The (New) Story of Cameos

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TORRE DEL GRECO, Italy — In a small, dusty room up the stairs of a centuries-old building, an artisan bent over his work, creating a miniature bas-relief of the massive Greek classic “Laocoön and His Sons’’ on a sliver of seashell. Other examples of his handiwork sat nearby: a skull and crossbones, a serpent, a Ganesh.

These are not your grandmother’s cameos. But pieces like them are responsible for a renaissance in popularity for the classic jewelry style and for maintaining jobs in this town, which is known as the world center of cameo carving.

Many credit Amedeo Scognamiglio, who bypassed the cameo’s typical subject matter — profiles — to introduce hip, surprising motifs.

Mr. Scognamiglio comes from a family of cameo carvers, six generations of them. He taught himself to carve when he was a teenager because, growing up in Torre del Greco, that’s what you do. “Even when I studied to be a lawyer, I carved,” he said, as he sipped an espresso at a sidewalk cafe on a busy street in this bustling city of 90,000.

After graduation, instead of joining a law firm, Mr. Scognamiglio moved to New York in 2000 and began designing jewelry with Roberto Faraone Mennella, his good friend and schoolmate. Their creations — and the handsome designers — quickly became popular and the jewelry was featured in Vogue and WWD, worn on “Sex in the City,” and sold at Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. At the same time, Mr. Scognamiglio set up an office to distribute his family’s cameos.

But they were a hard sell, even though cameos have existed for centuries and became particularly popular in the 1800s, when British aristocrats made the Grand Tour. “Cameos became souvenirs to take back home,’’ Mr. Scognamiglio said. “During Queen Victoria’s reign, they became the fashion, a status symbol.” But Queen Victoria isn’t exactly a style influencer these days.

“Every time I mentioned cameos” to the stores that were selling the other jewelry, “no one wanted them,” Mr. Scognamiglio recalled. “All I heard was, ‘Cameos aren’t fashionable, they’re not trendy.’ ”

Then he had a brainstorm. “I wanted to attach the image of cameos to something new,” he said. “No brooches, no profiles of grandma. Instead I made large cocktail rings with cameos with ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys; with skulls. Crazy designs. You have to surprise.”

In 2006, he opened the Amedeo shop on the Upper East Side. Rihanna and Beyoncé became customers; Keith Richards, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, too. “Nothing is cooler than a skull in black lava,” Mr. Scognamiglio noted. His pieces primarily sell for $1,500 to $15,000, with an entry-level price of $250 for a cotton macramé bracelet accented with a shell cameo.

Today, fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana and Oscar de la Renta are selling cameos in their accessory lines. The Swiss watch company Breguet includes them on some watches, using carvers from Torre del Greco and taking them on tour to display their skills.

While the motifs may be modern, the technique has not changed for centuries. “It’s a rich tradition,” Mr. Scognamiglio said.

Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

In Torre del Greco, carving remains a cottage industry practiced by men — and these days, some women — in tiny studios throughout the city. “There are around 150 carvers in town,” the designer said. “I employ 60 of them just to work on seashells. They will go through 10,000 to 30,000 seashells a year.”

In one workroom there were three artisans, whom Mr. Scognamiglio would identify only by first name. Francesco, who has been laboring over the “Laocoön” design, shared a workbench with Cristofaro, who started carving at age 8, and Salvatore, who has had four years of training. The men listened to Neapolitan tunes on the radio as they worked, sharing stories, singing along — not unlike a quilting bee a l’Italiano.

Once a cameo’s material was chosen, Francesco used warm wax to attach the shell or other material to the end of a broomstick, which allowed him to hold the piece easily and to examine his work from every angle.

For the “Laocoön” cameo, for example, he had sketched the design on the shell before starting work. Like most carvers, he makes his own tools, and for this design, he was using about 20 different bulinis, or chisels, which were mounted in a wooden block for easy access.

When the carving was finished — in about a month, he said — it would become the centerpiece of a pearl and diamond necklace.

The completed cameo would be pumiced to smooth any roughness, then detached from the stick and immersed in olive oil for the night. “The oil gets rid of any powder in the pores of the shell,” Francesco explained.

“For six generations,” Mr. Scognamiglio noted, “200 years, the same tools, materials, and tricks of the trade have not changed.”

The materials traditionally used to make the jewelry lie all around the city. Mount Vesuvius, looming in the near distance, supplies volcanic rock. The Bay of Naples, in the other direction, used to provide seashells and coral before overfishing and pollution destroyed supplies. Now cameo materials come from all over the world.

Coral was once a mainstay — as seen in the traditional designs at Torre del Greco’s Museo del Corallo. But it, like ivory, is no longer a good choice, Mr. Scognamiglio said, explaining, “Coral has been depleted and is now too expensive to use.”

Recently, the designer has been importing turquoise from Arizona, using marbles and wood and trying enamel on his pieces.

The settings also are unusual: “I decided long ago to set my creations in silver — and mostly in black rhodium-plated silver — rather than the classic gold.

“Gold seemed more old school to me,” he noted. “I wanted something edgy, more aggressive.”

Mr. Scognamiglio said he was “always in search of new ways to express a very old technique. To me it’s all about evolution, it’s my duty to find new ways for my family tradition to last another 200 years at least.”

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