Designed by Mike Stillwell
Remember when everyone thought cameos were old fashioned? When you sold all the brooches your aunt used to wear to keep her cardigan closed? Well, last week Rihanna released a cameo collection. You might want to reconsider.
Rihanna herself has been a supporter of the cameo resurgence—she is often photographed wearing a black and white carved cameo ring by designer Jacquie Aiche. Her new line of jewelry for Fenty—a set of rings, earrings, and pendants—are created from black resin and glass and embellished in Swarovski crystals and pearls. The cameo pieces honor “a new more contemporary heroine” and were presented in a series of “family portraits” by Nigerian-raised, Yorkshire-based photographer Ruth Ossai.
The same day the Fenty cameos were released, I found myself at the Wartski booth at TEFAF Art Fair in New York, where two royal seals hang above me. One says “By Appointment to her Majesty the Queen” the other says “By Appointment to H.R.H The Prince of Wales.”
Wartski is known for Faberge pieces with direct ties to the Russian royals and for making the wedding rings for Charles and Camilla and William and Kate. They also happen to have one of the world’s best ancient cameo collections for sale. And when I stopped there on Thursday, there were crowds surrounding it, looking to buy. Was it the Rihanna effect?
Thomas Holman, director of Wartski—who was fresh from curating their Engraved Gems exhibit in London—seemed pleased by the idea. When you work in the ancient arts, support of them by contemporary icons is always appreciated. The history of cameos (and Holman knows it all) reveals something some of us have suspected all along: cameos always had cool within them. Sometimes it just needs to be carved out again.
It was of course Amedeo Scognamiglio who first launched the cameo revolution when he brought his family’s centuries old craft to Bergdorf’s with “See No Evil” and skull ring cameos. And this summer Liz Swig collaborated with artists Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie on a series of whimsical pieces now available through the Gagosian Gallery. But did we know these engraved stones were the first campaign buttons? The first “I went on the Grand Tour and all I brought back was this brooch” t-shirts?
“Cameos are born out of the traditional of the intaglio, which races back to ancient Mesopotamia,” Holman explains. “In the Hellenistic period we begin to see that art evolve into the cameo as an artistic endeavor, as portraits of notable figures rather than for purely practical purposes.” (Intaglios were often uses as official seals.)
“Leaders often had cameos of themselves made and then offered to their most loyal supporters as thanks and also as a badge of allegiance. Elizabeth I did this often as did George IV,” Holman explains. “And it was all seen as prophetic. If a carver began working on a stone and a profile emerged out of the agate that resembled the leader, then it was meant to be, it was always there.”
They were often talismanic as well, so a wine merchant might wear a cameo of Bacchus or Dionysus. In the 19th century, the tradition of the shell cameo emerged in Naples, opening the art to a slightly wider audience that may have found agate cameos too difficult to source or too expensive (agate cameos remain the Holy Grail). This coincided with the height of travel around Europe, particularly to ancient sites known as the Grand Tour, and cameos depicting classical heroes or myths become the ultimate souvenir. (Sorry if all you got was a key chain).
The mounting of cameos as jewelry, rather than merely as loose engraved stones, also became fashionable in the 19th century (see the stomacher of the Devonshire Parure). I could listen to Holman talk about the Medici’s epic cameo, the influence Canova had on the form, and King George IV’s Brain Cup and “very acquisitive nature” for hours, but right now there are 19th century oval shaped brooches of Leda and the Swan and Hercules staring right at me in the face.