Helen Sher, the 92-year-old owner of Camelot Jewelers, tucked in a corner of a nondescript little shopping center on the east end of Dunwoody, is one of these people who inspire the rest of us. Her shop, which she operates with the help of her son, daughter and granddaughter, has been in the same location since 1977.
Camelot, at 2484 Mount Vernon Road in the Shops of Williamsburg, in Dunwoody carries a variety of fine diamond and gemstone jewelry in gold and sterling, along with sterling and crystal gift items, but it isn’t Tiffany’s and doesn’t pretend to be. According to its website at camelotjewelers.com, it’s “your neighborhood jewelry store.” But, actually, for Helen’s longtime customers, it’s that and a whole lot more.
For years, Arthur, Helen’s little white bichon frise, often with his coat died to match the season, greeted customers, some of whom used to bring their own little frou-frou dogs to visit him. A gigantic, ornate gold clock on the front counter has greeted customers for years.
“I bought that clock at market years ago because the seller didn’t want to ship it all the way back to California,” she said. “It’s been knocked off the counter twice and has lots of chips.”
Likewise, in the back of the store is a 40-year-old cat-shaped pottery candy jar that has always been filled with jelly beans. Alongside it, is a small glass dish of black licorice jelly beans, which serve to pull licorice lovers through to the back of the store.
Camelot is open every day but Sunday, and Helen, who is petite, elegant and much younger looking than her 92 years, is always there, eager to chat with her customers.
“I love helping people and am lucky to work with my family every day,” she said. Her son is her appraiser, her daughter is her engraver and her granddaughter does her stringing.
Helen wasn’t always a jeweler. She and her first husband ran a drugstore in Waycross, Georgia, for 22 years. Like many small-town pharmacies, it also carried gift items. That was her only jewelry experience when she started Camelot at the age of 50.
Today the bulk of her business is repair and custom jewelry design. Generations of the same families have come to her for wedding rings and remakes of inherited jewelry. Even after moving away, some come back from as far away as Florida.
“I think it’s the $5 coupon on our website,” she said, smiling. But customers say they come to Camelot because if Helen doesn’t have what they want, she’ll either find it or make it. She’ll also repair anything, including matching a missing stone in a ring bought elsewhere, and will clean and inspect precious jewelry on the spot.
Some customers come to Camelot just for advice.
“What should they wear with their wedding dress? How far down the neck should a necklace come? Should they match the earrings to the necklace?
Even what socks they should wear. Some people even bring in their clothes,” she said. “It’s a matter of trust.”
“I have relied on her welcoming me in her shop for years. They are my only go-to for jewelry repair – honest [and] familial, with the same people working there for years. Even the dogs last there a long time,” said Sandy Springs resident Dianne Allen.
So, what keeps her going when she could just turn everything over to her family and retire?
“I’m afraid I’ll miss something,” she said. “You can dust things only so many times. I would miss the closeness of being with people, hearing their stories, seeing pictures of their babies and grandbabies. It all makes you feel like part of their family.”
But there’s more to Helen just a businesswoman who never quits. For the past 20 years, she has lived with cancer. Not just one kind of cancer, but several, including breast, bone and colon cancer as well as multiple skin cancers. She says it’s all manageable thanks to monthly chemotherapy.
“My body makes too much estrogen,” she said simply. “Can you believe it at my age?”
Neither cancer nor chemo can hold her back. She says her business is changing with the times. More and more people want custom jewelry, often made from inherited pieces, sometimes based on nothing more than a sketch on a napkin. And millennials prefer sapphires to diamonds.
“The whole world is changing. It’s certainly not the world I grew up in,” she said. “It’s moving very fast, and we’d better move with it.”
She reads fashion magazines, attends jewelry shows and watches TV awards programs to see what’s in style and stocks accordingly. And she’s wise enough to know that people who come in to research diamonds and size rings sometimes go online to buy.
“I don’t mind because the more they know, the better. I’ve educated a lot of men,” she said.
To keep up with the times, she recently bought a laser that does almost everything a torch can do but faster and less invasively.
“The laser lets us resize a ring without taking the stone out,” she said. “That’s a great benefit because every time you take a stone out, there’s a chance of breakage.”
Despite the high-tech laser, spending time with Helen Sher in her cheerful little shop, where everyone knows your name and wants to help you, can remind you of a kinder, gentler time when everyone really did know your name.
“If I were 35, I’d be dying to start over,” she said.