Vintage or antique cameos are highly collectible and are available on sites such as eBay. However, reproduction cameos and fashion jewellery are also common. It is important to know how to tell a real cameo from a fake one when looking for pieces to add to a collection. There are several methods to use when trying to date and value a cameo, most of which involve determining the material and method of carving.
A cameo is a piece of jewellery, often oval-shaped, where the design stands out from the background. Usually they depict a figure or figures, most often a woman's silhouette, or a piece of scenery. Cameos are found in many different forms, including rings, pendants, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. Historically, a variety of materials used to make cameos included onyx and agate in Ancient and Renaissance periods and, more recently, shell and glass.
Cameos became particularly fashionable in the second half of the nineteenth century. During this time, there was a discovery of cameos made from new shells in the West Indies, such as conch shells. They became popular souvenirs of the Grand Tour, a tour of Europe largely taken by the young middle classes.
Determining If a Cameo Is Real
There are various ways to better determine if a cameo is real or fake. These ways include studying the surface both visually and by touch, utilising a hot needle method, and checking the jewellery's setting.
Taking a close look at the surface of a cameo helps to determine its material and the method used to make it. With the bare eye, it is possible to take the first step, which is to see if the surface is matte or glossy. A genuine cameo, made from shell, has a matte look, whereas a modern plastic one is likely to be shiny. Turn the back of the cameo over to inspect it. A shell cameo has a curved back, and it should be possible to see the raised design from the back when held to a strong light.
If a tool to inspect the cameo is available, such as a strong magnifying glass or jeweller's loupe, look more closely at the cameo's surface. A genuine cameo often has tool marks, whereas an imposter has a much smoother finish.
Feel the Cameo Carefully
Feeling the surface of a cameo also helps to verify its authenticity. A cameo made from shell, glass, or gemstone feels cooler to the touch than plastic. It is best to touch the cameo to the arm, rather than touch with fingers or hands. Modern cameos made using laser cutting may also feel slightly rougher to the touch. It is possible to tap a cameo against the teeth to determine their material, but this could cause damage to both cameo and teeth.
Hot Needle Method
Another method of testing the material of a cameo is with a hot needle. Using caution, heat a needle with a flame and touch it to a specific part of the cameo. If it is plastic, the needle melts through, whereas shell or stone are not affected. However, this method may not be reliable, as a needle cannot pass through a newer cameo made with a harder resin.
Check the Jewellery's Setting
Although it is possible to repair a piece of cameo jewellery with a new clasp or other finding, those trying to date a piece can use them to help. For example, a plain C-clasp on a brooch, where the pin simply hooks under the clasp, may indicate an older brooch. For a gold or silver ring, check for a hallmark or carat weight.
How to Buy Real Cameos on eBay
To search for cameos on eBay, choose a type of jewellery to look for. For example, rather than simply searching for 'cameos,' perform a search for 'cameo brooch' or 'cameo ring.' A good listing provides detailed photos and a detailed description. Use the photos, in particular, to get a good look at the cameo before buying. Although you may not always be able to feel and look at the piece up close, some of the above techniques are useful. Local sellers may agree to an in-person pickup.