Cameo: Portrait on a Shell
First, we must travel to Torre del Greco, Italy. Nestled between the foot of Mount Vesuvio and the Mediterranean Sea lies the capital city of coral and cameos, overlooking the bay of Naples. The population of this Italian community has grown to more than 100,000 -- no fewer than 5,000 participate in the development of cameos and coral designs.
Exquisite cameos and workings in coral and gold leave this quiet community daily and travel around the globe. Vesuvius's lava fields prevented the natives from working the land. Fortunately the Torresi waters were filled with coral forest and reefs. They not only engaged in the traditional occupations of sailing and shipbuilding, but also in coral and shell diving. There is easy access to three great natural resources utilized for cameo carving: lava, coral and conch shells. Cameos made from these materials became very popular all around the world in the years following the 15th century.
The creative process for the cameo begins in the seas where the shell divers appropriately select specimens from 90 to 100 feet below the water's surface. The divers' harvest journeys to the shops of craftsmen in Torre del Greco where the artist painstakingly searches for sea shells free of flaws and cracks. A new dimension of artistic skill and aesthetic appeal was added to cameo carving when it was discovered that many stones - and later, shells - were made of different colored layers. This allowed the artist to create a striking contrast between the raised (relief) layer and the flat (background) layer. Although modern machinery now assists in the initial stages of the process, the intricate details are still carved by hand.
The individual piece to engrave is mounted with wax on a wooden stick. After having sketched a picture of what he intends to carve, the engraving begins using steel burins. The goldsmith work is strictly hand-made and the techniques used are part of the most remarkable Neapolitan and Italian artistic tradition. Gold frames, like cameos themselves, are created in all shapes and sizes, the most popular being the oval. A gold metal ribbon (bezel or gallery wire) is wrapped around the perimeter and folded over the edge of each single cameo. In this fashion no two can be exactly alike in their curvature, thickness and contour. The bezel is then surrounded by the most decorative part of the frame: gold-moldings, twisted ribbons, double wire braids, mixed ropes, strings of pearls, hallow-cane, etc., and embellished with filigree patterns, or diamond settings.
Every single Cameo has a history in itself--an exemplary story of devotion and sacrifices of a long and hard apprenticeship. It's a rigorous selection where fantasy, creativity and knowledge of the drawing are essential to give life to cameos narrated in only 2 mm of thickness, such as these pictured here.
SHELL CAMEOS CARE
To prevent damage and corrosion to the frame, cameo jewelry should be stored in a secure, clean and dry place. Even gold frames become tarnished due to pollution and oxidation of the alloys in the metal. Careful storage can retard this natural process as well as prevent shells from becoming chipped. Cleaning cameos is simple. A gentle scrubbing with a soft bristle toothbrush in a mild soap and water solution is the most popular method. It should be rinsed off immediately and thoroughly with warm water. Never soak shell cameos or "soft" stones in any cleaning solution for more than 30 seconds. After cleaning you need to moisturize. This is done, preferably, with a fine oil such as mineral or baby oil applied with a Q-tip. It should be allowed to "soak " for a few hours or overnight. Then, wipe off any excess oil that visually remains. This process should be performed once or twice a year,
Since ancient times, cameos have been prized by collectors and
jewelers. Cameos are more than just jewelry. They are a personal item to be cherished.
Each one has its own uniqueness. A true cameo speaks to you with its eyes. The
craftsmanship gives it a life and personality all its own.
The most beautiful cameo I have ever seen
was resting on its pedestal in a local jewelry store. When I first saw it, all encased in
glass, I felt an immediate connection to the past. As if this beautifully carved creature
was somehow related to me. I left the shop thinking of her. You see, that simple piece of
jewelry had become more
I have named her Victoria. When she is