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The cameo is a jewel, of course, but first of all it is an artistic work, a small bas-relief carved on precious stones (mainly onyx) or on shells (particularly the Cypraecassis rufa, the Cassis madascarensis and the Cassis cornuta), both characterized by layers of different colours, which are suitable to engraving.

The term derives from the Arabic word gama'il (flower bud), evolving into the ancient French name camaheu.

The art of carving little ornamental objects (Glyptic) is very old, dating back to the classical period, mostly practised on semi-precious stones such as agate, quartz, carnelian, onyx, etc.

Only later the stones were replaced by shells, similar in appearance, but much softer and easier to be worked. The shell consists of two layers: the first, white or ivory coloured, is removed with small carving tools, the "chisels", to obtain the subject to reproduce. The second is the dark part of the shell, which will be the background to the figure engraved. The result is a small bas-relief very similar to the " Stiacciato " technique introduced by Donatello, with special light effects given by the two colors of the shells. The shells most widely used are basically two types :

• the "Cypraecassis rufa", ivory/orange, fished mainly along the coasts of Madagascar, commonly called "cornelian".
• the " Cassis madagascariensis", white/brown, fished all over the Caribbean basin, commonly known as " sardonic ".

Being a jewel, the cameo can be made also of other materials such as coral, mother of pearl, turquoise, ivory, etc.


Though some finds dating back to more than two thousand years ago witness the ancient origin of the art of engraving hard stones, there is no evidence of the working on shells till the sixteenth century , as testified by some shell cameos kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

What is certain, anyway, is that the history of the art of cameo engraving, since the nineteenth century, leads to Torre del Greco, a town in the Gulf of Naples, where it flourished along with coral working, widely developing in the same period.

The growing success of shell engraving was favoured by two factors:

• the arrival of large quantities of shells, used as ballast on the ships sailing from Africa with empty holds.
• The crisis of coral working between 1875 and 1880, due to the discovery of rich coral reefs in Sciacca (off the southern coast of Sicily) which caused not only the saturation of the market, but also the decline of this type of manufacture.

To overcome the difficult moment, therefore, Torre del Greco factories decided to employ new materials and to vary the range of products. The operation proved to be successful, and in the following years there was a rapid increase in the production of shell cameos, enriched with a wider choice of subjects engraved: female figures, cherubs, mythological scenes.

Today the cameo production has deeply transformed. From the old Victorian ornament the cameo has become the result of careful stylistic revisions and techniques, able to reproduce any type of design: figurative models, vegetables, animals, fantasy, geometric lines, etc.


The first phase of cameo working (which is still handmade) is the choice of the shell to be engraved. It is apparently simple, but it requires an expert eye, able to catch what is not visible at first sight; only a shell well selected, in fact, allows the engraver to have a suitable, consistent, beautifully coloured material to be carved.

Chosen the shell, he or she starts the "scoppatura", i.e. the cut of the upper and most convex part of the shell, called "cup". Once this operation was carried out with a lathe without teeth, covered with emery, and water, while today is done using a saw with a diamond blade and water cooling.

The following phase is the "segnatura", consisting in drawing the shape to cut in the inner part of the cup. With the aid of a special grinding wheel, the engraver gives the shell pieces the desired shape (generally oval or round): this phase is called "aggarbatura", since it has as the purpose of "refining" and modelling the piece. The pieces obtained are then fixed on a wooden spindle by hot mastic consisting of colophony or Greek pitch, beeswax and plaster (commissioning pitch). The preparatory phase concludes with the "scrostatura", namely abrasion: the surface of the shell piece is scraped off by a carborundum grinding wheel, so as to leave it clean and smooth, ready to be engraved.

The choice of the subject to reproduce must be adapted to the characteristics of the shell, its size, shape, protrusions and irregular features of its surface. First the design is outlined by thick-tipped chisels (abbozzatura), then, using thinner chisels of various sizes the figures are engraved in details (incisione) and finally refined (rifinitura). Once finished, the cameo is polished with pumice and oil to make its surface smoother (pulitura/lucidatura) and then washed with water and detergent; to give it a glossy appearance, it is left in oil for some time. Finally the piece is washed with warm water and soap, and dried with a white linen cloth.

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