What is a Commesso Cameo?

Masterpieces of the Jewelers Art

A Commesso cameo is a name given to a portrait jewel that combines a carved cameo with enameled gold and other precious materials such as diamonds and gemstones. They truly are masterpieces of the jewelers’ art. Commessi were principally made during the Renaissance by jewelers in Paris and Italy. Commesso jewels are very rare and most are displayed in Museums or held in private collections.


What Inspired the Commesso Cameo?

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The jewelers of the Renaissance were inspired by the practice of adding gold to broken Ancient Greek or Roman cameos to make a finished jewel. The examples below show fragments of cameos, with added gold.

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With his wavy hair cascading over a headband, the face of Apollo, the god of youth, music, and prophecy, is carved into the surface of this large amethyst. His portrait is presented in full profile.

Apollo’s features are idealized, as was typical in the art of the early Roman Empire: a square face with broad cheeks, a round chin, and a remarkably straight nose.

This gem closely resembles other images of Apollo, but the artist might also have sought to evoke Augustus. Solon carved other images of Augustus and members of the Imperial family in the guise of deities, and this gem may provide a further example.

Augustus’s patron god was Apollo, and he believed the god secured victory for his forces in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C:

The gold mount was added to the gem, probably during the late nineteenth century. Formerly in the collection of the Comtesse de Béarn (1870-1930), the gem was displayed at an exhibition in London in 1903-04.

The cameo rings below show cameo fragments augmented with gold. The gold on one of the rings has been carved to replace the form of the original carved stone.


Roman Cameo Lady Ring-side-thirdRoman Cameo of a Ladyantique-cameo-stone-and-gold


Rennaisance Commesso Jewels

The true Commesso cameo combines gold, enamel and gemstones to augment a carved shell or gemstone portrait. French and Italian jewelers started making these masterpieces of the jewelers art 500 years ago.

King Henry II of Farnce loved Commessi and many wer made during his reign from 1547 – 1559. Whenever you see a Fleur-de-Lis on a jewel you can be fairly certain that it was made for the French court.

Commessi is an Italian term that was applied to mosiacs, assembled stones forming a larger design. An Italian jeweler called Matteo da Nassaro may have invented the Commesso cameo.

Matteo was appointed ‘graveur general’ to the French King Henry II, in 1547. He founded the first centre in France for cutting precious stones and he introduced cameo jewels to the French court.

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A wonderful portrait jewel. Carved into shell, decorated with Emeralds, Rubies, Gold, Diamonds and Pearl. Enamel is used to make the golden Ermine shawl.

This brooch shows the young Queen Victoria. This Jewel is in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Place, London, England.

The design is based on a portrait of her in Garter Robes by Thomas Sully painted 1838. The image on the brooch is in reverse from the portrait.

This probably follows a lithograph by Henri Grevedon published in Paris in 1839 which is also in reverse.

The French jeweler Félix Dafrique showed this brooch at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. There he received a Prize Medal for his ‘polychromic cameos’.

Dafrique played a leading role in reviving the Renaissance fashion for commessi brooches.


Commesso Pendant of Prudence

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This Commesso cameo in white chalcedony augmented with gold. The mirror is set with a square Diamond.

The snake is green enamel on the gold. The cameo is encircled with Emeralds and Rubies with a Pearl.

The portrait is of Prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues and is asscoiated with Henry’s with Queen Catherine de Medici. This came from the French workshop of King Henry II from around 1530.

The reverse of the pendant has an enamelled portrait of Diana, the god of the hunt. This is a large portrait pendant, 75 mm tall.


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Two examples of very rare Commesso Cameo brooch pins depicting a profile of a woman.

These have different colors of enamel applied to the shell along with small jewels to add elegance, both are mounted in Yellow Gold.


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The first Cameo is beautifully accented with Turquoise enamel acented with Gold for the clothing. Multi colored enamel decorates the gold headpiece.

The cameo portrait is carved into Shell. There is a floral jewel accent made from gold detailed with small Rubies.

The second cameo pin is a ‘Blackamoor’ Cameo carved in a black on white layered Agate. Decorated with Diamonds and Gold with Pearl accents.

Blackamoor is the name given to a style of cameo where the profile is carved from a black stone, with a lighter colored background. The reverse of the regular cameo.


Commesso pendant with Combination of Gemstones

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A very special Historical Cameo. These are carved to acheive a super realism. This is made from Gold, Amethyst, Carnelian, Burmese Ruby, Garnet, Russian Garnet and Colombian emerald.

Chased gold forms the turban and hair of the figure, and punched gold has been used to create the background. This historic cameo dates from 1550.

The maker is attributed to a French workshop of the reign of Henri II, which created a series of commessi of this type. In the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor castle.

The second cameo combines Lapis Lazuli, Jasper, Quartz and other gemstones to form a complex assembled portrait.


Modern Commesso Cameo Jewels

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An Art Deco cameo brooch in the style of Erte. Created from white Agate on a blue Lapis Lazuli background. The Jewel is made from 18kt yellow and white Gold.

The cameo with the image of Jesus is made from various varieties of shell, assembled together to create a striking effect.


About The Author

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Gareth David Eckley

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.


Resources

Books

Book Cameos Old & NewCameos 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.


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