A cameo is a layered medium in which a design is carved in relief. The lighter coloured layer is used for the figure. The reverse process, with an incised image, is called intaglio.
The Ancient Romans used intaglios as seals as well as for decoration.
During the Renaissance, cameo brooches and rings were worn by royalty and members of the clergy.
The excavation of Pompeii early in the 19th century reawakened interest in cameos. This was enhanced by Queen Victoria’s penchant for wearing cameos and giving them as gifts. The main centre for the production of cameos during the Victorian period was southern Italy.
Various kinds of shell became the preferred medium for making cameos, overtaking the earlier preference for hardstone and agate. The most common shell used was conch which is characterised by a light-coloured layer on a pink to deep orange background. Minutely detailed graceful ladies and biblical scenes were the most popular subjects.
The area around Naples has an abundance of coral which was also often used for making cameos by craftsmen in that area.
Around the middle of the 19th century, cameos made from the lava of Mt Vesuvius were popular souvenirs of the “Grand Tour”