How to make a hand-carved shell cameo from the shell

Carving a cameo is a very delicate operation. Click on the pictures to watch the videos

click on the picture to watch the video

After an initial selection, in which the form, size and thickness are assessed, the shell is cut into two with a steel saw. The less valuable part is used for souvenirs, whereas the best part, the "cup" or "coppa"(the "belly" of the shell) is then smoothed and trimmed.

After being divided in two, the thicker and colored part is signed with a waterproof pen by a segnatore, who decides cameos shape according to shells' shape. This is the moment when the segnatore decides the form that the cameo will take: rectangular, oval or elongated. As with precious stones, the cut is carefully studied to ensure that the piece of shell is exploited in the best possible way.

click on the picture to watch the video

click on the picture to watch the video

The "coppa", the part of the shell to be used for cameos, is then divided further into smaller pieces by a cutter, called "tagliatore" following the instructions of the "segnatore".

The back of these pieces of shell are then smoothed and rounded by the aggarbatore, and they are ready to go in the carvers' hands.

cameo making process


At the end of these preliminary procedures, the trimmed shell is stuck onto a short wooden stick with shellac, making it easier to handle, and its rough outer layer is ground down to the right thickness. At this point the artist allows the form of the piece to inspire his choice of subject.


After drawing a sketch of the subject matter on the shell, the carver uses  traditional cameo carving tools called bulino already used 5000 years ago and reintroduced by Italian carvers several hundred years ago to create the figures to be engraved, from the traditional women's profiles to more complex designs. Most carvers do all the work by hand, therefore they are sitting next to the window in order to take advantage of the natural light. Cameos can take a few days or months to complete.

cameo carving


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