When you walk around Venice, it’s difficult not to gaze at the wide range of beautiful cameos in the windows of jewelry stores. Each of these small white sculptures on a pink background attracts your attention. They’re real pieces of art and much more than just jewelry.
This post will first give you some historical background on cameos. I will also explain how they are produced in an artisanal way. Once you get to the end of the post, I’m sure you will want to order your own custom made cameo asap.
My own cameo love story
I have been intrigued by cameos for a very long time. Every time I visit Venice, I watch every jewelry window to find the one cameo which I really like. It has to be the perfect combination of colour (depending on the material), setting (shape, size, gold vs silver) and of course the image. After a quest of several years, I finally bought my first cameo with 3 flowers in a round, golden frame. I am however always on the outlook for a new cameo.
I recently discovered that it is also possible to order a personalized cameo, at a reasonable price. This is in line with the origins of cameo carving, when it was used to portray someone instead of painting. Cameos are not only for women, so I decided to order cameo cufflinks as a surprise for my husband. I used this article and my passion for cameos as an excuse to visit the Eredi Jovon jewelry store on the Rialto bridge. When Marco Jovon gave him his gift, my husband was really flabbergasted. The sculpted image on his cufflinks is the symbol with our initials which we also used for our wedding in Venice (see my post: How to organize your destination wedding in Venice). Next time, I’ll probably order a pendant for myself but, again, I’m still hesitating about the image. Now that I think of it, maybe I should make one with the logo of The Venice Insider, which resembles Canal Grande.
What is a cameo?
A cameo is a sculpted image (a figure or a small scene) carved from one piece of material. This is often shell, but it can also be glass or a gem such as agate. The artisan cuts the material away until he reaches a second layer in a different range of colouring. This creates the contrast between the (most often) white image on a coloured background.
An intaglio is the opposite of a cameo. In this case, the artisan carves in the stone to make a recessed image. It can then be used as a stamp for instance.
History of cameos
The art of cameo carving goes back a very long time and originates from Ancient Egypt. Allegedly, the word ‘cameo’ comes from the Arabic word ‘kamea’, meaning talisman. However, other sources refer to the kabbalistic slang word ‘kame’o’, meaning magical square. Regardless of its name, a cameo often declared a statement of faith or loyalty. During the Roman Empire, cameos were carved in glass ornaments, whereas the Greeks used it to show mythological gods and goddesses.
Cameos were originally more a male than a female ornament. Men used cameos for different reasons. Soldiers put it on their helmet as a decoration, Napoleon wore it on his wedding and on his coronation crown and Pope Paul II owned plenty of cameo rings.
From the end of the 16th century, women started wearing cameos as jewelry. Travel to Italy and Pompeii started around that period, and women bought lava cameos as a souvenir. It was a status symbol to take home, following the example of Queen Elizabeth. Italy is still one of the main producers of cameos in the world.
There was a second cameo fashion trend around the 19th century thanks to Queen Victoria. By then, cameos were made from shell and hence less expensive. This implied that a larger audience could afford one, which increased its popularity.
In her book ‘Cameos Old & New’, Anna Miller describes the history of cameos in detail, in case you want to know more about it.
Production of a hand-made cameo
A cameo is a delicate and tiny work of art, which actually qualifies the carving artisans as artists. Not only does the carver need to be able to draw very well, he also needs a very stable hand. Due to the manual carving, hand-made cameos show some small imperfections and are therefore always unique. This also implies that the left and right of a set of cufflinks or earrings will slightly differ. At Eredi di Jovon, all cameos, also the customized ones, are made by hand.
Unfortunately, nowadays, most cameos are made with laser technology. This makes the details more accurate and allows to produce faster and in series, but the cameo loses the artisanal aspect. Check carefully if you want to be sure you are buying a hand-made cameo.
1. Selection of the materials
Most cameos are made of shell, which shows the sculpture on a red (corniola) or brown (sardonico) background. Blue cameos are made of agate and have a modern look. As the agate in itself is white, they are dyed to create the coloured background.
Other materials which can be used are lavic stone, coral or turquoise. These are monochromatic and hence don’t have a contrast between the image and the background. In this case, the sculpture itself becomes even more important. Finally, mother of pearl exists in one colour, but it has sometimes different shades of black which can be used to create contrast.
As a first step, the carver has to select which part of the material he will use for the cameo. If there’s a fault in the material, such as a bump, he has to decide whether he will avoid this spot or include it to enhance the design.
Afterwards, the shell or other material must be prepared for the carving. It must be cut, shaped and rounded before it is attached to a support. This allows the artisan to hold it firmly while working on it.
The artisan first draws a draft of the image, either on paper or on the material itself. Then it’s time for the most difficult step. To carve away the unnecessary parts and to reveal the image, the artisan uses approx. 20 different sharp tools. These are called bulino in Italian. In the past, the artisans used more than 40 tools with different sizes of edges. This allowed them to add more in-depth details to the cameo.
Carving is a very delicate step and requires a lot of practice and experience. You cannot afford to make a mistake, or you lose the entire material. At Eredi Jovon, the carving itself is therefore no longer done in the shop, but in a separate workshop. This makes it possible to concentrate better on the work.
Finally, the end result is set by a goldsmith on a silver or golden frame, so you can wear it as a ring, pendant or cufflinks.
The Jovon family originates from Naples and is now at its third generation of cameo carvers in Venice. The full name ‘Eredi di Jovon Bruno’ means ‘The Heirs of Jovon Bruno’. The name is a bit confusing, as the business was actually started in 1934 by Luciano, the grandfather. The shop on the Rialto bridge opened its doors in 1961. Bruno is the father of Marco and Alessio and the uncle of Mimmo, who are now the master cameo carvers of the family. They split their time between the shop, to be in contact with the customers, and the workshop, to create the cameos. They are still supported by the experience of Gabriella, their mother and aunt, and of Giorgio, their ‘adopted’ uncle. The shells they use for the cameos originate from Madagascar (corniola) and the Caribbean (sardonico).
You can find their shop on the steps of the Rialto bridge. You can also order online, even the customized cameos, as they ship worldwide. Or you can do as I did and order it online to pick it up on your next trip to Venice.
You can find more information on cameos, tricks to recognize a real one from a fake one and tips on how to estimate the value of an old camo in the (free) ebook available via their website.
I want to thank Marco Jovon for his advice and for explaining me all the insights of cameo carving. I really enjoyed it. Next time I will admire a cameo in Venice, I will appreciate its beauty even more.
This is the first article in a series on Venetian artisans. If you want to be informed about new articles, you can subscribe to the biweekly newsletter.
Good luck with your cameo!
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