienced carvers who do not have access to the best material will use these shells.
Cheaper qualities are more of an unpleasant yellowish-white color. Some people don’t mind the color. Others find the yellow rather unpleasant, especially for portraits.
There are some cameo carvers in Italy who will take commissions to carve portraits or dogs and cats from this shell. Typically priced below $500.
Pink Conch Shell – Strombus Giga
Shows a white layer with a pink background. Unfortunately, the pink color fades with exposure to sunlight.
A pink shell cameo must be kept in a dark cabinet and only worn for limited times and special occasions. Look for antique cameos that have not faded.
Become an Expert – How to Judge Cameos
An expert appraiser will go through these steps to assess a value.
Is the cameo carved from an expensive material or a cheaper one? In general, the best carvers work on the best material. Experienced shell carvers typically do not work on the cheaper yellowish Carnelian shell.
Gemstone carvers can carve portraits onto a wide selection of gemstones. Layered Agate is actually a less expensive material than many gemstones. However, it is the perfect material for finely detailed portraits because:
- Agate’s hardness allows for greater detail than the softer shell
- The translucent nature gives a subtle glow to finished carvings
- A wider range of colors are available
- Gemstone is far more durable. Hardstone cameo lasts for thousands of years, shell cameos can deteriorate in a shorter time.
Is the carving, smooth and well finished? The finish may be polished or have a satin texture. Many portraits will contrast polished areas with satin features to enhance the realism. It takes time to finish a carving well.
In cheaper carvings, the finishing process is rushed or not done at all. You will see crude, blocky, choppy marks, scratches and an uneven finish.
Look carefully at this shell cameo. The carver here, has done a very poor attempt. Note how flat the nose is, the mouth is very poorly finished. The cheeks are not well rounded and the eyes are not accurate.
Many hours of work should be done to smooth this carving and finish the details. This shell cameo costs less than $500 in a Silver setting and was carved quickly to make it cheap.
Is it any good, is the portrait accurate, life-like. Does the portrait look like the subject?
The Camera Lies !
Working from photos can be difficult. An inexperienced artist will accept the photo as perfect and attempt to copy it exactly.
There is barrel distortion caused by the camera lens and angular distortion. Most photos have both issues happening at the same time. Visit my portrait photo guide for more detailed info.
I have studied these issues in detail and I have learned how to correct for these potential distortions. Ask your portrait artist if they know about these issues.
The Cameo Setting
Ask yourself if this is well designed and well made? How much time is needed to make the setting? A simple gold bezel can be made in less time than a complex surround.
Some metals are more expensive than others. In order of value, Silver, 14kt Gold, 18kt Gold or Platinum. Diamonds, pearls and gemstones add value and increase the price of the cameo setting.
When you order a custom made cameo jewel your designer can factor in these costs and advise you on the best options for your style and budget. When you purchase an antique cameo you often get a very well made setting for less that it would cost to get that duplicated today.
With a custom-made cameo, you may have the option to add personal details to make your gift more special. Engraved inscriptions, personal mementos, gold accents, icons, totems, signatures.
These details transform from an ordinary jewel to an extraordinary and very personal gift. These examples are by Gareth David Eckley at Portrait Cameos who specializes in enhancing his portrait jewels in this way.
Diamond or Gemstone Accents
Are they present, do they enhance the portrait, flatter it or overwhelm by being too large or showy?
Pearls are a perfect compliment to the subtle colors of cameos. White, pink or black pearls work very well as accents.
A cameo pendant can be worn on a Pearl necklace. Freshwater pearls are smaller and encircle the Pocahontas Cameo in this example.
Diamonds really add life to a Jewel. They also help a jewel look and feel precious.
Colored gemstones make wonderful accents. A skilled jewelry designer will choose gemstones that compliment the cameo.
With a made to order cameo jewel, your designer will price the options. When you buy an antique jewel, the value of the accents will be included in the price.
Fashion Cameo Jewelry
Buying decisions are based on how the cameo jewel looks. Is it pretty, do I like the color, will it match my fashion style? Most people will select cheaper cameo jewelry, although some may want to invest in a valuable Antique cameo jewel.
Pinterest is an excellent resource. There are many photos of every variety of cameos. Some of them may be available for purchase.
Shell Cameos, Ultrasonic Layered Agate Cameos, Laser Engraved Cameos, Plastic, others. Price is a good guide. If the cameo is less than $300 it is mass produced.
Production Shell Cameos
Cheap, plentiful, made on a production line. Shell cameos are often carved by a team of carvers.
One will only cut hair, one will cut hands, another may carve only noses, another will carve flowers.
There may be a specialist polisher who finishes the piece. Priced from $100 – $400
Ultrasonic Agate Cameos
Cheap Agate cameos are produced by an ultrasonic carving process. An original is hand carved, a die is made from this carving. This is then placed in a press and vibrated, thousands of times a minute, against the raw stone, with a cutting abrasive.
A new cameo copy can be made in minutes. This process is only cost-effective if many identical copies are made. Priced from $30 – $300.
Laser Engraved Cameos
Many refer to laser engraved cameos when they are actually talking about ultrasonically carved cameos. There is no such thing as a laser engraved cameo. The reason is that every cameo is a relief carving and has to have a thickness to the profile. Laser engraving is where the laser draws a picture, design or logo onto a flat surface. When you see one of these you can no longer confuse real cameos to laser engraved photos.
Turquoise is a beautiful, but soft gemstone. It can be carved quite quickly and will take a high polish.
The softness means that very fine details will not hold, however. There are hand carved Turquoise cameos that are very fine. These can be from $700 – $1500
There are also mass produced cameos cut by an ultrasonic die into synthetic Turquoise blocks. These are sold for less than $300
In Italy, there are artisans who carve coral into cameos. The most highly prized are carved into a deep red coral known as Noble coral. White coral is called bianco, pink-white is pelle de angelo, pale rose rosa pallido, bright rose rosa vivo, red rosso, cherry red rosso scuro and the darkest red carbonetto or ariscuro.
Traditionally carvers worked with coral harvested from the coast of Italy or North Africa in the Mediterranean. In modern times Japan and China have become the source of most of the coral used by carvers.
Coral is a natural resource and many coral reefs are under pressure. Do ask about where the coral has come from, was it responsibly harvested, does the company know the source of the material it sells?
Antique coral carvings are worth searching for and you may be able to find larger and higher quality carvings more easily.
In Italy some cameos are carved from volcanic rock. These are found near Mt. Vesuvius, Mt. Stromboli and Mt. Etna. These solid one color cameos are often gray, brown or various shades of white.
Technically the stone is not lava, but a type of igneous rock, such as Rhyolite, Andesite, Basalt or Felsite.
These cameos were very popular in Victorian times and were often collected when tourists visited the area. If you want to buy a Lava Cameo I would recommend searching online.
Glass Cameos – Pate de Verre
This first example is a 2000 years old Ancient Greek cameo hand carved into glass with a portrait of Herophilos.
The majority of glass cameos sold today are created by mixing powdered glass with a binder, colorants and maybe enamels. This is then poured into a mold and heated under pressure. The cameo may then have further work to finish the details.
Price depends on if you are buying new or Antique and on the quality of the production and the carving. From $200 – $1200.
Resin, Plastic, Molded or Poured Cameos
These cameos are mass produced by pouring material into a mold. These are often very inexpensive and are used directly from the mold.
There is no handwork involved where a skilled worker refines details.
You can tell them from Hardstone or Shell cameos as the plastic is very soft, warm to the touch and often have a waxy luster. A heated pin pressed onto the cameo will create a smoky, burnt smell.
Priced from $5 – $20 each.
Price Guide to Cameo Jewelry
- Made to order, bespoke, Hand carved Portrait Cameos, carved from your photographs – $1500 – $9000
- Hand carved, one of a kind, cameos with religious icons, figures from history, fancy designs – $1500 – $11000
- Antique Cameo Jewelry from Specialist Retailers or Auction Houses – $2000 – $35000
- Hand carved limited production Shell Cameos – $200 – $700
- Mass produced Ultrasonic Agate Cameos – $100 – $300
- Turquoise, Glass, Coral or Lava Cameos – $50 – $500
- Plastic, Resin or Molded cameo – Below $50
About The Author
Gareth David Eckley has been creating custom jewelry for the last 30 years. He studied Jewellery in the United Kingdom in 1980. Gareth has worked as a jewelry designer, gemstone carver, hand engraver, family crest carver, goldsmith.
Gareth carved his first portrait cameo in 1997. He is now in his 21st year of carving Cameo Portraits.
Gareth David Eckley has been carving cameos with such precision and grace that they have attracted the attention of several discerning collectors including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II…Diana Jarrett, Author – ‘Cameos Old and New 4th Edition’
Gareth has created custom jewels for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, The Prime Minister of Canada, a Crown Prince from the United Arab Emirates, a United States Senator, Lady Diana Gibson-Watt, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Lady Janice Mitchell and other clients throughout the World.
Cameos Old & New 4th Edition is the best single resource on cameos. Diana Jarrett has updated the original classic by Anna M. Miller. Released in 2009. Available from Gemstone Press as a physical book or an e.book.
Cameo Appearances by James David Draper – The Metropolitan Museum of Art-2008 .ISBN 978-0-300-14145-0
Portrait Jewels – Opulence & Intimacy from the Medici to the Romanovs by Diana Scarisbrick-2011. ISBN 978-0-500-51557-0
Antique Cameos in the Hermitage Collection by O. Neverov from Aurora Art Publishers
Carving Shells and Cameos by Carson Ritchie-1970. ISBN 213-00246-9
Engraved Gems: From antiquity to the present by Van Den Berken- 2018. ISBN 978-9088905056
The collection of cameos in the Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg, Russia is one of the best collections in the world.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria has a superb collection of Cameo’s.
The Milton Weil collection at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, USA was given a major exhibition in 2005.
The Sommerville collection is in the University of Philadelphia, University Museum, USA.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has a private collection at Buckingham Palace, London, UK. In 2007 the Queen was presented with a special gift to honor her visit to Virginia, United States. The Pocahontas Cameo created by Gareth David Eckley of Portrait Cameos is now part of this collection.
Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
The Art of Hardstone Carving 2002
This is the first comprehensive exhibition on lapidary art dealing with all the important periods and production centres from the Middle Ages to the Baroque.
In additon to the masterpieces from the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the show´s curator, Director Dr. Rudolf Distelberger – one of the world´s most renowned experts on lapidary art – has been able to obtain numerous loans of important comparative pieces from various former princely collections (from, for example, Florence, Madrid, Paris, Dresden, and Copenhagen) although such precious vessels are now only rarely loaned.
The catalogue that will accompany the exhibit will publish many of the results of Rudolf Distelberger´s three decades of research on the art of gem-cutting.