Discovering Unique Cameos of the Rainforest

Helen Serras-Herman takes a look at work by Rainforest Design, carvers of beautifully unique cameos. 

Standing apart from all cameos carved today are the unique, one-of-a-kind shell cameos by Rainforest Design. Carved in high relief, they are exotic in style and subject matter, and find their roots deep in the rainforests of Panama. 

Cameo brooch featuring a frog on heliconia plant, set in 18 kt white gold, displaying delicate open lattice-work. Cameo blogpost
Cameo brooch featuring a frog on heliconia plant, set in 18 kt white gold, displaying delicate open lattice-work.

Frogs, lizards, orchids, birds of paradise, lilies, hibiscus flowers, hummingbirds, macaws and toucans are some of the fauna and flora rendered so life-like and realistic that they grab your attention and keep you captivated. These cameos are intricate miniature nature scenes of exceptional beauty. 

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Cameos are a fascinating form of gem carving, which depict faces or scenes with figures. The design is ‘raised’ above the background material in a relief style by removing matter from the surrounding surface. Shell cameos are commonly carved on layered materials, with a result similar to hardstone cameos carved in banded sardonyx, taking advantage of the contrasting colours. 

Set of two unmounted geckos, measuring 25 mm and 26 mm. Cameo blogpost
Set of two unmounted geckos, measuring 25 mm and 26 mm.

Cameos carved on shells first appeared during the Renaissance, but they became very popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when French and Italian carvers began using shells widely. Most of these antique cameos are skillfully carved with individual designs. The archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century of the ancient civilizations brought renewed interest to ancient Greek and Roman mythological subjects, along with beautiful floral patterns. 

The Sobralia decora (‘Beautiful Sobralia’) orchid - a white earth-dwelling orchid whose flower only lasts one day - featured on a 40 mm cameo brooch which takes advantage of the two distinct colours of the shell. Set in 18 kt white gold with 0.73 ct faceted pink sapphires. Cameo blogpost
The Sobralia decora (‘Beautiful Sobralia’) orchid - a white earth-dwelling orchid whose flower only lasts one day - featured on a 40 mm cameo brooch which takes advantage of the two distinct colours of the shell. Set in 18 kt white gold with 0.73 ct faceted pink sapphires.

The orange and white-coloured King Helmet shells (Cassis tuberosa) came into Europe in the mid-eighteenth century from the West Indies, and the pink Queen Conch shells (Eustrombus gigas), also known as the Emperor Helmet shell, from the Bahamas. Today, among the favourite shells for carving are the Cassis rufa (Bull Mouth Helmet) and the Cassis madagascariensis, known as the sardonyx shell. 

Carvers of the Rainforest 

The carvers of Rainforest Design are the Embera-Wounaan, a semi-nomadic indigenous people born in the Darien jungle of Panama, the dense area to the east that shares its borders with Colombia. Women in the tribe create beautiful tightly-woven baskets, which are considered to be among the best baskets in the world. 

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The cameo carvers, all of whom are male, were taught shell carving by North American entrepreneur Andy Ike, who lives in Panama. For years Ike exported Queen Helmet shells (Cassis madagascariensis spinella) to Italy for the carving trade. Then he set out to find and teach local artists. The first carver he taught was Lider Pena, who in turn taught his brother and cousins. 

Wounaan cameo carvers. Cameo blogpost
Wounaan cameo carvers.

The carvers’ previous knowledge of carving the local tropical tagua nuts was a great asset. Tagua nuts are the fruit seeds of the palm tree varieties native to Panama (Phytelephas, from the Greek meaning ‘plant elephant’, and often known as ivory palms or tagua palms). Once they are dried and the brown skin removed the nuts looks very much like ivory, in colour and texture. 

Also known as ‘vegetable ivory’, tagua nuts are mostly carved as miniature sculptures in the full round, a design attribute that the Wounaan carvers brought to carving the shell cameos, as most of them are carved in very high relief. Carving shell, however, is a more complex endeavor compared to carving the tagua nuts. Even though the hardness of the tagua nut and shell is similar (around 2.5-3.0 on the Mohs scale), the taguas are tougher and more compact, whereas the shells are more fragile. The Queen Helmet shells also have at least two colour layers, ‘knuckles’ (lumpy growths) and curvature that the carver must take into consideration. 

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The process begins with Andy Ike selecting the shells. He cuts the blanks (the preforms) in ovals or other shapes and provides the Wounaan carvers with a ready-to-carve material. The carvers use Dremel® power tools with diamond and tungsten carbide burrs for rough pre-forming and carving. Finishing is completed with hand gravers and fine sandpaper, until they achieve a wonderful gleaming lustre on their carved surfaces. 

The extraordinary talent of the carvers impels them to create these miniature masterpieces, inspired by the beauty of the tropical rainforest. Recent pieces show open lattice-work, small open areas that give the carving more depth and a three-dimensional look. This piercing method, though, can be very risky during the carving process, as the shell may fracture or break. 

Design and Jewellery 

Many endeavours come to fruition thanks to the perfect timing of people and minds coming together. In 2004, Roslyn Zelenka, another expat American living in Panama, came onto the scene. At the beginning she was purchasing the cameos from the carvers and supporting their efforts, and was responsible for promoting and selling the cameos, as well as setting them into jewellery. 

A Lilium cameo suite, which is an intricate miniature nature scene set in 18 kt gold with akoya pearls. Centre cameo is 40 mm. Cameo blogpost.
A Lilium cameo suite, which is an intricate miniature nature scene set in 18 kt gold with akoya pearls.

But with time, Zelenka developed new design ideas, pushing the limits of the carvers’ capabilities. The inspiration always comes from the limitless fauna and flora of the rainforest and the cultural heritage of Panama, making them absolutely unique in the world cameo scene. 

Several pieces are designed and carved as a suite - a centrepiece with two or more pieces for a necklace, or matching earrings, carved with amazing accuracy symmetrically in mirror-style. Matching sets cannot be created from every shell, to achieve a five-piece suite it may take examination of between 700–900 shells, making these exotic beauties very rare indeed. All Rainforest Design® cameos, whether loose or set, come with a serial-numbered certificate of authenticity. 

Zelenka explores innovative designs and Andy Ike relates this information to the carvers before each carving begins, finding the perfect shell for each design. Once the cameos are finished, Zelenka collaborates with local goldsmiths and coordinates the creation of astonishing jewellery pieces, all skilfully produced. Some pieces are simple pendant/pin settings framing the cameos in 18 kt white or yellow gold and 950 silver; others, especially some of the necklaces, are amazingly complex multi-piece cameo suites set with faceted gemstones and multi-strands of delicate pearls and gemstone beads. 

Starfish cameo pendant displaying extraordinary high relief and taking advantage of the shell ‘knuckle’, showing high curvature on the reverse side. Measuring 28 mm, set in 18 kt gold. Cameo blogpost.
Starfish cameo pendant displaying extraordinary high relief and taking advantage of the shell ‘knuckle’, showing high curvature on the reverse side. Measuring 28 mm, set in 18 kt gold.

The types of jewellery offered for sale include necklaces, pendants, earrings, brooches, bracelets, cufflinks and even tiaras. 

Zelenka is also in charge of marketing these exotic pieces, under the name Rainforest Design, and placing them with Panamanian and US galleries, jewellery stores and authorised retail representatives. One such representative is US-based Elaine Rohrbach - an old-time friend and phenomenal gemstones dealer - of Gem-Fare, a company that exhibits at the annual Tucson gem shows, where Zelenka brings her latest creations to show. 

Three-piece set of lattice-work octopuses, each measuring 31 mm. Cameo blogpost.
Three-piece set of lattice-work octopuses, each measuring 31 mm.

I met Roslyn Zelenka over a decade ago, when she came looking for me after reading Anna Miller’s book Cameos Old & New. When she showed me the Rainforest Design cameos, I was astounded by their beauty, quality, fine detail and high-relief carving and, of course, their unique subject matter. Every year, when we meet in Tucson, I marvel at the new designs: tropical angelfish, starfish, octopuses, snakes, seahorses, turtles, quetzal birds, butterflies, dragonflies and countless exotic orchid styles, all set in beautifully crafted jewellery pieces, or sold unmounted -a designer’s dream palette. 

For more information about the cameos of Rainforest Design®, please visit the visually rich website at www.rainforestdesign.com. ■ 

This article originally appeared in Gems&Jewellery Nov/Dec 2015 / Volume 24 / No. 7 pp. 28-31

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Cover image a Cattleya Laeliinae orchid cameo necklace with intricate lattice work, set with rubellite tourmalines and raspberry pink garnets. All jewellery and cameos shown in the photographs by Rainforest Design®. All photos courtesy of Rainforest Design®. 

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