Why Gemstone (Hardstone) Cameos are Better than Shell Cameos

Gemstone or Shell for Your Portrait Cameo?

This is a question that I am often asked. Gemstone cameos are carved with Diamond points. The process is more skilled and takes much more time than the softer shell. Hardstone cameos are considered superior to shell cameos by all the experts.

The pure white in layered Agate gemstone has a translucency that gives a special ethereal quality that brings the cameo to life. By contrast, the yellowish-white of Cornelian shell that is used in the cheaper Italian cameos gives a yellowish look to faces that many find unpleasant.

If you do choose an Italian carved cameo do insist on Sardonyx shell or Black Helmet Emperor shell. These varieties have a purer white layer that gives better portraits. They are more expensive and only the best carvers have access to them. If you are ever offered a shell cameo for less than $1000 it will be the cheaper Cornelian shell.

A husband contacted me who bitterly regrets choosing a very cheap cameo from Italy. He gave it to his wife who hated it. She did some research and found my work. She showed this to her husband and asked why he did not order the best portrait cameo for her.

The average individual portrait carved into a hardstone takes from 3 - 5 days to carve. Half of that time is spent smoothing and polishing the surface. The typical individual shell cameo takes 1 - 2 days to carve. Skilled carvers take great care to smooth and finish. However, poor carvers will skip those steps going straight from a rough carving to a polish. This shortcut, allows them to undercut established master cameo artists with very cheap cameos that sell to tourists and the unsophisticated.

The Highest Quality Portraits are Carved into Gemstone

The Ancient Greeks invented the art of cameo carving, the Romans continued to develop the art. Some of the finest examples, displayed in Museums are over 2000 years old and still as fresh as when they were made. My Gemstone cameos will last for many thousands of years. Cameos in shell do not last that long as they can become brittle after only one generation.

I was recently asked to replace a portrait cameo in shell, carved in Italy at a very cheap price. The customer was very unhappy with the result, and lost his money. Why take a risk that you can, get away with the cheapest option. Does your Your ‘loved-one’ deserve the very best?

Shell Cameos and Their Problems

There are some shell carvers who sell their work for very low prices. If you are offered a portrait cameo for only a few hundred dollars, realise that the carver must rush their work, and cut corners to make that cheap price. The likeness will be poor and the finish quality inferior. Look at the poor quality of the finish in this example, the cheaper yellow shell and the poor likeness. The cameo does not capture the girl's beauty at all well.


Portraits where the person is looking ahead, do not work well at all. This is because the shell material is not good for eyes. You are restricted to using side profiles ( the classic sillouette ) as these are the only portraits that can look good in shell.

Cameos in cheaper types of shell can also be quite yellow, while layered agate is always a pure white above a colored background. See the example below. The carving is by more skilled Italian carver than the first example, the finish is better, but the eyes and faces are very poor.


Compare my portrait Cameo of two girls in white on blue layered Agate to the Shell cameo shown above. Notice the 'zombie' eyes on the shell.


Portrait of Two Grandchildren


Original Portrait Photo

Notice how poor the likeness is on this portrait cameo carved into shell. The face is yellow, the eyes are very unfortunate, the proportions of the face are all wrong. This is what happens when carvers with a superficial knowledge of anatomy try to carve a face.

There are some highly skilled Italian shell carvers who do not cut corners and do take the time to carve well. However, the material itself has limitations. Shell does not have the same translucency as layered agate, so the shading that you can do with shell is less subtle.

The classic cameo profile is often very stylized, with large eyes and an upturned nose. The carvers love to add flowers and other flourishes. Many of these are mass produced for the tourist trade.

Shell is much softer than stone and is far less durable. The carving process is faster with shell and different tools are used. These are steel cutting tools, gravers and scrapers.

Shell is Delicate and Needs Special Care

Since cameos made of shell are especially delicate, they will require special care. 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!

Pet Portraits are Better in Gemstone

Compare the two examples of a Dog cameo. The first is carved in layered Agate, while the second is carved into shell. Which one looks the best? With gemstone, black onyx can be inlaid into the eyes and nose to really create a special portrait. The eyes in the shell cameo look sinister.

Dog Cameo in Layered Agate set in Gold

Maltese Dog Cameo in Layered Agate

poor pet

Shell Cameo of Two Maltese Dogs

Five Ways That Gemstone Cameos are Superior to Shell

1. The background layer is visible when the white layer is thinned. This can be skillfully used to create shading and depth to a face. The top layer in a Shell is opaque, so these beautiful shading effects are not possible.

2. Light enters the stone and then relects back to the surface to give an ethereal glow. This helps give that magical quality of life to the portrait. Shell does not do this and is flat in comparison.

3. The background layer shows through when the white is thin. This can give a lovely halo around the portrait. I can also use this to change the color. For example a thin white layer on a red background gives a pink color, the same on a black background gives a wedgewood blue color.

4. Three layer stones are available, see the carving of Grace Kelly. The colored layers are also translucent, so when a black layer is made thinner, it becomes brown. You can see this in the portrait of a dog. This looks brown but was actually carved from a black layer.

5. Stone can be inlaid in complex ways. My complex 'commesso' cameo of a dog, is made from brown agate, inlaid into white agate, with black onyx eyes and nose. The background is a blue agate.


Brown on White Cameo Carving of Pet Dog


Cameo Portrait-3 Layers of Grace Kelly


3 Layer Cameo with Inlaid Stones

You can use any photo for your portrait. Face-on profiles where both eyes are shown work very well in layered agate gemstone. Multiple portraits and complex layered carvings are perfectly executed in layered Agate.

Layered Agate contrasts a white layer with a darker background layer. Many colors are available, red, blue, green, brown, black and grey. The top white layer is translucent so it allows light to enter the stone, this gives amazing effects.

Translucent Gemstones


Antique Moonstone Cameo Brooch


Rock Crystal Antique Cameo Stone


Amethyst Antique Cameo Brooch

Solid color stones create a different effect. The color of the stone becomes a major part of the look. Cameos carved in these gemstones can look very beautiful.

About The Author


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.



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


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.

Private Collections


Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is Presented With The Pocahontas Cameo Brooch

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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