Lucky Lady: Victorian Shell Cameo

Let me tell you a story about jewellery pickers. You see them at the thrift shops all the time — they are the ones who bring magnifying loupes with them so they can carefully inspect every earring, brooch and necklace, looking for signatures or silver or gold content. They are also the ones who arrange a wall of shopping carts around the jewellery section or cover the display case with their coats so nobody can find precious treasure that they may have overlooked. One time, a woman shadowed me as I was looking at things and when something caught her eye, she snatched it out of my hands. She didn’t even want it in the end, she just wanted to be sure she wasn’t missing anything.

There was one such lady at the Value Village yesterday. She employed both the shopping cart and the coat trick. I went back after she left and found this shell cameo in a low-karat gold frame. I’m guessing the cameo is Victorian because the style of the hair and the classical profile are usually found in cameos of the early and mid 1800s. The brooch frame is definitely newer, but that’s not uncommon: According to my V&A book, folks who were on the Grand Tour in the 1800s would buy the cameos as souvenirs, but they would often be set in one piece of jewelry and when styles changed, reset in another.

Anyway, the point of my story is that cool things always fall through the cracks at the thrift shops. Old, hand-carved cameos can bring a nice profit on the resale market. And while there’s a flaw in this one and it’s not the most accomplished carving, the picker still passed it over. This is a big cameo in a heavy frame. Even if it turned out to be 8kt gold, it’s scrap value would still be around $28. Yet the folks at the Value Village who sort through the jewels priced this baby at $2.