Jewellery: When heirlooms aren't a hit

A short time ago, Hester left this comment:
"I now regret my past 'Marie Kondo' tendencies (long before MK was a thing) as I didn't know what to do with certain items of (often inherited) jewellery and habitually divested myself of them. Should have thought more laterally about re-style, new ways of wearing, rather than got rid. 

I worked with historic textiles for a long time and there is something deeply female about passing clothing down the generations; an artefact worn close to the body, reworked from coat to jacket, blouse to handkerchief, scarf to cushion cover. Same accruing resonance and transmission of talismanic feminine blessing and nurture with jewellery, if only I'd had the wit to appreciate that in my ultra minimalist youth!" 

Hester's evocative description of the "transmission of talismanic female blessing and nurture" inspired the Passage's windows today.

Premature divestiture

Like so much in life, divestiture is a matter of timing. Divestment done too young can lead to the Hester Effect: regret may set in when you build your eye and see possibilities. 

But by the time you're in the Passage, if you don't like the style, you are not going to have an about-face about that Etruscan Revival necklace. Also, not everyone has an interest in restyling—and some materials, such as opals and micro-mosaics are risky to unmount. I had a pair of coral earrings a jeweller could not coax from old mountings, it was as if they were crazy-glued.

If years have passed, and you're sorry you sold Aunt Mona's brooch, think about replacing the heirloom with another vintage or antique piece— let's call it a 'newloom', that delivers the grace of bygone times but fits your personality and lifestyle. 

Then, make your own history!

When mom is not always right

You might also want to buy vintage to honour someone who gave you something that was not quite right. I see no disrespect in the alteration but if the person is still around, you may have to be discreet.

For my 50th birthday, Mom gave me a Tiffany by-the-yard bracelet; she thought it appropriate for day wear— not 'too-too', as she would say. I found it pretty but felt too delicate; sometimes I thought it has fallen off. A plain-spoken friend said, "That's perfect... for Susie", a petite woman whom we both knew.  

I wore the bracelet on a few visits with her, then sold it and bought a 1950s Italian gold cuff—a much better scale for me. In fact, Mom had a similar bracelet that I might worn, but it was too small for my wrist. I had that piece in mind when I found this one, and have worn it regularly for twenty years. 

The gold cuff is, to my mind, my 50th birthday gift from Mom. Unless she's reading blogs in heaven, this is our secret, OK?

If you're interested in vintage piece, take these steps:

1. Determine the period(s) you like. A summary is here

You might have disliked the cameos you sold at thirty, but would happily wear Scandinavian retro now. (Shown, "Rapid Stones" gold bracelet by Bjorn Weckstrom, ca. 1965; Samantha Howard Vintage.)

2. Visit antiquarian jewellers' sites or shops. Ask questions. Auctions can be instructive but often they do not supply as much information.
What to look for:
- Ask if the stones are original to the piece. The description should identify synthetics, if any, and treatments. In some periods, synthetic stones were commonly mixed with authentic gems; this was acceptable if disclosed. (Shown: Art Deco diamond and synthetic sapphire ring; Cynthia Findlay Antiques.)

Photo: Cynthia Findlay Antiques

- Look at it through a loupe; check for sloppy repairs like globs of solder where a ring was resized or splotchy re-enamelling.
- Ask if any elements need repair or replacement to withstand regular wear. Most antiquarian jewellers leave the piece as is because many collectors don't want it touched.

3. Think about the wearability. I have been crazy about some vintage pieces; one was an Art Deco enamel sailfish brooch that looked fantastic in Florida, where I found it (for vastly less than the price of this First Dibs lookalike), but would not be perfect for five months of wintry weather here.


Vintage costume jewellery can be a treasure, but I would be wary about buying new costume today if you hope to hand it down. As jewellery expert Nancy Revy said in a post here, it is not that well made; you're lucky if it survives your stretch, let alone the next generations.

Below, pieces from my vintage collection; some are costume. Can you spot which? Answers at bottom of post.

When you give the piece, give the story

You just never know what a potential heir will like (even if she tells you now), because, as Hester mentions, her tastes may change—so wear what you like, and let the jewelled chips fall where they may. 

When it is time to give, make sure the recipient knows what the material is, but also the sentiment, because jewellery has sentimental as well as tangible value. Silver beads bought in a tiny shop in India just before you hopped on your first solo bus trip ever, are not just silver beads that could use a polish.

I've been documenting my collection, so that someone will know that the dragonfly brooch was bought by Mom to accessorize the linen dress she wore to Washington D.C., to greet Dad when he came home from World War II. Even if that person decides to divest it, at least the story travels along.

Far left:
- Mom's dragonfly brooch, ca. 1945: genuine (but not precious); enamel and painted brass.  
From upper left quadrant, clockwise:
- Bakelite hand brooch: costume; ca. 1940. I bought it in an antique store around 2002.
- Georg Jensen silver brooch, ca. 1960. Gift.
- French 'jade' earrings: plastic with genuine seed pearls: costume; ca. 1950s. Gift.
- My maternal grandmother's dress clip: costume; ca. 1925; gilded metal with artificial shell.


Leslie M said…
The gold cuff “from your mom” is better suited for a woman over 50. Like you, my bones are bigger than my mothers’s so her rings and bracelets didn’t fit my “inherited from your dad” hands. They were all chosen by my half-sister when mom died. Shopping for vintage jewelry is daunting, so anything I might buy would be in the costume category. Your tips are helpful, though, should I see something I feel I must buy.
I recognized the Bakelite immediately. My mom also had several pieces, now in h-s’s house. I don’t know anything about it, but it seems to have a following.
Hester said…
Oh 'newloom' is such a comforting phrase, as a concept it heals the sharp pang of endless regret for an unwise divestment or unfortunate accident. My grandmother often spoke sadly of a gold ruby and diamond gypsy ring, lost from her finger whilst swimming in the sea in the 1960s. It had been given to her mother in 1902 on the birth of the first child, Granny's beloved older sister. Long after Granny's death, I happened across a beautiful gypsy ring, hallmarked 1902, in a second hand jeweller's shop. I always wear it in memory of Granny, Great Aunt and Great Granny. My daughter decided that the ruby in the centre symbolises her Papa and the diamonds either side herself and her brother. And so the stories weave; it somehow no longer matters that this isn't the original family ring from 1902, the powerful emotional associations blur old and replacement into one potent entity. It transpires to my surprise that what matters most isn't the physical material artefact but what it represents: as expressed in that line in Larkin's poem 'An Arundel Tomb': 'what will survive of us is love'.
Hester said…
P.S. Your mother's phrase 'too too' made me smile, that generation schooled us to observe strict 'rules' about what was 'appropriate' for different times of day, no flashy cocktail rings before 5pm. I now wear an inherited Cartier 1930s 'tutti frutti' brooch (real not paste) with a corduroy jacket, silk dress and desert boots (I bicycle everywhere, needs must be practical) and I smile to myself at my grandmother's imagined raised eyebrows at such vulgarity. But secretly sh'd be quite amused and encouraging of the 'rule breaking'.
Also, thank you for your phrase 'building one's eye'. I now realise that's what I've been doing with my daughter. She adores Edwardian suffragette jewellery and I've shown her how to hunt the real thing in sterling silver and 9 ct mounts, with gorgeous art nouveau enamelling, rather than 21st c. poor imitations at 3 x the price. There again, she is taken a century old piece and re-energising it with youthful feminist ardour, appropriating it as part of her personal history now; I like to think the original owner would be delighted!
Aged 18 I was heading out to a debs when my grandmother decided that I needed to borrow her pearl necklace. The next day she insisted that I keep them as they were only artificial. Much later after her death I had them restrung and was told they were in fact Japanese cultured pearls. I guess Granny considered them fake. And recently I passed them on to her eldest great grand daughter on the occasion of her 21st. They definitely suit a younger neck.
Duchesse said…
Lerslie M: If you'd wear it, a ring can usually be re=sized. I gave the similar gold cuff to one of her granddaughers, who told me she "wore it to church". That's fine but it would also look perfect with a white shirt and jeans.

Hester: Your story about the gypsy ring made me shiver. Too often we think of things as 'irreplaceable'—but at times we can summon the emotion they carried with our 'newloom'. However this cannot be done with a soulless, mass-produced piece, no matter how fashionable. There may be beauty but there's no charisma.

You mention suffragette jewellery; I was thinking of writing about that; 2020 marks the 100th anniversary in the US for women's suffrage; in Canada, women were given the right province by province— where I live was last, not till... 1940! I wish you merry cycling in your tutti-frutti, it's a delightful touch!

Melissa Ellen O'Neill: I will guess that you know de Maupassant's classic story, "The Necklace"— but your own necklace has a happy ending. And it invites a story of its own: did she know, but not want to burden a young woman with responsibility? Did she consider cultured pearls "not real"? (There was some controversy in Europe in the '30s and '40s whether they should be considered "real pearls")? How wonderful that you can see them on your grandaugher.

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