52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Heirloom

The brooch!

One of my favorite family heirlooms, a beautiful little brooch, has an interesting story attached to it. My grandmother gave this brooch to my mom years ago, but she did not know anything about the brooch’s origins. She found the brooch among my great-great grandmother Jessie Robinson’s possessions after her death in 1966. It is definitely an old piece of jewelry, and although my grandmother knew it was probably significant to Jessie, she had no particular attachment to it. My mom never wore the brooch because the clasp on the back is not very secure, so it sat untouched in a drawer for a long time.

Several years ago, mom was telling me the history behind some other pieces of jewelry, when she saw the brooch and showed it to me. The metal is brass, and it has some beautiful filigree work around the edges. The center of the brooch is a pink stone and a white cameo of a woman with curly hair piled on the top of her head and a ruff around her neck. The brooch is 2 inches long and 3/4 of an inch at its widest. I remember thinking how beautiful and dainty it was and wishing that we knew who it belonged to and how old it actually was.

Cora Preston wearing the brooch.

When I began organizing and scanning family photographs, I found one of my 3rd great grandmother Cora Isabel McKelvey Preston taken by the Poole Art Company in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1880s. Cora apparently loved jewelry based on the beautiful pieces she wore in all photographs taken of her. She showed off large dangling earrings, necklaces, pendants, brooches, pins, and bracelets. In this particular photograph, she wore earrings, a large necklace, and a distinctive brooch pinned to the top of her dress. The brooch looked familiar, and upon closer examination, I realized that it was the same brooch that my mom had in her drawer!


The outline of the cameo and the decoration surrounding it can be clearly seen as well as the decorative ends of the brooch. This photograph solved several mysteries at once:

  1. The brooch belonged to my 3rd great grandmother Cora.
  2. It dates from at least the 1880s.
  3. The brooch must have been one of her favorite pieces. Or, it was her daughter Jessie’s favorite piece of her mother’s jewelry.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to identify the owner and the age of a piece of jewelry from a 130 year old photograph! This experience taught me that taking notice of the smallest details can make all the difference, and now that small brooch is one of my most treasured family heirlooms.