My entire family has been making cameos since 1850," says Amedeo Scognamiglio. A natural enough enterprise when one considers that Torre del Greco on the Bay of Naples is the cameo capital of the world. Here helmet, conch, and turban shells, as well as coral and turquoise and other precious materials, are carved into miniature masterpieces by freelance artists who work in natural light on verandas outside their homes. "The work they produce reflects what is happening in their lives," says the 32-year-old Scognamiglio, who himself has been carving since the age of 15. "If the wife of a carver is having a bad week, the face on the cameo may look a bit sad."
The Scognamiglio family, one of the dynasties in the business, does not leave much to chance. Marisa, Amedeo's mother, is a painter who sketches out lovely designs for carvers to follow. His father, Michele, inherited generations of expertise. "My father knows exactly what kind of cameo will come from a shell," Scognamiglio says. "He simply weighs the conch in his hands and determines its quality."
It was Amedeo, however, who succeeded in sparking renewed interest in the art. Recently, fashion icons such as Sarah Jessica Parker have been photographed with cameos pinned strategically to their gowns, and the ladylike couture that models are wearing this fall is strewn with them. The old-fashioned accessory has taken on a modern chic. And more likely than not these creations—bracelets, necklaces, bold cocktail rings—are from the Scognamiglio family business in Italy or the New York showroom that Amedeo opened in 2003.
True cameos begin as shells or stones with multiple layers of color. The design is cut into the top layer in relief, and the lower layer's colors, which in the case of shells can range from brown and violet to pink, provide the contrasting ground.
As an art form, the cameo dates from the Hellenistic period. Popular through the end of the Roman Empire, it languished in the Middle Ages, regaining ascendancy during the Renaissance (Lorenzo de' Medici was a great collector; his first cameo was given to him by the Pope when he was 14).
Three centuries later Napoléon Bonaparte became so enamored of cameos that he designated them one of the official crown jewels, and throughout the 19th century, cameos were all the rage with European royalty, Queen Victoria among them. Napoléon was such a dedicated enthusiast that he even established a Prix de Rome for this art in addition to those already awarded for painting, sculpture, and architecture.
The recipient of the very first prize? Amedeo Scognamiglio's great-great-great-grandfather, for a carved coral bracelet.
In Torre del Greco: M+M Scognamiglio, 11 Via Agnano; 39-081/883-3896. In New York City: Amedeo Scognamiglio, 5 E. 57th St.; 212-765-8145; www.amedeoscognamiglio.com.
TORRE DEL GRECO, the seaside town just south of Naples and next door to Herculaneum, is the center of the cameo industry. There's a catch, though: Most sales are to the trade only. But if you wish simply to admire, the doors are open at BASILIO LIVERINO, a leading firm. Groups that call ahead can view the family's collection of museum-worthy pieces, including coral spuntadenti (baby teethers), necklaces of Asian coral, and an exceptional cache of 19th-century jewelry. Contact Vincenzo Liverino, 61 Via Montedoro, at 39-081/881-1225.