Cameos are arguably some of the most captivating types of jewelry you can find anywhere. One look at them, and it is not hard to see why.
The critical aesthetic trait that sets cameos apart from the rest of the competition is their portrayal of relief (where some parts of the piece’s landscape are higher than others while some have more depth than the rest of the surface) which creates hyper-realistic pieces that better mirror real-world imagery than most other jewelry types.
Their portrayal of relief gives cameos a marked topography which makes them look more like sculptures than other regular jewelry types.
Cameos are indeed sculptures. They are small-scale sculptures crafted on unique jewel stones like agate, onyx, and sardonyx, which contain banded rocks with varied coloration on each layer. When parts of the top layer get chipped off during the sculpting process, you end up with a distinctive, eye-catching multi-layered design that is sure to impress.
Ancient cameos often contained portraits of gods, other religious figures, notable persons and mythological creatures. However, today, the subject for cameo design now expands to include everything from traditional face profiles to modern tropes and whimsical imagery.
Cameos can be set in earrings, bracelets, brooches, rings, pins, watch fobs, or feature in decorative plaques or other ornamental items.
With their distinctive look and impressively eye-catching aesthetic, it is no surprise that cameos have appeared in various cultures throughout time, reaching as far back as to thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt.
Cameos were commonplace in the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great (3rd Century B.C.) and the Roman empire, where they often featured cultural themes, mythological tropes, and religious figures and, as such, were an excellent choice for symbolic jewelry.
However, it is the highly detailed cameos made during the Renaissance and their avid collection by notable figures like Pope Paul II and members of the Medici family that set the tone for what is now considered high-end cameos.
While cameos can still be found to suit all budgets today, it is the pieces at the top of the price spectrum that showcase the sublime artistry that is possible with this unique medium.
While expensive cameos get all the eyeballs, there is no shortage of lower-priced genuine hand-carved cameos on the market. The critical determinants of the price of a cameo piece is the material used and the level of artistry employed in making that piece.
Stone (agate, sardonyx, onyx, cornelian, etc.) cameos are typically the most expensive, mainly when a renowned artist carves them. Alternative materials such as shells, corals, and glass typically present significantly more affordable prices, especially when crafted by less prominent artists.
Not willing to go all out on a cameo? Faux cameos are molded cameo-like pieces made from resin, bakelite, celluloid, or thermoplastic that recreate a similar effect at entry-level pricing.
If you want to understand all the buzz about cameos in the jewelry world, nothing will educate you better than a perusal of this list of the current most valuable cameos in the world.
The 14 Most Valuable Cameos in the World
1. Gold-mounted Agate Cameo of Jahangir: Last Realized Price: $350,000
Cameos are one of those few jewelry types that lends themselves perfectly to portraits of both imaginary and natural objects and persons.
Unsurprisingly, throughout art history, this unique feature has led to the production of massive amounts of cameos with personal profiles, especially without those of prominent people of the time.
While an overwhelming amount of the best of these works has been lost to history, a handful of them, including this majestic piece, remain to tell the story and attract prices worthy of their top-tier artistry and rarity.
This rare piece is a carved agate cameo that depicts Nur-ud-Din Muhammad Salim (also known as his imperial name Jahangir), the fourth Mughal Emperor, who ruled the empire for 22 years from 1605 until his death in 1627.
The Mughal empire had several ties to European (especially merchant companies) during the later stages of its existence, and this relationship carries over in art.
Consequently, cameos of Mughal monarchs, like this one, follow the styles of the Renaissance and are thought to be produced by European lapidaries working in the Mughal Royal court or European artists producing European jewels for export to the Mughal empire.
This piece depicting Jahangir is one of the few examples of this European connection. Other famous examples include a sardonyx cameo of Shah Jahan by a European craftsman at the Mughal court and an agate cameo portrait with a ruby surround in the Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.
This piece is worthy of an emperor as it is completed with some skill on an agate stone of premier quality that lends itself perfectly to the art. The two-tone carved stone is also set in a pure gold pendant mount. The mount’s reverse is engraved with patterned flowers.
2. “The Attack” by the Woodall Brothers: Last Realized Price: $263,500
The current world record for the most expensive cameo ever sold belongs to “The Attack” , a piece by 19th Century British brothers Thomas and George Woodall.
“The Attack” is a Romanesque cameo on a 17-inch glass plaque that shows a nymph from Greek mythology being snuck up upon by two small flying cupids in a traditional classical Greek setting.
“The Attack” has a companion piece also produced by the Woodall brothers called “The Intruders,” which has the same aesthetic and similar elements but in different poses.
The piece is one of the finest pieces of cameo that exists today, featuring some of the highest levels of artistry possible in the world of cameo carving. It also represents the pinnacle of the Woodall brothers’ skill, and that in itself is no small achievement.
The Woodall brothers were the premier English cameo carvers of their time, and some of the most heralded cameo carvers from the past few centuries.
Both brothers honed their skills in the craft by working as apprentices for Philip Pargeter and John Northwood, two men that were key in the revival of Roman-style cameo glass crafting in the 19th century. At the end of their apprenticeship,
Thomas Woodall took cameo carving head-on, going on to work for Thomas Webb & Sons, becoming the manager of their cameo operations, and overseeing the production of thousands of commercial cameo pieces. However, his brother George was more preoccupied with championing social reform in Britain and only kept carving cameos on the side.
Nevertheless, over the years, the brothers always found time to get together and work on pieces of decorative larger cameo plaques.
“The Attack is one such piece, the last one they ever collaborated on amidst straining relations in their later years.
With this wealth of history behind this plaque and the high-end craftsmanship employed in its production, it is no surprise that the piece pulls a heavy ransom on the open market. The Chrysler Museum purchased the “The Attack” in May 2014 for around $260,000, setting the world record (at the time) for the most expensive piece of cameo ever sold.
3. Antique Emerald Cameo and Diamond Brooch: Last Realized Price: $150,000
Diamonds are forever, and they are not ever going to be inexpensive. While you can find high-end lavish jewelry across the board, no jewelry type screams luxury better than ones with diamonds in it, and this antique piece is a testament to that.
While there is very little information about the origins of this piece, its set of precious materials is enough to warrant its high price.
The centerpiece is a large, cushion-cut emerald carved to depict the silhouette of a woman’s head against a backdrop of leaves. This center stone is set in an elaborate, carved, patterned, and speckled platinum mount, which also houses 8 variable-sized rose-cut diamonds.
This antique emerald and diamond brooch is part of a private midwest collection. The piece was made in 1910 and sold at auction for $150,000 in December 2020.
4. Collection of Antique Hardstone Cameos by Girometti and Cerbara
As we established already with the cameo of Jahangir, cameos are a godsend for creating jewelry that mirrors human likeness, paying homage to people of repute. No selection of jewelry pieces exemplifies this fact better than this rare collection of headshots by celebrated Italian carvers Giuseppe Girometti and Gian Battista Cerbara.
The collection is an assemblage of twenty individual cameo pieces, all in the same simple stylistic language—white raised relief of the portrait against a black backdrop—and set in gold pendant frames.
Each of the cameos is carved on an onyx stone.
Pieces from this collection pay homage to various notable characters from different periods in history, including Aristotle, Socrates, Julio Caeser, and Cicero, amongst others.
However, it is their craftsmanship rather than their show of respect to historical figures that give the pieces in this collection their immense value.
These cameos are the work of Giuseppe Girometti, who was arguably the most celebrated metal and gemstone carver of his era (late 18th century to early 19th century.) Guiseppe comes from a family of accomplished gem carvers, and he was employed at the Papal Mint in 1822 by Sculptor Antonio Canova, Another neoclassical art giant.
Giuseppe’s father, Giovanni Battista Cerbara, and brother Nicola Cerbara are some of the other members of this family that also worked as medallists and gem engravers for the Mint in Rome.
Giuseppe Girometti’s supreme expertise in creating some of the best contemporary portraits possible also earned his the patronage of several prominent people during his lifetime, including King George IV of England, the King of Sardinia, The Grand-Duke of Tuscany, Prince Borghese, and Tsar Alexander I, Emperor of Russia.
5. Antique Cameo Bangle from the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor: Last Realized Price: $98,500
It is almost impossible to traverse the world of luxurious jewelry for any extended period of time without coming across the name Elizabeth Taylor.
The British-American, who was as famous for her beauty as she was for her roles in major movies like Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Little Women, also earned herself something of a legend in the jewelry world.
Her famed, unparalleled collection contained over 80 prized jewelry pieces, all of which deserve to be celebrated in their own right. The entire collection was put on auction by Christie’s after her death in 2011, raising a mind-blowing total sale price of over $150m.
This antique cameo bangle is one of the pieces that once belonged to this renowned jewelry collection.
Per the opulence of the rest of the pieces in this collection, this oval-shaped cameo is encircled by an alluring openwork enamel patterned foliate band, complete with rose-cut diamond inserts and an eye-catching green enamel snake, all mounted in gold.
The piece, which is displayed in an original black leather case with a few scuffs, sold for $98,500 as part of the auction of the Elizabeth Taylor collection.
6. Onyx Cameo of a Bearded Warrior: Last Realized Price: $92,000
This 18th-century cameo jewelry is an eye-catching piece with sublime aesthetics that is worth its ransom.
The main stone is an off-white tone oval onyx bearing a carving of the bust of a traditional Hellenistic warrior, complete with full regalia and headgear. The bearded warrior rocks a plumed helmet adorned with the image of a crouching big cat, while his epaulet and corselet show distorted markings to match the style of the feline atop the headgear.
For the mount, no expenses are spared, as the main stone sits inside an elaborate oval openwork gold frame patterned in the form of tendrils and fitted with twelve oval-colored precious rocks that encircle the cameo stone.
The piece’s provenance is also quite notable, as it was once part of the Marlborough Gems collection, created by George, the 4th Duke of Marlborough. This collection which contained around 800 items, is arguably the most important private collection of cameos that ever existed.
The piece sold from this collection originally for £357 in 1899 and resold at auction for $92,000 in 2009.
7. Group of Seven Oval Male Portrait Cameos: Last Realized Prize: $88,000
This selection features the creme de la creme of miniature cameos produced between the 16th and 18th centuries. The collection features 7 skillfully-crafted cameos that depict two emperors and other males from several historically relevant periods.
The 7 items in this collection are:
- A head of a Hellenistic prince rocking a diadem. This piece is carved on an agate stone and set in a gilt metal mount.
- A portrait of a young man carved on sard stone and set in a gilt metal mount
- The head of a young Roman boy carved on agate and mounted in a gold setting
- An agate cameo set in a gold mount depicting Emperor Hadrian
- A cameo carved on onyx and set in a gilt metal mount shows a young man with short wavy hair
- An onyx cameo in a gold mount portraying the profile of Alexander the Great
- An onyx cameo showing the bust of an emperor and set in a vermeil mount
Even this collection’s display mechanism helps further reinforce its premium feel.
All seven cameos sit inside an octagonal-shaped multi-colored marble background, which in turn is nested inside an ebony frame with infused hardstone panels.
While there are no indications of who the original artist(s) of this work is, the collection still packs an impressive provenance, which is part of the reason it sold for $88,000 in 2009.
This group of seven portraits originally belonged to Arthur Wellesley, 2nd Duke of Wellington, the eldest son of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who vanquished Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo.
8. Oval Sardonia Cameo of the Head of Medusa: Last Realized Price: $80,000
Very little information exists about this cameo piece today. However, this dearth of details is not enough to reduce this jewelry’s allure or stem its ability to grip you as you take your first gaze.
This striking piece features an oval-shaped cameo that portrays a medusa’s head carved upon an impressively aesthetic earthy-tone sardonia stone.
The portrait of the medusa head shows her in her traditional face forward position, the snakes that form her hair hissing, ready to strike, while her face is set in an almost blank expression, mouth open and eyes wide staring ahead.
The exquisitely-carved stone sits in an oval gold mount which in turn is nested inside an octagonal tiger agate background, which is enclosed in a gilt bronze frame, all of which match the earthy color scheme of the centerpiece.
The frame, which features a leaf pattern engraving, also houses four table-cut gemstones—two lapis lazuli and two carnelian plates.
This Oval Sardonia Cameo of the Head of Medusa brought in $80,000 at an auction held in 2009.
9. Opal Cameo of Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow: Last Realized Price: $62,000
The vast majority of cameos feature monotone color schemes since the artist has to work with the base rock’s color layers.
In most cases, these cameo rocks feature two very similar layers, with one having a slightly higher or lower shade. However, in rare instances, rarer, more colorful stones can act as the base, and magic, like what we have with this piece, can happen.
This cameo is carved on an exceptionally colored Queensland opal stone which packs the extensive range of tones that make this piece possible.
The stone features a dark brown matrix at the bottoms, which lends itself perfectly to its use in the representation of the earth below. In contrast, the lighter blue hues of the upper part of the rocks feature in the portrayal of the sea, the sky, and the flying figure—which represents Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and a messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.
In this captivating imagery, Iris is adorned in billowing draperies and is carrying a vase as she flies towards the sun.
The piece, which was carved in the late 19th century, was modeled after a painting of 18th century English painter Guy Head which he donated to the Accademia di San Luca, Rome, in 1793.
The jewelry piece itself quite freakishly looks like a painting rather than jewelry. The carver reinforces this theme by setting the piece in a rectangular gilt bronze mount which is nested inside an ivory background with a narrow gilt bronze frame that is reminiscent of the framing of famous paintings.
This carved Opal Cameo of Iris, the Goddess of the Rainbow, sold at a 2009 auction for $62,000.
10. Oval Carnelian Cameo of Hercules: Last Realized Price: $52,000
This religious-looking pendant features a large oval carnelian cameo carved with the iconic image of Hercules lying on the skin of the slain Nemean lion.
The imagery goes quite elaborate, including elements like a shade that gives Hercules shade, a cup of wine he holds in one hand, and Pan, the Greek god of the wild, accompanied by a goat and donkey.
At first glance, it might be hard to pick out all of these many features, as the carnelian used here is relatively monotone, with only a slight difference in shade between the raised relief and the background.
However, a closer view reveals the intricate nature of the piece, complete with fine lines and curves that combine to tell a complete story.
The large oval cameo stone is set in a matching gilded metal holder, which is tightly hugged by an octagonal gilded metal, which is followed by a larger octagonal outer frame with a suspension ring, all of which color-match.
The background between both frames is inlaid with a band of carved lapis lazuli and hardstones surrounding the inner layers.
While there is very little available on the source and provenance of this piece, the sublime craftsmanship this 18th-century cameo exudes was enough to fetch a respectable $52,000 at an auction in 2009.
11. Group of Five Antique Cameos: Last Realized Price: $47,000
This set consists of 5 expertly carved cameos, inlaid in a majestic frame with ormolu fittings that combine to create a striking image that screams royalty at a first glance.
The molded ebony frame and the elaborate ormolu gold and bronze decor that lines its outer edge almost take the shine away from the rest of the piece because of how magnificent it looks. These decorative mountings draw from several popular motifs, incorporating flowers, wings, and angelic imagery to create a grand, luxurious feel that just grabs you.
Furthermore, inside the frame is an aesthetic green marble background, four inlaid hard stones, one on each side, which surround the inner matching frame that houses the cameos, which four ormolu mountings in floral motifs connect both frames by the diagonals.
The cameos, not to be outdone, add further class to this piece. Inside, you get 5 intricately carved cameo pieces that are sure to impress.
- The most significant piece is a sardonyx cameo portraying Helios, the Greek sun god, as he rides a chariot across the land. The table-cut stone is mounted in a twisted gold setting. This piece was carved in 1800.
- Another sardonyx cameo shows a captive cupid set in an oval gold mount. This piece is from the 18th Century.
- The third stone is an onyx cameo that portrays Cupid as he chastises Psyche, the goddess of the soul in Greek mythology—which takes the form of a butterfly, her emblem in this image. This is another 18th-century piece.
- Another onyx cameo shows Cupid in a triumphant pose. This 16th-17th Century piece is set in an oval gold mount.
- The last piece is an 18th-century onyx cameo that shows a naked athlete holding a strigil.
While the cameos all date between the 16th and 18th centuries, the frame belongs to art from a later period and was likely added to the collection in the 19th century.
This magnificent piece sold for $47,000 at an auction in February 2009.
12. A Very Fine French Gold Parure With Agate Cameos: Last Realized Price: $43,000
This unique 19th-century French collection is as luxurious as it gets when discussing cameo jewelry.
This set of matching ornamental jewelry includes 5 separate pieces, all set in elaborate 18-karat gold mounts that qualify as art pieces on their own. The gold mountings all feature master-level chiseling that carves the entirety of their surface area into an intricate array of branches, flowers, and leaves that would fit right into classical paintings from history.
However, it is the assortment of cameos in this parure that genuinely sets it apart from anything you can find out there. The set features a variety of cameo pieces that explore various subjects from Classical Greek and Roman mythology
Every piece in the collection contains at least one masterfully crafted cameo that is sure to impress even the harshest critics.
The necklace is a combination of 10 gold-mounted agate cameos of varying sizes linked together with some more intricately-chiseled 18-karat gold connectors.
The cameos all feature different designs with everything from a Cupid and Psyche piece to ones with Venus and Adonis, Cupid and Venus making garlands, Eros with a Muse, Venus and Mars from Canova, Venus and Cupid playing a bow, huntress Diana with another female figure, and a Herculaneum-inspired dancing figurine.
Both earrings feature a carving of Cupid with his quiver in the more minor top cameos and one of a dancer with a lyre in the lower, more prominent cameos. The brooch has a cameo of Cupid with a Muse, while the hairpin has one of a drunken Silenus flanked by two more minor cameos.
This parure, which was created in 1840, still sits in its original wooden box with a red velvet insert and the old label intact. Furthermore, most of the jewelry in the set comes in very fine condition, except for the brooch, which has a minor repair with tin.
For such an elaborate collection of finely-crafted cameos set in such luxurious mounting and its meticulous odes to works of famous sculptors and engravers of old, it is no surprise this parure—in its near excellent condition—ranks as one of the most expensive cameo pieces ever.
This French parure sold at auction for around $43,000.
13. Highly Important Renaissance Cameo: Last Realized Price: $15,500
The renaissance is one of the periods that blessed humanity with some of the most robust collections of artworks, and in cameos, this trend continues.
The “Highly Important Renaissance Cameo” is a colorful cameo pendant from that era that dwarfs most similar pieces in size, complexity, and aesthetics. This piece, designed in 1580, is an openwork scrolling pendant, complete with a cameo centerpiece, a multicolor enamel setting, and an assortment of precious stones thrown into the mix.
The cameo at the center is a two-tone carving of the profile of a notable Hellenist figure. This cameo then nests within an encirclement of 8 precious stones (rubies and pearls), which in turn sit between four set diamonds, with one on each side.
This collection of precious stones and a cameo is set in a multicolor enamel openwork setting, sure to be one of the most eye-catching mounts for a pendant piece you have ever seen.
And that’s not even all.
At the bottom of the piece, a diamond set-top houses a pearl drop that completes the already studded-out pendant.
A shining example of renaissance cameo jewelry excellence, this piece last sold at auction for around $15,500.
14. A Very Fine Agate Cameo by G.A. Girardet: Last Realized Price: $13,000
This fine cameo by Giorgio Antonio Girardet is another example of some of the best cameos the 19th century has to offer. This agate cameo which was made at the peak of the 19th Century revival of cameo carving exhibits some of the most refined skills you will find on any piece.
The miniature two-tone cameo shows a complete profile of Cupid in extremely high relief from the rest of the stone’s surface. Cupid appears frontally, resting a knee on a shield, wearing the helmet of Mars—the god of war—while a large sword lays on the floor behind him.
This juxtaposition of two seemingly opposing themes—love as in cupid and war represented by the battle gear of Mars—in a playful setting makes for a captivating image that is hard not to love. Plus, the master-level craftsmanship employed in the sculpting of this piece does the motif justice, creating a simple yet elegant picture of intense beauty.
Adding further credence to the work is the fact that it was carved by Giorgio Antonio Girardet, a 19th-century expert cameo carving protege.
G.A. Girardet took up an apprenticeship in engraving under Bonfiglio Zaccagnini, a prominent Italian sculptor who was the engraver of the Mint during the reign of Pope Pius IX. After completing his service there, Girardet proceeded to the private sector, working in the atelier of famed goldsmiths and gemstone engravers Antonio Odelli and Tommaso Saulini, eventually going on to become a renowned carver of gemstones himself.
With this sublimely-carved cameo being arguably Girardet’s crowning piece, it is no surprise that it is pretty valued by collectors everywhere.
“A Very Fine Agate Cameo by G.A. Girardet” is set in an eye-catching gold frame crafted in the traditional Castellani atelier style, sporting interwoven spherical and radial patterns with clean, smooth curves.
Plus, the piece is preserved in near-perfect condition, with its only blemish being some slight chipping atop the helmet.
Girardet’s magnum opus last sold in 2020 for around $13,000.
What Makes a Cameo Expensive
Are you in the market for a new cameo piece or wondering what the cameo jewelry your grandma left you as part of the inheritance is worth? Here is the handful of factors that can influence how valuable a cameo is on the open market:
Like with all forms of jewelry, with cameos, the materials used in the production of the piece are critical determinants of its final price category.
Even if the artistry of a specific piece of jewelry is of the best quality, if the base material is a cheap one, this material will place a ceiling on how high the price of the item can reach, and it’s the same with cameos.
With cameo jewelry, the first indication that it could be worth a lot is if the piece is crafted using stone materials, especially if it is made with semi-precious or precious stones like agate, onyx, rubies, sapphire, or amethyst. Cameos with these compositions typically retail for a minimum of a few thousand dollars.
Relatively cheaper cameos often feature less pricey materials like sea shells, coral, or other modern lab-created bases. You can also find fake cameos online made from plastic or other faux materials.
There is an added value that comes with vintage collector jewelry, and the same applies in the world of cameos.
With cameos, the age during which a piece was produced can sway its price considerably. Generally, older cameos will typically be more expensive, especially when they feature a stone base.
However, the extent of cameo production that happened during that period can also affect how the pieces from that era are valued. For example, cameos from the Renaissance era are often priced higher than much older pieces due to the extremely limited number produced during this period and the exquisite artistry that was characteristic of that era.
The artistry level is what separates exceptional cameos from the sea of great pieces.
The highest level cameos are those carved by artists skilled enough to take full advantage of the different layers and faults in the base material, incorporating them into the design to supercharge the aesthetics of the completed work.
The best way to evaluate the artistry level of your cameo is to examine it thoroughly with a magnifying glass. The best pieces show abundant smooth, graceful lines and highly detailed elements.
With lower pedigree artists (especially with mass-produced cameos), you can expect to find harsh, sharper lines and fewer details in the artistic elements.
Cameos with top-level artistry will typically fetch a considerable premium on the open market.
A common trope across all types of collectibles is the fact that condition is king.
The physical state of your cameo can easily shave off significant fractions of the expected price of an item when it sells. The major problems to check for include scratches and wear on the surface or cracks across the piece.
To check a cameo for cracks, simply hold it up against a light. Since most cameo materials are translucent, any cracks should be easily visible under a bright light.
Setting and Mounts
The setting or mounts featured in a piece of jewelry can significantly impact its price. A high-end mount is also a strong indicator that the cameo itself is of considerably high quality. For example, there is no way a piece set in 14-karat gold or nested inside a circle of expensive gemstones is selling for cheap.
Collectors also value cameos that have been removed from their original mount and remounted considerably less.
Why is Cameo so expensive?
Cameos can only be made on multi-layered materials, and the materials that fit this build are often expensive. Furthermore, it takes a considerable amount of skill to carve a high-level cameo piece, and this requirement of high-end talent further adds to the final price of the piece.
Are Cameos the Most Valuable Type of Jewelry?
No. While cameos do have their place on the rich list, the most expensive jewelry type is flawless diamond pieces without any carvings, with the most valuable diamond jewelry in the world often selling for north of $50 million.
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