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Historical Figures

With their feminine shapes and exquisite craftsmanship, it's ironic to think that cameos come from the shells 18th and 19th century Italian sailors used as ballast for their ships. At the end of each voyage, the shells, mostly from the New World, were unceremoniously dumped upon the shore.

The folks who lived around Torre del Greco, once a sleepy fishing village, about 15 miles south of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, decided something had to be done about all the shells. Out of that ingenuity, Torre del Greco, some 201 years later, is renowned throughout the world for its cameo and coral carved jewelry.

To celebrate the fact, and focus the spotlight back upon the region where the coveted cameo originated, Assocoral, an association of cameo and coral makers, the Italian Trade Commission, and the Campania region of Italy sponsored an exhibition, "Two Hundred and One: Two centuries of coral and cameo making in Torre del Greco," at the Villa Campolieto in nearby Ergolano. The exhibition featured historical and contemporary masterpieces as well as a competition for budding designers from around the world.

Cameo and coral jewelry are so much a part of the town of Torre del Greco that they even have a school for it, where aspiring artists learn firsthand how to gently imprint a design upon a conch shell and carve away the layers of shell to reveal some of the most intricate designs ever handmade in fine jewelry.

Although northern Italy is better known for its goldsmithing and jewelry making, Torre del Greco manufacturers and designers are hoping to put themselves back in the forefront of world design. According to Domenico Ciccarelli of the Italian Ministry of Commerce, the cameo and coral industry faces major challenges, such as the euro/dollar depreciation and growing competition from Asian imitators. "Thus, a completely new scenario is rising, one which forces the Italian companies to revise their competitive paradigm," Ciccarelli says. That includes more "ad-hoc products" and differentiating product toward higher added value and more fashion and creative content. The industry's major markets are the U.S. and Japan, but recent efforts have been to find new markets in Russia and India.

The cameo world has received a boost of late, from the entertainment and fashion worlds. Recent films, such as "Marie Antoinette," featured cameo style jewelry. And ready to wear designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Anna Sui, and Ralph Lauren have used cameos during recent runway shows.

The most difficult part of selling cameos, undoubtedly, is one that troubles all fine jewelry categories: educating consumers about how a pedestrian piece of shell can be translated into a piece of jewelry that becomes a classic heirloom.

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cameo by Wempe
Cameo, diamond, and 18k gold pendant necklace from Wempe, (212) 397-9000.
Cameo of Sardinian conch
Cameo of Sardinian conch, circa 1940.
Workers carve conch shells into cameos
The art and the craft: Workers carve conch shells into cameos.
Cameo of Sardinian conch
Cameo of Sardinian conch from 1925.
Interior of Amedeo
Interior of Amedeo, the cameo-only store on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
Cameo jewelry from Amedeo Scognamiglio
Cameo jewelry from Amedeo Scognamiglio, (866) 765-8145.