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Originally, and still in discussing historical work, cameo only referred to works where the relief image was of a contrasting colour to the background; this was achieved by carefully carving a piece of material with a flat plane where two contrasting colours met, removing all the first colour except for the image to leave a contrasting background.
A variation of a carved cameo is a cameo incrustation (or sulphide).
These antique cameos, some more than 2000 years old, are either displayed in museums or are in private collections. The layers are dyed to create strong color contrasts. The layers are translucent; this allows the artist to create shading effects by removing material to allow the background layer to show through.
The most usual colors used for two-layer stones are white on black, white on blue, and white on red-brown. This way a very realistic, lifelike quality to a figure can be achieved.
This sparked a big increase in the number of cameos that were carved from shells.
The Renaissance cameos are typically white on a grayish background and were carved from the shell of a mussel or cowry, the latter a tropical mollusk.
In the mid 18th century, explorations revealed new shell varieties.
Stone cameos of great artistry were made in Greece dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.
The Farnese Tazza (a cup) is the oldest major Hellenistic piece surviving.
Glass cameo vessels, such as the famous Portland Vase, were also developed by the Romans.