Cameos have been a beguiling artform since antiquity. We get a sense of primeval life by observing the tableaux depicted in ancient carvings of everyday life and mythology from these early cameos. Traditionally cameo material was agate or shell. These materials have layers of distinct color banding which allows carvers to recreate realistic depth by cutting away a layer and exposing its alternate color beneath which aids with depth perception.
Souvenirs of the Grand Tour
But there is also a fascinating subset of cameos that emerged at the dawn of the 19th century. During that era, Europeans and well-heeled Americans enthusiastically embarked on the Grand Tour. In those days, pre mobile phone cameras, the eager tourists would bring back meaningful souvenirs of their trips – thereby showing proof of their lavish holidays.
During this time – and because tourists flocked to Italy’s Amalfi coast – an amusing trend for lava cameos emerged. They are distinguished from other cameo types by the material used in creating these miniature works of art. Visitors flocked to Pompeii – whose fascinating ruins over an entire region were buried in lava and volcanic ash when Mt. Vesuvius blew in 79 AD.
The abundant (and we mean abundant) lava, settling several feet deep and miles wide, offered carvers a unique material with which to carve lovely mementos of one’s visit to this exotic locale. Wearing this lava jewelry when travelers returned home was a lovely and stylish way to prove they’d just returned from an extravagant holiday.
Unique Traits of Lava Cameos
While shell or agate cameos have little actual depth to their carvings, the banded areas cut away help create the sense of depth so they don’t have to be that deep to depict a human profile or animals, or other motifs.
With lava cameos, you have tremendous depth of carving – astounding depth for a small item actually. The reason for this is two-fold. One is the nature of the material – the abundant and sizable lava rock gives carvers plenty of stone to work with. Secondly, the lava material is all one color. Lava cameos come in a wide array of earth tones, like creamy beige, nearly black, greys of all shades, and some russet shades as well.
There’s no carving away to reveal a different banded hue underneath that would help provide shape and perspective like shells and agates do. So, with this monochromatic lava stone, one should carve greater depth in their depictions to give the design realism and vivid dimensionality.
Yes, these cameos were originally sold near Pompeii for visitors to commemorate their trip to the Pompeiian ruins. And they enjoyed great popularity for years because it flaunted one’s wealth by virtue of their tell-tale place of sale. As the 19th century drew to a close, and people began recording their junkets with cameras and mailing envy-making postcards to friends back home, the lava cameo slowly lost its story-telling luster.
What are Lava Cameos, really?
A bit of disclosure is warranted here. While these little carvings are named lava cameos owing to the rocklike material they were carved from, and the place of their origin, some jewelry experts tell us they aren’t exactly lava in the strictest sense. Rather, these charming cameos are made from an abundant material called tuff, or even welded tuff. Some historians call the material volcanic breccia. So then, lava is cooled and hardened magma pouring out of a volcanic opening. Tuff would be a type of rock formed by volcanic ash ejected from a vent into the air during an eruption. Whatever it is, we won’t split hairs. They are forever known as lava cameos and we love them for their quirky ‘muddy’ colors, their deep chiaroscuro and their artistic contribution to the world of beautiful adornment.
Here’s one jewelry type with stories galore – why not pique your customer’s sense of intrigue by introducing them to lava cameos? Owing to their often-large sizes, the lava cameo is a good fit for the modern collector. The neutral colors of lava cameo material allow modern designers to create contemporary jewelry that is at once eye catching and full of back-stories.