What is a real Cameo? Vintage plastic cameo or antique shell?

Posted by Michelle , Wednesday, January 30, 2008 10:13 AM

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about valuing cameos on eBay. I see a lot of cameos listed that I think I might like to bid on. However, as you know with eBay the pictures can be a little dodgy. Getting close up pictures of some of my own jewelry for sale on eBay is like pulling teeth or rounding up a toddler for a fresh diaper. Which is to say getting close up pictures of jewelry, coins, stamps and other small articles can be frustrating- to say the least.

This week I found a rather large lot of cameos and other vintage goodies in one jewelry lot for auction. The opening bid was kind of pricey though, particularly if the cameos in question were just old vintage plastic cameos. The seller had stated that these items once belonged to her Grandmother, but the accompanying pictures were a bit blurry. Furthermore, the seller had revised her listing at a later point, because she thought she might have grossly under priced her jewelry after seeing other listings for cameos. This of course warranted some further investigation in my mind.

I contacted the seller (a very lovely person with the same first name as myself) and asked her if any of the cameos were shell. Unfortunately, she did not know and she then asked me- how does one find out. In a nutshell- I said via email, "you look through the cameo- hold it up to the light, can you see through it?"

The problem with this technique is; that I am sure that there are some plastic cameos that are probably so thin, that I suppose some one could erroneously believe they are looking at shell. The seller was kind enough to send me some more pictures, although I couldn't make heads or tails out of these either and the auction ended.

So here it is, the basic, brief pictorial lesson on what a shell cameo looks like.

Picture One: Antique 19th Century Shell Cameo in presumed gold setting.

This a beautiful antique shell cameo with no
chips or cracks. The clasp, the hinge and the extended pin help to put an approximate date on the piece.

Note the beautiful smooth back of this cameo.

Here is a picture of the same came held to the light.

Next we have a pretty little vintage plastic cameo.

While quite a pretty little cameo, it is not nearly as valuable as a hand carved shell cameo. A shell cameo is a work of art and made by a master craftsman. I love to look at real cameos, in the same way I like to browse a museum or an art gallery. A vintage cameo does not impart the same feelings. Vintage cameos are wonderful to wear however. I personally would not feel comfortable wearing an antique shell cameo out of the house.

I have seen several sellers on eBay touting the wonders of their vintage cameos and even exclaiming that they sell more vintage cameos then real! Of course- more vintage cameos are sold because of price constraints. I rather think more Dodge Neons are sold then Jaguars, but I would prefer the Jag...

Comparing a shell cameo that was handcrafted to a plastic cameo is not like comparing apples to oranges either. Apples and oranges are both healthy fruit- it is to your taste whether you like either, both or neither. Comparing a shell cameo to a vintage cameo is more like comparing fillet mignon to a quarter pounder with cheese. I know what I would rather eat, but because of market value and scarcity I get a lot more McDonald's than steak.

51 Response to "What is a real Cameo? Vintage plastic cameo or antique shell?"

Krikit Says:

This was a good article. I do have one other way to tell if the cameo is plastic or shell. I touch my lower front teeth to the cameo. Plastic has a slightly warm feeling. Shell is cool and much harder like a porcelain teacup.

Michelle Gartner Says:

I agree with you that plastic is warm and shell is cold. It helps to touch vintage jewelry to find out what it's made from. Some pieces have cabochons that are hard to tell what they are made from by sight alone. Glass and stones are cool to the touch as is the shell cameo. Plastic and Lucite warm up when you touch them. It's all about conductivity. Great addition- touch those cameos to find out what their made of.

Toni Hembree Says:

Thank-you all for this great information. I've been sorting through my mother-in-law's jewelry, and I'm going mad trying to figure out what is real and what is not. One piece, a rather large cameo flunked both the light and the cool test. I kind of think if was her aunts, making it from sometime probably in the 40's or 50's. Then I got out my own damaged, old cameo given to me by my grandmother when I was very young. It passed both the light and the cool test. I now think it is worth having repaired. Thanks again for the help.

maria Says:

why don't you show the fake in the light, so we can see the difference?

Michelle Says:

The fake cameo or resin cameo is not opened backed so holding it up to the light would look the same as it is shown. Thanks for dropping by.

Sandi Says:

Then show us the back?
I have false teeth, so warm and cold mean nothing.

Michelle Says:

Hi Sandi- this post is two years old, so I no longer have that exact cameo it has been sold or given away to a family member. As I stated before the back of the cameo is not opened up. If I still had that cameo I would show you that the back is solid metal frame. Thanks for dropping by.

Terre Says:

This was great info. Thanks for clarifying shell and plastic cameos. Mine appears to be 14K but a plastic cameo. Why would a jeweler do that?

Michelle Says:

I am not sure- I have never seen a plastic cameo in a karat gold frame. That is a puzzle!

Teri Says:

Seems I'm in the same boat, almost, as Terre. I have an older all ivory color cameo brooch with a c clasp with the same smooth setting as the photo of the real one, however, it's closed back and is sterling silver (stamped same, not 925). I, also, couldn't figure out why plastic would be put in a 1" tall sterling setting. Is that common? Could the fact that there's a small fixed ring near the rear back bottom edge which must have been for a pendant or perhaps a watch mean anything as to real or not? Thanks so much, Michelle, for sharing with us!

Michelle Says:

It is hard for me to comment on these mystery cameos without actually seeing them. I think it is more likely to have a resin or plastic cameo in sterling then gold. I wonder if what you both are describing are old celluloid cameos.

Cindy Ashley Says:

This is a wonderful post. Thank you. I'm also trying to identify some cameos of my mother's. I appreciate the information.

Michelle Says:

Thanks Cindy- I appreciate your kind words.

Lynn Ryan Says:

Hi Michelle~
I not 100% positive my cameo is antique shell, but it passed your tests above. I got my cameo when I was around 10, I am 56 now, and it was possibly my great-grandmother's. Unforturnely my Mum is deceased, so I can't ask her, as is my grandmother. It looks beautifuly hand-carved with really fine detail of the woman's hair and long locks down her back. My question is, it set in a gold, with four clasps holding the piece onto the frame, back has a broach style pin and a open part where you could put it on a very fine chain...it also doesn't seem to fit snuggly in the frame piece...do you think this is a fake ? I appreciate anything you can tell me. I have some other antique jewerly, vases, furniture I am trying to find out about. Thank you for your time....

amandaa Says:

I have a pendant that has three dancing girls on th the front. It is a pendant and brooch in one. On the back there is a 3 you can hardly see. What do you think this is worth?

Kenda Says:

I am trying to find a cameo for my mother. she has wanted one for many, many years. I would prefer of course a real one. she wants a necklace or broch. please help guide me in the correct way.


Margot Browne Says:

Hi. . .I have a cameo brooch with matching screw on earings, possibly purchased in england by my great granmother.
They are different to any I have seen. they have aframe of criss cross pattered in silver surrounding a shell carved head on a grey shell baclfround, well at least I think it is shell.
I am uncertain where to turn to to get a history on this type of cameo. Any ideas where I should look.
Aussie 55.

Shawne Helker Says:

I found approximately 50 or 60 plastic cameos that my grandmother had been saving, some in excellent shape and some not. There are different kinds and different colors. I am wondering where she would have gotten so many of the "same but different" kind of item. They are on a plastic oval or heart backing of different colors and the cameo themselves are different and of different colors and sizes. Any clue you might have would be appreciated. Thank you so much

sandee seeley Says:

I have a cameo necklace that I have had for 27 years. I have no other info. on it . It is small and looks like shell. Any way I could send a picture and you give me any info. you may have ? I would like to sell this, it has no sentimental value to me . Could you possibly give me a estimate on the piece from a picture ?

sandee seeley Says:

Michelle, after thinking about the necklace, I have had it for longer than 27 years, I have had it since I was 5 years old, so that means I have had it for 43 years.

Michelle Says:

Unfortunately no I can't give you a value on your necklace or an estimate. I would suggest having a jeweler look at. Thanks so much, Michelle

misty Says:

I also need help with this I have a necklace that i had found hidden in the bottom of am old jewlery box that was in a big box of things from an auction also with the cameo necklace was a check from the 1930's I do not know what to do with this thing or if it is worth keeping...

joanne stevens Says:

i have a green cameo brooch i put up to light today after reading your post and i could see through the sidesbut not were the lady is it has green rhinestones around and is marked dodd on back it is open back and clasp and i no it is over 50 years old any ideas on it thank you for you help

Margaret Goode Says:

Hello Michelle, I love your post. I have been collecting old jewelery since I was 20 I am 58 now, mainly cameo's and rhinestone Brooches, I always thought they were so gorgeous, I would buy them , put therm away, and forget what I had. Well a few months ago my husband and I decided it was time to thin out since we have a small house with so much stuff, and I started taking out boxes of jewelery It was like looking at them for the first time. I have several Cameo that I know are shell, but I also have some mystery ones, real different, this one I have does have a back but it is not solid, when I put it to the light it does shine through a very striking orange color, the front is almost a brown with Ivory looking carving! Does this sound like any that you have seen before.
Thank you so very much

Michelle Says:

Hell0 Margaret- it sort of sounds like you are describing an old celluloid cameo but without actually seeing the cameo I could not be 100% sure of the makeup. Also I have seen several vintage cameos that are a mystery to me... Thanks for dropping by, Michelle

kelsey Says:

hi michell my name is kelsey well i am a jewlery designer and im getting in to cameos. so my grandmother gave me one that looks like sand-stone and ivory on the front and a wodden kinda finish on the back(im sure it was not there to begin with). my question is could it still be real or is it without a doubt fake. your my last hope on this so a reply would be great.

Michelle Says:

Hi Kelsey- do you have a picture of the cameo- without seeing a picture I have no idea if it is a real cameo or not. I have never heard of a wooden finish on back. Thanks so much, Michelle

kelsey Says:

yes, how do i get it to you/

kelsey Says:

well michelle i asked my grandma about the cameo and she said it was fake beacuse me great,great,great...great(?) grandfather made it for his wife(great,great,great...great grandmother) to pass down(maybe fake but im putting it in my little safe thing) thanks for your help :)

Caitlin Says:

Hi Michelle- I cannot tell if my cameo is fake or real. I bought it at a flea market for $10 and I thought it was real. I cannot do the look through test because the back is covered. Is that usually a sign that it is fake? and is there another way to tell if it is real or fake? thanks for your help!

essie Says:

I have a cameo necklace with a lady that has on a hat with lots of flowers. it appears that she is eith reading on powdering her nose. The cameo is set on some kind of orangey colored shell with scalloped gold edgings and four gold chains. The chains are doubled and conncected with a screwable catch with the 1928 date. I cannot do the light test because of it's setting. please help.

Michelle Says:

Hi Your cameo is not a real shell cameo- normally I couldn't tell without looking at it, but the big clue for me that your cameo is not a real shell cameo is from your description of the clasp with the "1928 date." 1928 is not a date, but a brand name. 1928 jewelry is a popular costume jewelry brand that has been around since the 1970s and is still in business. Vintage 1928 jewelry is typically pretty, Victorian revival pieces. There are many people who collect 1928 jewelry, but it is not worth a lot since it is costume jewelry. Here is a link to the 1928 website. http://www.1928.com/

Kate Bazner Says:

OH ,MICHELLE,YOU ROCK!! Im not a collector, but i dearly love looking at them..Im an artist and want to do some artwork for the sisters to offer for a donation at their monastery shop .I want to donate a few important relics which I want to house in respectable artwork. Ive studied cameoes and looked at them in trustworthy situations. .Finally Ive come up with something very nice that even looks pretty good up to the light. the idea is not to falsify what it is , but each one is handcar4ved with much care, so each one is different.. I have no idea what they should ask for such a thing. There are only three so far, that's about how far my patience will stretch for awhile. Thanks Michelle, I'm looking forward to reading anything you write. Katy B.

Kim Says:

I could really use some help with this Cameo necklace. History is it belonged to a friend of ours, he is 76. This belonged to his mother, not sure where she got it. I think its beautiful, he wants me to sell as he is need of some money.

Michelle Says:

Hi Kim- Wow what a lovely cameo, while I can't give you an appraisal I can tell you that your friend has a lovely, Victorian era cameo with seed pearls in the setting. I can't tell for sure but the cameo looks like it is possibly angelskin. You will probably want your friend to take this cameo to a jeweler for an opinion on a ballpark figure to sell it at. Some local jewelers are quite helpful in this regards. Also make sure before you sell it that you know whether the setting is sterling, gold filled, or karat gold as this will greatly effect the value too. Thanks for sharing your picture.

Kim Says:

sorry forgot to mention, in the light it has ia pink cast ;)

Michelle Says:

Hi Kim- yes I noticed the pink coloration. I should have been clearer, because of the pink coloration it appears to be angel skin coral in the picture, which is rare and very desirable for collectors. However, it could also be pink hued conch shell. You should have a jeweler look over your friend's cameo.

Kim Says:

Ok thanks... I have sent 2 post, not sure why they dont show up. Thank you again.

kate bazzner Says:

hi michelle; didnt you think I was serious maybe it was too late to write . anyway my question was: If an artist creates a very nice cameo, but it doesn't come from Italy and is of contemporary origin would you take this work of art seriously? I carefully studied and worked at creating not a copy, but a piece that i could call a cameo " artform".I realize cameo carvers spend their lives etc. creating shell cameos, but their "ancestors" had to start somewhere, and I don't have the appropriate shells to pkate baznerractice on. I didn't mean to offend you, but I really enjoy your style of writing. Thanks, Katy

Sharon Says:

While researching My Great Grandmother's cameo I found your VERY helpful blog. The clasp has a locking lever and it is stamped 10k. There is also a swivel loop for use as a necklace. It is cool and translucent when held to the light. My question is the age-another site said the clasp with the locking mechanism dates it circa 1910-does that sound likely? In any case it sounds like it is worthy of repair even with the hairline cracks. Thanks, Sharon

Laura Ackerman Says:

I have a cameo bracelet and Broach Can you tell me how I know if there real?

polly adams Says:

Hello, Im hoping you can help me, I have searched and searched and can find no info. My cameo ring has a gold back. It looks like a roman woman, from what info I could collect, but the sides of the ring, where the mount meets the shank, has 2 small balls of gold, kinda like knobs(these are on both sides of the cameo) The ring itself, is mounted to the back of the cameo, which is gold. (this is the back where you would look to see thru or see if its concaved etc) There are no markings on the ring, but it tests 14k. I have seen one like this, but the pic wasn't good, it showed the knobs and it appeared as it opened the ring, kinda like a locket?? I have no idea, and am just hoping someone can help. Thank you for your time

Sandy Says:

This was so helpful. Thank you! Is there a way to tell how old a cameo is or who made it? Most I've seen are gold plated but this one seems to have a silver finish and has ?00 on the bottom. thanks again.

Michelle Says:

Good morning Sandy- without looking at your cameo or testing it with acid for silver content I would guess your cameo frame is 800 silver. The missing number is probably 8 and your cameo is probably in a 800 silver frame. Yes you can date a cameo or what time frame it is made by the construction, etc. I'm not an expert on cameos, but I imagine it is hard to find out who made it if it is not signed. Thanks again, Michelle

ervtheace Says:

Michelle, I love this... One of a Kind Wisconsin and especially Downshifting My Way Through Middle Life! Thanks for the great information and taking the time to post. Additional appreciation to those that provided information about the touch test :-) One can never be too informed when it comes to vintage jewelry!

Debbie Sturdevant Says:

I have three shell & gold pastoral scene cameos from my great gram (mid to late 1800)
Had someone tell me cameos will not bring much more than a couple hundred and yet I have seen ones like mine at 3,000. Where do I get them appraised properly and where can I sell them and be fairly treated.i would be happy to send a photo. Thank you.

Geri Says:

Hi Michelle!
I was wondering if you can help. How can you tell the difference between a crack in a shell cameo, and just a natural line in the shell?
Thank you!

Michelle Says:

That's a tough one- I have had several cameos that had lines in them that looked like cracks. For me I just carefully examine both sides. If the line doesn't show up on the front or is very faint, I would say it is a natural line in the shell, but if you can see it clearly on both sides, it's probably a crack. It's really hard to say without seeing a cameo in person- also when I look at a piece of jewelry without telling my husband my opinion I ask him what he sees. This works with reading hallmarks too. Show your cameo to a couple people around you- don't tell them your opinion and just let them tell you what they see. It works like a doctors second opinion. :)

Michelle Says:

Hello - sorry I was on vacation when your question popped up. I really couldn't tell you where you would get a good price for your cameos. Please don't send me a photo all you would get is an ohhh and ahhh out of me, I am not a professional appraiser. Sorry that I am not much help, I would check with your local jewelers for assistance.

Jamie Says:

I have tons of cameos from my grandmothers house that I just got and we have moved her to AZ from IN. She is 91 years old and all of her items are in prestige condition not sure about all of these cameos. How can I get them checked out and trust someone. They are all unmounted ones.

Sue ives Says:

I have just got a cameo from my mother in law
It can be seen through and has g apa on it.
Also 585 which I found out is 14 Kt
Does this have any value?

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