FORT WORTH, Texas – Like most little girls, Fort Worth resident Susan Smith spent happy childhood hours digging through her mother’s jewelry box. But one particular piece held her memory: a carved-shell cameo of a young woman, tousled hair piled on her head.

Smith’s father had given it to her mother in 1929 just as they had begun courting, at the start of the Depression. They married eight years later, and Smith’s mother hung on to the cameo.

Many years later, in the mid-’80s and long after Smith reached adulthood, she came across a similar piece, larger but with the same blend of sophistication and youthful fancy. She bought it. That piece, along with her parents’ memento, has become part of Smith’s carefully selected cameo collection, cultivated from years of sleuthing through shows, antique shops and jewelry stores.

Cameo aficionados, says Tony Kubes, an appraiser and part owner at Kubes Jewelers in Fort Worth, are a different breed than plain-old jewelry lovers.

New may equal better with televisions or computers, but not with cameos.

“People want old,” Kubes says. “Most of the stuff we see, anything nice, is inherited.”

Smith, who has known Kubes a long time, agrees. “I hardly buy anything new,” she says.

The most valued cameos crop up at estate sales or antique shows or are family heirlooms passed down to daughters or granddaughters.

“Part of the enticement is the rarity factor,” says Kubes, whose Texas Christian University-area store deals extensively in estate jewelry. “There’s a mystique.”

And then there’s the history.

When a piece captures Smith’s attention, she likes to dig into the story. Sitting at one of the jewelry counters at Kubes, she picks up what, at first glance, looks like a conventional bust cameo.

Then Smith reaches into her purse, quickly locates a small magnifying glass and flips it open. She uses it to point out that the profile is actually of Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, complete with a rendering of Medusa on her shield and a sphinx on her head.

“They say Athena was born from Zeus’ head,” she says, laughing.

We’ve long associated cameos with Victorian-era women in big skirts and hats, and they actually reached their peak in popularity during that time. But the jewelry’s history stretches back much further.

Legend has it that the tiny carvings so enchanted Napoleon that he wore one to his wedding and later founded a school in Paris to teach the art.

Both Greeks and Romans favored cameos, using them to depict political leaders, battles, warriors or scenes straight out of mythology – Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Zeus.

Cameos experienced a resurgence during the 19th century when the Victorians fell in love with the female profile carved in shell. That’s the style that often pops up in jewelry stores.

But many serious collectors, like Smith, search out pieces with more unusual subject characters.

“The traditional, the classic, the bust of the woman, that’s usually going to be the first piece,” Kubes says. “After that you start saying, “There’s some beautiful carving work here. Let’s get something unusual. Let’s get into mythology. Let’s get into a landscape scene,’ ” he says.

Myoshin Thurman, a New York-based jewelry designer who combines vintage cameos with gold and silver chains studded with pearls and gemstones for a modern aesthetic, gravitates to mythological tableaus, too. The Mars and Valentine designer, who does use traditional carvings, finds the more unconventional subject matter more appealing.

“That’s so much more interesting than a pretty woman,” she says.

Be they vintage pieces or reconfigured antiques, there are two basic types of cameos: those made from shell or coral, and those made from what’s known of costume jewelry that might last from only mother to daughter, cameos last, Kubes says. Shell cameos will lose detail and can crack like opals but can still last hundreds of years.

Hard-stone cameos, which are nearly indestructible, can last for thousands of years. Their original artistic integrity is easily preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

It’s the cameo’s enduring quality that appeals to Smith, who of course, plans to pass her mother’s cameo down to her daughter, ensuring the family heirloom will be enjoyed by another generation.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.