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. Click on the Sort by: Price-High to Low and you will see the finest quality cameos first.

Table of Contents & Price Guide

Museum Quality Cameos

Cameos with signed portraits of figures from history are the most valuable.
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$1500 - $9000

Portrait Cameos

Individually hand carved from photos into gemstones by a skilled artist.
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$1500 - $15,000

Art Cameos in Gemstone

Often carved with scenes from mythology, figures from history or wildlife carvings.
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$2000 - $30,000

Antique Cameo Jewelry

There are a few high-end retailers who specialize in Antique cameo jewelry.

Commesso Cameos

Rare and Valuable, Gold, enamel, and gemstones are joined to make the cameo.

Precious Opal Cameos

Very rare as Opal is an expensive gem and a large stone may be hard to find.
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$2000- $7000

Complex Inlay Cameos

Gemstones of different colors are combined to make a cameo portrait.
$900 - $3000

Sardonyx Shell Cameos

The best Italian carvers work in Sardonyx shell. One skilled artist will carve the whole cameo.
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$50 - $500

Cornelian Shell Cameos

A production line product from Italy for the tourist trade. The best carvers do not use Cornelian shell.
ultrasonically carved agate cameo
$30 - $500

Ultrasonic Agate Cameos

Machine carved agate cameos with figures and designs.
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$50 - $500

Turquoise Cameo

Turquoise, Lava, Coral and 'Patte de Vere' glass cameos.
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$1 - $5

Plastic and Resin Cameos

Mass-produced in molds from color dyed plastic or resin.

Hardstone Agate Cameos

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.

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Custom Made Portrait Cameos in Layered Agate

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.

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.

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Pet Portrait Cameos

Portraits of pets can also be hand-carved onto gemstone to make cameos. A variety of techniques can be used. The examples below show 3 approaches.

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Complex Inlay of a white area into a Brown layer. This was then bonded to a Blue Agate. Black Onyx inlay for the eyes and nose.
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Pet Portrait of a dog on a brown on white layered Agate
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A three-layer Agate carved to a Wedgewood blue color. Black onyx inlay for the eyes.

One of a Kind, Art Cameo Carvings into Gemstone

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.

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A white on black layered Agate carving of Bhudda.
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A bowl in a three-layer Agate carved to show a classical scene.
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Art cameo hand carved onto layered Agate

Available Colors of Layered Agate Cameo

Blue Agate Cameo

Blue-Black Agate Cameo

Wedgewood Blue Cameo

White on Pink-Red Cameo

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White on Red Cameo

Brown Agate Cameo

Pink or Violet Cameo

Black Agate Cameo

Green Agate Cameo

Three Layer Agate Cameo

Gemstone Cameos - Opal, Lapis Lazuli, Aquamarine, Moonstone

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.

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Moonstone Cameo

Precious Opal Cameo

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Rock Crystal Quartz Cameo

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Lapis Lazuli Cameo

Amethyst Cameo

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.

Retail Specialists

Roman-Blacas-cameo

Ancient Roman Blacas Cameo

There are a few high-end retailers who specialize in Antique cameo jewelry.

  1. Lang Antiques carries high quality and more expensive antique cameos from $1000 - over $7000.
  2. 1st Dibs has a selction of high quality and more expensive antique cameos from $1000 - over $7000.
  3. Ruby Lane often has cameo jewelry, typically below $1000.
  4. Medieval Rings sometimes has very fine cameo rings up to $10000.

Auction Houses

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.

  1. Dupuis is a Canadian auction house
  2. Christie's is worldwide
  3. Sotheby's is also multi national
  4. Bonham has a good jewellery catalog
  5. Skinners Auction house

Estate liquidators can be a good source, here is Fine Estate Liquidation

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Roman Hardstone Cameo carved into a 4 layer Agate.
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Antique Cameo by Pistrucci in Red Jasper
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A 5-layer Hardstone Agate cameo owned by Caroline Bonaparte

Shell Cameos

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. Other good sources are Bimento Sorrento, Casco Cameos and Amedo

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, Emperor Black Helmet Shell - Cassis Madagascarensis, Queen's Black Helmet Shell - Cassis Madagascarensis Spinella.

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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.
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Emperor King 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.

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horned-helmet-shell-cameo

Queen's Black Helmet Shell - Cassis Madagascarensis Spinella

Rainforest Designs

shell cameo suite

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.


Cornelian Shell

Bull Mouth Helmet Cassis Rufa

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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.

How Experts Judge Cameo Value

An expert appraiser will go through these steps to assess a value.

The Material

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.

How to Evaluate a Cameo Artist

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 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.

Communication

Can you call them Directly, talk one on one. Do they care about getting the very best result for your gift? Are they focused on getting the best for you.

Portrait Skills

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.

Portrait Accuracy is So Important

Is it any good, is the portrait accurate, life-like. Does the portrait look like the subject?

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Garza-portrait-photo-feat

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.

The best portrait artist have studied these issues in detail and know how to correct for the potential distortions. Ask your portrait artist if they know about these issues.

How Well Carved is the Cameo ?

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Poorly carved shell cameo with rough finish and flat nose.
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Well finished carving in Layered Agate
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Poor details on the face and eyes on this shell cameo.
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Polished hardstone white-brown layer Agate cameo

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.

Value the Cameo Setting

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Engraved Gold leaf detail with Diamonds
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Gold and enamel decoration
White Gold engraved Leaves and Pearls
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Italian Style Rope Detail and a Pearl

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.

Personalize the Setting of Your Cameo Jewel

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 Eckley at Portrait Cameos who specializes in enhancing his portrait jewels in this way.

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Daughters drawing of her holding her hand with the sun in the park.
Engraving of the child's drawing on the white gold setting.
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Gold potato charm added to the back of the Silver setting
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Engraved from a photo of her loved pet dog.

Diamond, Pearl or Gemstone Accents

Pocahantas-Cameo-front-white-3-sqAre 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.

Turquoise, Coral, Lava and 'Patte de Vere' Glass Cameos

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Turquoise Cameo

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
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Lava Cameo

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.
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Patte De Vere Glass Cameo

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.

Coral Cameos

Coral-cameo-zeus-3-sqIn 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.

Mass Produced Cameos

Quality is sacrificed for a low price. 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

shell-cameo-productiocarnelian shell cameoCheap, 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

ultrasonically carved agate cameo

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 - $700.

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.

Imitation Cameos - Resin or Plastic

plastic-cameo-350plastic-cameo-350These 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.

Information resources for Cameos

Books

Book Cameos Old & New 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


Museums

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 Victoria & Albert and the British Museum in London, UK have extensive cameo collections

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.


Exhibitions of Museum Quality Cameos

Cameo Appearances at the Met, Museum, New York

A superb exhibition held in 2005 of the Milton Weil collection along with some other cameos. Signed cameos by tehmaster artist Pistrucci, Leoni, Masnago, Saulini and others. I have a page devoted to this exhibtion at Cameo Appearances Exhibition .

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.

The Pocahontas Cameo is in the Royal Collection

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.

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Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is Presented With The Pocahontas Cameo Brooch by Chief Bill Miles of the Powhatan Tribe
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The Pocahontas cameo brooch pin in layered gray agate. Set in Platinum with freshwater pearls.
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My wife, Sheila Dyer wearing the Pocahontas Cameo Brooch Pin

About the Author Gareth Eckley

Award-Winning Jewelry Designer and Gemstone Carver

gareth-david-eckley-sq-3Gareth David Eckley has won many accolades for my custom Jewelry design and gemstone carving. These include major national awards from prestigious national organizations.

De Beers Diamonds Today Award for jewelry design, Goldsmiths Craft Council, Craftsman of the year competition - 7 awards, The Platinum Guild Award for excellence in Platinum design and manufacture- 3 awards.

His award-winning work has been exhibited at Goldsmiths Hall, the British Design Centre, De Beers, The Victoria & Albert Museum and Olympia in London and at the Basle fair in Switzerland.

An International reputation for Excellence

Each portrait is hand-carved from your photos by Gareth. Widely regarded as the finest portrait cameo artist in North America. Gareth also designs and makes the exquisite settings for every custom jewel.

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.

A life devoted to creating beautiful jewelry

For the last 30 years Gareth has been gemstone carving, hand engraving and carving family crests in gold and stone, gold-smithing and creating custom jewelry designs. He carved his first portrait cameo in 1997.

Gareth is one of a very select group of gemstone portrait artists. Great skill, artistry and experience is needed to be able to create accurate portraits.

He is very passionate about his art and loves to travel to meet his clients whenever possible. He has been creating work for over 28 years. Some of his clients have been collecting his work for over 20 years.

Gareth feels strongly that for a cameo portrait to work he must feel that he "knows" the subject. It is very important to know the persons name and their nature so that he can enthuse the portrait carving with their spirit.

Professional Training and Expertise

Education

Medway College of Art & Design, United Kingdom, 1980-1984. Four year Degree covering all aspects of  Jewellery, Silversmithing, Hand Engraving, Jewellery casting, Jewellery design, Wax carving, goldsmithing, and gemmology.

FGA: Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. 1979-1980.

Work Experience

1982-1984   George Lukes Engravers Ltd, London, England. Worked as a hand engraver with the top engraver in the UK at the time.

1984-1987   Christopher Wharton Designer Jewellers Ltd, London, England. Worked as a Goldsmith, engraver and Diamond setter.

1987-1991   Gareth Eckley Designer Jewellers, Wales, UK. Self employed as a Jewellery designer, Goldsmith, hand engraver, diamond setter, jewellery valuation, gem cutting, family crest carving.

1991-1993   Customgold Jewelers, Vancouver, Canada. Employed as a Goldsmith, hand engraver, diamond setter, wax carver, jewelry polisher.

1993-2019   Gareth Eckley - Portrait Cameos. Self employed as a gemstone carver, cameo artist, portrait artist, Jewelry designer, Goldsmith, hand engraver, diamond setter, jewellery valuation, gem cutting, family crest carving.

Detailed Information Guides for More Info

Gemstone Color Options

Two and Three Layered Agates, Sardonyx, Opal, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian, Bloodstone, Amethyst, Jade, Black Onyx and more.

Personalize Your Jewel

Gold accents with a personal charm. Hand engraved drawings, inscriptions, and personal messages.

Portrait Photo Guide

Send me your best photos. The ones that really show the personality and character of your 'loved one'

'True to Life' Portraits

How I use my 30 years of study of portraiture and gemstone carving to create accurate portrait cameos.

Guide to Commesso Cameos

Masterpieces of the gemstone artist and the jewelers art.

Antique Cameos at Auction

A selection of fine cameos that have come to auction.

Book a Design Consultation for Your Custom Jewel. Upload Your Photos To Gareth Eckley

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