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Cameo.  A medallic item in raised relief similar to gem or shell cameos. Medallic cameos are almost always oval shape (usually vertical oval – see oval medal), mostly of portraits, and often handcut. Gem cameos, cut in onyx or sardonyx, or shell cameos with layers of colors where the relief design is cut in the top layer in contrast to its background layer in a different color. Cameos – of all kinds – are always in raised relief.

Cameo engraving.  Historically cameo engraving thrived alongside coin engraving, as branches of the same glyptic art. Coin engravers, however, cut intaglio (in iron dies to strike positive coins). Cameo engraving, on the other hand, cut positive relief images in gemstones and shells by the engraver; there was no intent to reproduce the design, the engraved cameo was the end product.

Cutting a cameo die by engraving is easier than cutting an intaglio die. The design

– in the positive – is constantly in front of the engraver; it does not require frequent proving to inspect the state of the work. Cameo engraving requires background cutaway, removing dead metal (the unwanted metal) from the diestock leaving intact the positive image. Once completed it requires hubbing to make a working die to strike positive pieces.

The technique developed from primitive drills; early bow instruments provided

power to the drill, later power was provided by a treadle, still later by water-wheel power. The drills and wheels were fed with a slurry of diamond dust and oil which aided the cutting. Today power grinders can easily remove gross metal, but it is still the hand burin that does much of the intricate detail work.

Some early cameos were of scenes, often mythical or religious, but portraits predominated nearly all cameo creations. Cameo medals, like the series illustrated, exhibit typical portraits.

Cameo engraving was often an apprenticeship for developing sculptural talent. The great Italian artist Benvenuito Cellini is noted for his cameos, his coins and medals, in addition to his renowned metalwork and sculpture. As a student Augustus Saint-Gaudens cut cameo gem portraits before attempting sculpture (and later, coins and medals), while medalist Victor D. Brenner cut cameo dies before learning the technique of modeling oversize medallic models and having these pantographically reduced.

Cameo relief.  All cameos of modern times are in relief (and only a rare ancient cameo was intaglio). Cameo relief in a sunken area – coelanglyptic relief – is called chevee or cuvette  in French. Thus cameo cutting always had the design in positive in front of the engraver (unlike diecutting in the negative).

Cameo portrait.  A trend among collectors in the last decade or two of the 20th century has been the use of the term “cameo” to describe the portrait device on a proof or uncirculated coin. The Franklin Mint issued a series of such cameo medals.

Cameo art illustrations.  Monochrome graphic illustrations (two-dimension) of bas-relief are often called cameos. They are shaded in such a way to indicate the rises and falls of relief. Such cameo illustrations are called camaieu. The French named the shades of gray toning of these cameo illustrations: grisailles (there is no comparable English term).


X5 {1991} Miller.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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