A cameo is an elegant and timeless addition to any jewelry collection. Cameos with black backgrounds are particularly striking, allowing the carved relief to stand in stark contrast to its base. Many materials are used for black cameo backgrounds, each hinting at the storied history of this famous jewelry-making technique. While fashionable for any occasion, cameos with a black background were originally intended as mourning jewelry.
The earliest cameos were carved from agate, with examples dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. Agate, like onyx, is banded with threads of various colors, ideally suiting it to cameo work. Agate cameos are plentiful in today's market, with many custom cameo designers using agate as their preferred medium. Antique or custom-made, black agate cameos are easy to find.
Typically comprised of bands of white and black, onyx offers a complex canvas for the experienced craftsman. Onyx cameos appear as early as the beginning of the fourteenth century. Telling onyx and jet cameos apart can be difficult at a glance as both are black stones. However, onyx cameos are significantly heavier than jet cameos as jet is actually a form of coal. Onyx cameos feature both black backgrounds and white reliefs while jet cameos are more often black on black.
Jet jewelry gained popularity during the reign of England's Queen Victoria. The strict rules governing court etiquette dictated that only jewelry made from jet could be worn during official periods of mourning. It is not uncommon to find cameos from this period where both the background and the relief of the cameo are carved from jet. The best jet jewelry came from Whitby, a town in the northern Yorkshire region of England. This particular style of black-backed cameo still captures modern imagination; two cameo brooches of carved Whitby jet figure prominently in A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel, "Possession."
Bakelite and Glass
With the invention of plastics, such as Bakelite in the early twentieth century, jewelry designers had a new medium for making cameos in a range of colors. Despite their humble materials, vintage black Bakelite cameos are valued by collectors. Plastics aren't the only option for modern cameos; many manufacturers today produce cameos backed with black glass.