How to Identify Real Cameo Jewelry

Antique Cameo Brooch
Imagesbybarbara / Getty Images

Cameos are iconic and historical. Cameo jewelry has been around for centuries with early examples dating back to the 3rd century BC. Because they have been so popular throughout different eras, many people have a cameo that they have inherited or admired. 

Surprisingly, though, many people have trouble telling the difference between an authentic cameo and an inexpensive reproduction. There are a variety of factors that make a cameo valuable. With this guide, you will be able to appraise and assess your cameo collection from home. 

What Is a Cameo?

A cameo is a material that is carved with a raised relief that often depicts a profile of a face or a mythical scene. Cameos are commonly made out of shell, coral, stone, lava, or glass. These carvings are set in either gold or silver. 

Cheaper costume jewelry cameos exist, and these are set in a base metal and made out of a molded plastic, glass, or resin. These are not hand carved and are not worth a lot of money. 

Not only is there a wide discrepancy in the value between a fine cameo and cameo knock-offs, but some fine cameos are worth significantly more than other fine cameos. Cameo jewelry has varying quality factors including the intricacy of the carving to the quality of the setting. 

How to Determine if Your Cameo Is Authentic

An illustration showing how to determine if your cameo jewelry is authentic
Illustration: The Spruce / Lara Antal

The first step to appraising a cameo is to identify what the cameo is made out of. The best case scenario would be for the cameo to be made out of shell, coral, stone, or lava. For the sake of this article, we will try to point out the differences between shell cameos and their cheap plastic or resin impostors.  

Shell cameos are typically made out of conch shell and have an orangish pink background with a white or cream foreground. It is important to know that carved shell is thin, making it somewhat transparent and susceptible to cracking. The cheaper molded plastic is made to look like shell but is visibly thicker in most cases. 

Step 1: Inspect the Transparency

Hold your pink and white cameo up to a light source and look at the backside of the cameo. If the cameo is made out of shell, you should be able to see through the cameo and make out the outline of the design. However, some plastic cameos are thin too, so this shouldn't be your only indicator. If you cannot see through the cameo at all, chances are the cameo is not shell. 

Step 2: Look for Cracks or Crazing

Take a closer look at the surface. If your cameo is made out of shell, you should see some fine cracks or crazing while inspecting the cameo using a light source.

Step 3: Zoom in on the Carving

Next look at your shell cameo under a 10x loupe from the front. You should be able to see very fine markings or indentations from carving tools, indicating the piece is carved out of shell. Plastic has a more uniform and smooth look to it. 

Step 4: Do a Quick Google Search

Many plastic cameos have the exact same face. Hand carved shell cameos have much more variety to them. Google image search "plastic cameo" and familiarize yourself with the facial styles. 

  • Antique Jewelry Tip #1: Sometimes the jewelry makers just want to trick you! You may find a cameo that has shell on the bottom and a very finely molded Bakelite plastic for the face. If after all these steps, you are still unsure, take your heirloom to a reputable antique jewelry dealer for inspection. 
  • Antique Jewelry Tip #2: Inexpensive, mass-produced cameos from the 1940's are sometimes carved out of shell but are set in brass. These are technically "real" cameos because they are made from a shell, and they are worth more than the plastic cameos. However, they are still considered costume jewelry and are not extremely valuable. 

If you think you have a shell cameo, check the setting for a quality mark indicating the item's gold content. If the cameo jewelry has a gold hallmark, it is not a piece of costume jewelry. Not all antique gold settings are marked, though, so just because you don't see a mark, this doesn't mean your cameo is costume jewelry. You should have your setting tested for gold content.