By Danielle Olivia Tefft, Jewelry Writer
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a cameo is the real deal or not. And because this beloved form of jewelry has been around for centuries, there are new cameos in old frames and vice versa, which makes identification even harder!
Nevertheless, there are some tried and true methods of distinguishing real shell cameos from imposters. I previously published an article entitled,“Is That Cameo Real or Fake?” It lists seven tips for distinguishing between shell cameos and plastic or resin imposters.
But suppose you are out “in the field” and you want to make sure you are buying a real shell cameo. Your two best tools will be bright light and a jeweler’s 10X magnifying loupe.
Let me show you how to be your own cameo detective! For this lesson, I have three cameos that I recently purchased. They are shown in the first photo of this article. The large cameo has a gold-tone frame. It’s probably from the 1950s or later. The cameo with the fancy, scrolled gold-filled frame looks Victorian-at least the frame is Victorian style (circa 1890) and probably hand made. The third cameo has an Art Deco look to both the frame with its geometric panels and the lady’s hair which is definitely a short bob like flappers used to wear in the roaring 1920s.
First, I looked at all three cameos through bright light-both sunlight and lamplight. You can look through the front or back, but the back is usually easier to see through. I’ve shown both scenarios in the photos below:
You can clearly see through the large cameo and the Art Deco cameo. However, you can’t see through the cameo with the ornate Victorian frame. That’s the first clue that this cameo might not be made of shell.
Next, we look at the three cameos through a jeweler’s 10X loupe. If you don’t have one, you can find them online for under $10. I highly recommend that you carry one whenever you are on a jewelry buying trip!
You can clearly see carving marks on the 1950’s cameo and the Art Deco cameo. There are no carving marks on the supposedly Victorian cameo. In fact, you can actually see that the peachy shell color background has actually been painted on, as it is chipping is tiny spots along the edges. In addition, you can tell that someone painted on dabs of darker color on the cameo’s hair and torso to represent darker shell layers that would be exposed in a true cameo upon carving.
We have two real cameos (large and Art Deco) and one imposter. But it is a clever imposter. It is a plastic, painted cameo probably from the 1940s in a genuine Victorian frame from the 1890s.
Ok, to be fair, you might need to research how old your cameos are. I’ve been a jewelry “nerd” for years, so I can more easily deduce this information. But now you know how to tell if a cameo is real on the fly, regardless of its age! And unless a plastic cameo is Bakelite or some collector rarity, a real shell cameo is almost always worth more. (A word of caution: The higher the asking price, the more unscrupulous some sellers might become. For instance, dishonest dealers are capable of putting fake “carving” marks on plastic cameos to try to fool you. My advice is to stick with cameos under $100 until you really get a feel for what true carving marks and genuine shell cameos look like. Then, expand your collection with pricier pieces.)
How much are cameos worth? What makes one cameo more valuable than another? We’ll cover those topics in future articles!
Let us know in the comments section if this article was useful to you! And if you love vintage and antique jewelry as much as we do, please subscribe to this blog.
Danielle Olivia Tefft is a professional writer with a lifelong passion for gems, jewelry and fashion. She is a GIA accredited jewelry professional and the owner of online antique and vintage jewelry shop, Treasure Box Antiques. Current projects include ghostwriting jewelry and fashion blogs for clients worldwide. When she is not writing, she spends time in the garden, spoiling her cats and traveling with her significant other. Would you like to hire her to write for you? Visit her website danielleoliviatefftwrites.com for clips, terms and more information.
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