Friday, March 22, 2013

SHELL CAMEOS Carving Quality Illustrated

Over the last two weeks, I've had a large collection of mid-20th century shell cameos consigned to me for sale.  All of them involved the classic feminine profile, whether goddess, flapper or ponytailed teenager.  A wide range of carving quality was represented, from primitive to masterful.  But I am going to be careful to add that "primitive" does not necessarily mean "inferior" or "undesirable", because I think all of them can lay claim to their own charm.  Of course, more masterful carvings of delicacy and detail will have collector interest and a higher monetary value, the desire to own one rising from the fact that you simply can't take your eyes off of it--and that's worth something!  Perhaps more general carvings, with less refinement, serve the purposes of fashion better, and make a quickly telegraphed statement of "rockin' a vintage look today" with far more panache.

In the cameos I'm featuring here,  the predominant material used is that of  cassis rufa (carnelian shell), followed by abalone shell.  Shell is relatively soft (3.5 on the Moh's scale of hardness) and therefore easily carved.   However, the very attribute of relative softness that makes shells so easy and accessible to carve, also increases the difficulty in achieving the high precision and delicacy that masterful carving exhibits.  (Think of the easy difficulty of carving a bar of soap!)  The softness of the shell also contributes to details being worn smooth with frequent handling. 

Comparatively, harder gemstones like chalcedony (onyx, sardonyx) are more difficult to carve (being a 7 on the Moh's scale) but are also more likely to have higher definition and detail.  Their greater durability makes smoothed-down wear less likely, but noses or other prominent features are prone to chips or damage.  By the way, carvings from harder materials should be judged on their own merits.  But the discussion of hardstone cameos is another onto the gallery of ladies in shell:

A costume pin from the 1950s, in a Rococo gold plated frame, with a  rough carving.  c GENO (Richilieu Company)  Notice the hairstyle from the period.  Replacement value, approx. $20

To the right are two photographs of cameos carved from abalone shell.  These date from the 1940s-1950s and are Italian, set in 0.800 fine silver.   Items like these have been popular tourist choices for years, and many were gifts to sweethearts, mothers and sisters from soldiers serving in Italy during World War II.

The top picture depicts two links in an eight-link bracelet, with a replacement value of about $50.  The bottom abalone cameo is twice the size, and has a replacement value of about $75. Smaller sizes are also generally less valuable than larger.

By the way, the powdery dust of abalone shell created in the cutting process is highly toxic to breathe or if absorbed into the skin, and makes carving abalone cameos challenging and potentially hazardous.  Yet another reason to appreciate the work of these cameo artists.

Cameo en habille "dressed in jewelry" this case a
an old mine cut diamond!

This cameo (on the left) has seen much love, to the extent that the details of the carving are worn quite smooth.  This is very common with cameos carved from soft materials like shell, when worn in rings.  If you see one with this much wear in a brooch, it is highly likely that brooch was worn daily for years, and lovingly transferred from dress to dress.  

This particular ring is very interesting for another reason: the  cameo is hiding a secret compartment.  Dating from the late 1920s, this is a flapper's poison ring!  With imaginations fueled by films featuring adventurous women leading lives of reckless abandon,  posion rings were de riguer!  (Think Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, 1931).

By the way, the ring is 14K white gold.  Alloying yellow gold with metals to transform it to a white color for mass production was a technical achievement around 1918, with the first pieces made in 18K.  Don't be fooled by people telling you a ring or a pin like this in white gold is "mid to late 19th century"!

Here are two lovely un-set cameos.  The one on the right features the goddess Diana (Artemis, also known as Cynthia)...the identification made possible by the crescent moon in her hair.  These cameos, despite their 19th century appearance, are still probably mid-20th century.  The slightly upturned noses are a clue for dating to this period.

The detail on them is alluring...and the fact that they are each only about 3/4" in length makes them very special.  Most shell cameos carved with this much delicacy will be larger.  The one below measures 2" in length.

Also a mid-20th century cameo, set in brass.  Nicely carved.
Replacement value, approx. $175

This cameo is also Italian (since 95% of shell cameos are, in fact, Italian, I am not going out on a limb here) and also dating from the World War II period.  The hairstyle evokes the 1860s, another war, and is a subtle reference to an extremely popular book and movie that made cameos enjoy one of their regular cyclical comebacks.  I am speaking, of course, of Gone With The Wind, a huge influence on fashion jewelry of the time.  The book was published in 1936, won the Pulitzer Price for author Margaret Mitchell in 1937, and was made into a Technicolor blockbuster in 1939. Many of the cameos I'm featuring here probably owe their existence to the demand for "Nouveau Victorian" accessories inspired by GWTW.

Here is an example of two cameos of the same subject, the Virgin Mary, each with their own attributes of beauty and charm.  The one at the bottom has a greater sense of refinement to her features--a more mature appearance, suggesting peace in the midst of deep sorrow. But the one on the top uses the layers of shell to such wonderful advantage, creating the illusion of luminous halos.  The Madonna looks like the young teenager she was thought to be.  Even with a primitive suggestion of features, the Infant certainly adds to the desirability as well.

Which one do you like better?  Would it interest you to know that the top one sold for about half what the bottom one did (on eBay)?

Two examples of earrings.  The top pair are carved from Queen Conch shell, which can be identified by its light, creamy pink color.  (Be careful, though: in this same collection was a cameo stickpin in white molded glass, with light pink paint surrounding the profile.  Magnification made this obvious).

Notice the top pair are facing the same direction; most earrings  will depict the profiles in left and right directions.  One of the attributes of earrings that I personally like are that the "matched" pair usually look like sisters--similar but not quite the same.

"Sweetheart" Bracelet, made by D.F. Briggs Co of Attleboro, Mass, circa 1940s.
The most common shape for a cameo is an oval, but once in awhile you will see something like this cameo carved in a heart shape.  She's got quite the "ski-slope"!  Noses are often a good indicator of relative carving quality.  Despite the awkward appearance of her features, the cameo in this CARMEN expansion bracelet by DF Briggs Company is  unusual and appealing.  Approximate replacement value, about $125.

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