My Past in Costume Jewelry

Remember when I wrote about feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and wanted to write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear? I wrote about “Magical Bowls” and later about my grandmother’s mailbox sign.

This past week I went through a drawer of old jewelry to photograph it. I like to photograph things that I have packed away and haven’t seen in a long time. That way I can decide what to keep, as well as what to get rid of and just keep the photo. Jewelry was always something that appealed to me. When I was in college, I first worked for a department store in the jewelry department. I even briefly considered becoming a “jeweler.”

I use quotation marks because the definition of jeweler versus jeweller is one of the many things that has shown me how fast our world is changing. When I was in my twenties, there was a difference in the United States between these two professions. Today, the first is American and the second British, but in those days there were American jewelers and jewellers. And one was a more sophisticated job than the other. One actually made jewelry and the other sold it in a store. I’ll be darned if I can remember for sure which was which.

The other happy memory I have about jewelry is that the gardener was even more fond of buying me jewelry for gifts than I was at receiving it. This is what he gave me for high school graduation. It is sterling and onyx and was purchased at a shop on the Kalamazoo mall that specialized in gifts and decorative objects from India.

While I worked in the jewelry department, I managed to purchase a couple of pieces of jewelry with my discount. I thought they were a little better than costume jewelry, almost semi-precious. Today, they have no value as the gold is “gold-filled” and the styles are no longer fashionable. They really are costume jewelry.

But I didn’t stop hanging around jewelry after I quit that job. After I graduated from college, the gardener and I opened a store that sold “accessories.” That included handbags (purses, pocketbooks), billfolds (wallets), jewelry, belts, and gloves. I was always more interested in accessories than in actual articles of clothing, so it was a good fit for me. (Actually, I am not very interested in clothes at all). The gardener worked for Dictaphone as a sales rep, while I ran the store.

Over time, I collected a handful of pieces of “semi-precious” costume jewelry for myself. This is my carnelian Les Bernard necklace. Vintage Les Bernard jewelry is available online at about the same price it sold for originally ;).  Carnelian represents passive female energies (whatever that means).  Check out its meanings here.

Although I enjoyed the freedom from a corporate job running my own store, I was a little bored. Luckily, there were a few aspects of the job I enjoyed. One of my favorite parts of running the store was “doing” the window displays. I never had a class, a mentor, a single comment from anyone teaching me how to decorate a window, but maybe the proudest part of running the store is feedback I got from others about my windows. (I wish I had photos–maybe one day I will run across a photo!) There was a professor at Western Michigan University who loved my windows and one of her assignments was to send her students to check them out and do a write up about them. I would say that the most engaging part of my style was my use of color. For instance, my favorite window was all in bright red and natural wicker/bone. I didn’t bring in any other colors, and the contrast of those two colors was unique and really drew the eye.

Today my enjoyment of interior design is probably tied to my window design background, but I would never want to design someone else’s home interior (although friends have asked me to do so). I have confidence when it comes to doing what I like for myself, but I don’t want to have to take someone else’s “likes” into it ;).

What I noticed as I went through pieces of costume jewelry from one grandmother, then my other grandmother, then the gardener’s aunt, and a piece from an elderly relative who was cousin to my grandfather was that each piece, even if it is absolute junk from the viewpoint of the world at large, means something to me. Each piece makes me remember something about my past. The clay cross from La Purisima mission brought home by one of my children from a school trip, the kukui nut necklace from my parents’ trip to Hawaii, the hand-beaded bracelet a high school friend made. They all mean something to me. When I die, nobody else will have any connection to this jewelry. It will look like garbage to anyone who goes through my stuff.

Sometimes when I go to an antique mall I look at the vintage jewelry displays and try to imagine the stories behind the jewelry. But, honestly, it looks like shopworn seen-better-days stuff to me. That is a crushing blow, probably related to feelings of mortality. So of course I didn’t get rid of anything. Now I have the stuff in a drawer AND the photographs.

While I’m not a hoarder because (to the gardener’s everlasting annoyance) I like to throw things away (he is a hoarder!), I sure have managed to accumulate a lot of stuff for a thrower-awayer. I surprise myself at how sentimental I am. But then you’re probably not surprised!

On that note, have a great week! (hah)


Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

61 responses to “My Past in Costume Jewelry

  1. I wish you had photos of those window displays. I would love to see them.
    It’s funny, but I never thought of my mom’s window displays in her store(s). She has a good eye for decorating, but I don’t remember them as being anything special.

  2. I used to love jewelry, especially wearing it 🙂 For a time, I made my own, using buying chains of favorite stones like lapis and making them into necklaces. But now the skin on my neck gets irritated if I have any stones or metal against it. All I “wear” now are my two wedding rings (the 2nd one because the 1st one had to be regulated to my pinky finger), an emerald ring, and earrings. There was a time when my motto was “a girl can’t have too many pairs of earrings,” but I find myself wearing the same few over and over.
    Thanks for your photos. I still have some vintage costume jewelry I “inherited” that would hard to part with solely for sentimental reasons. At least they don’t take up much space 😉

    • In some ways, jewelry was a big part of the style of the era where we came into puberty. Inspired by hippie style, the masses of long necklaces (peace signs, lots), dangly earrings, wearing a lot of rings, then the silver and turquoise craze. But through it all Monet earrings the preppy standby. I agree with you about the jewelry not taking up much space. That is ultimately why I decided I didn’t need to part with it.
      I am the same way today with the jewelry. it was several years after I started just wearing the same thing all the time that the gardener finally gave up buying me jewelry. If I wear the same three pair of yoga pants all the time, why do I need jewelry that goes with different nice outfits?

  3. Jewelry is a funny thing. To be valuable it has to appeal to the purchaser. I have a box of my Mom’s jewelry which was pretty much all junk. Still, I keep it. She had two valuable rings with sapphires (her birth stone). I gave one to my niece who was very close to her and I have the other. Even her engagement ring was a cubic zirconia. She did have a strand of aura borealis that is just lovely. The ring I gave away had the most value financially but the stuff I have is emotionally charged. I love that you had a store. We learn bits and pieces of blogger friends. Sometimes I feel like I know you better than my next door neighbor!

    • Yes, yes, yes. It can even have valuable as in precious stones and gold, but if the style is not appealing to anybody it is junk. How interesting that she had two sapphires but her engagement was not a diamond. I think you can probably purchase a diamond less expensively than a sapphire. I’m sure there is a story in her life about that. I’m sure the crystals are beautiful!!! The store was my “identity” until I went to grad school, which I did because the store didn’t satisfy me intellectually. And I wasn’t good at closing a sale. Apparently there is an art in rounding up the customer to make the purchase. No talent.

  4. What a charming post, Luanne. Makes me want to go through all my costume jewelry. Every piece has a story and reminds me of a different era in my own life. Possible book title: My Life through jewelry! My mom’s jewelry that Dad brought back from his WWII service in Calcutta is my favorite bejeweled memory lane. I even have pieces made of ivory (remember, this was in the early 40s). BTW: I’m much improved after a steroid injection in the lumbar region and plan an interesting, productive week. The same to you!

    • Elaine, I’m thrilled to hear that you’re feeling better. What amazing things modern medicine can do! I agree that jewelry could tell the story of our lives. Yes, I remember when ivory was not only not protected, but was seen as just another jewelry material, like jade or metal or wood. The jewelry your dad brought back from Calcutta must be beautiful! Go forth and enjoy your week! 🙂

  5. I didn’t know there was a difference in meaning in the two spellings of jeweler and jeweller. I thought it was just a variation and either was okay and meant the same thing. Live and learn. I can see why you would hang onto those special pieces of jewelry. Beautiful things with beautiful memories attached.

    • I tried to find those old definition online, but failed to do so. It amazes me how many things I once knew are being “lost.” Thank you so much, Anneli!

  6. For some reason, I’ve never really been into jewelry. Now purses…that’s a different story!

  7. The value of much jewelry, costume or fine, is in its history. I have some jewelry that’s important only because it was mine or my aunt’s or my sister’s. When I’m gone, those memories will be gone.

    That said, I have often been attracted to used things whose history I don’t know. I know they do have a past–a ring has resided on a finger or a necklace has draped a neck–and that seems poignant enough.

    • I remember you telling me about jewelry that was in the family, and I could tell that you felt connected through memories. So interesting what you say about “used” jewelry, too.

  8. I love that carnelian necklace! That’s one of my favorite stones.
    It is a sobering thought that some of what we treasure and hold dear, will one day be considered refuse and tossed. I have no expensive designer jewelry, but I have several pieces of handcrafted jewelry that I bought because I loved it AND wanted to support local artists, silversmiths, etc. After Obama won his reelection, I splurged on a unique opal necklace and earrings made by a local artist friend, I was happy and wanted to remember the day forever. I hope you find pictures of your shop window. I would love to see them. How wonderful that they made such an impact on others. Hope you are feeling well. Have a good day, Luanne:)

    • I love jewelry made by local artists! That opal set must be absolutely gorgeous.
      What you say about going from treasure to refuse reminds me of a poem I wrote (it’s in Doll God) about finding my mother-in-law’s art after she passed away. I was just blown away by the quantity of her beautiful art that had no home, no one to take care of it (it woud all need expensive framing, for one thing, if it was to be salvaged). I was thinking about how much art is abandoned like that when the artist (not just visual artists either) dies. Thanks so much, Cheryl! Have a fabulous week!

  9. Isn’t it fascinating what we keep! I’m not much into jewellery except now and again I like to fill my am up with bracelets just for the fun of it – and I make my own, Yet still there are a couple of little boxes stuffed full with bits and bobs of zero value at the bottom of a drawer that I have not yet given away. I think I think I might make them into a dangler of some sort one day – but that hasn’t happened yet! My thing is shoes and especially brightly coloured and patterned boots. Love them! I think the preference for bracelets and boots (surely that is a blog post title?) might be because I can see them and they make me happy, whereas I can’t see anything worn about the neck or in the ears. Personal decorating hey – what does it say about us? 🙂

    • I think you have a lot of company in loving shoes! I am not a shoe person, in part because I have pretty bad problems with my feet and can’t wear anything cute at all. But even so I have always loved bracelets and maybe it is because I can see them right there on my arm! So close to me at all times. Good point! If you make that dangler I would LOVE to see pix of it! What a special, personalized work of art!

  10. The professor sending students must have been uplifting to have that happen.

  11. Luanne, so fun to hear that you and the gardener have been together since high school? Congrats! What great longevity. I really enjoyed your perspective about the connections to memory in the pieces you have in your drawer, yet when you look at a collection of odds-and-ends jewelry in an antique shop, it looks like a jumble. Our memories kind of extend or spool off from what we have as possessions, huh? Maybe a poem in that, I’ll have to think about it! Have a great day! – Theresa

  12. This is brilliant – “I can decide what to keep, as well as what to get rid of and just keep the photo.” I think I will do that! Which reminds me, I am WAY overdue for such a task; I have so much to go through, it’s really daunting. But I have to. My boyfriend’s moving in with me in the fall. Gotta make room! 😀

    BTW, I’ve always just thought the jewellery/jewelry thing was simply a British/American spelling difference. You’re really educating me, Luanne! 😀 (Although: note the third “e” in the British spelling. We spell it that way here in Canada.)

    • You are daring! I am referring to the BF moving in–having to make room for him, adapt to his habits, etc. Try to enjoy the process of going through your belongings. I do think the photographs help because so often that is all we need. A way to remember the object that then triggers the memories. Re jewelry/jewellery: you Canadians! hahaha

  13. I’m also more interested in accessories than clothes and have a lot of costume jewellery that I don’t wear enough! I enjoyed this trip through your past via your jewellery Luanne.

    • So nice to see you back, Andrea! I love that you like accessories more, too. They are so much more fun and variable, don’t you think?

  14. This is a fascinating post subject and I liked the description of your own designs of window displays! Wow! Too bad you didn’t take any pictures but I do feel you are very capable of evoking images through your remarkable ability to describe things.
    I loved all of my Mom’s jewelry, Luanne. I was able to serl a lot of ornate, gaudy costume jewelry to people who had flamboyant tastes and theatre background. My brother was able to see her good jewelry and deposit $9000.00 in her account. Probably pays for some of her monthly costs. Or may be all gone by now. . .
    I like the idea of saving things and have quite a lot of “stuff” in my one bedroom apartment. I think it looks homey, cozy and relaxing. I’m sure there may be some who wouldn’t see this the same way. xo

  15. First of all, I HAD to read that book because of you, thank you.
    Second, Carnelian is so you. Onyx and carnelian, coral and pearl, I’d say.
    Third, There ARE people who will want your costume pieces. I have several friends who ONLY wear vintage pieces from thrift shops and yard sales, etc. So yes, you’re mortal and one day you won’t want/need your jewelry anymore and someone like them will come to discover the pieces, fall in love with them, and wear them another lifetime. I encourage you to attach their stories to them.

  16. I love the image of you designing window displays and students being sent over to learn from them. And I so connect with your “I can do it for myself but not someone else” reaction to style requests (for me, people want help with outfits.) I have never thought I could translate my quirkiness into someone else’s taste. I do love vintage jewelry, but I also am very sentimental with family pieces—I have kept a worthless broach that belonged to my grandmother that is BROKEN simply because I remember her wearing it. Thanks for stirring up the memories.

    • I completely understand about the broken brooch. I have my great-grandmother’s ring that was given to me by my grandmother. She told me it was Eastern Star blah blah (it’s in Kin Types, in fact). But I just figured out it’s Rebekah Lodge. She was a muckety muck in both organizations, so my grandmother must have confused them. But the whole stone has broken off the band. It’s too fragile to fix or they might damage it more or lose it, so I will keep it the way it is–broken.
      I am sure that your style would amaze me, Ellen!

  17. Val

    I photograph things that mean a lot to me in nostalgia terms, and things that don’t but which are leaving the house (bound for charity shop, usually). When we moved, I photographed all my own and my late mother’s jewellery that I’d kept. Very little worth anything in money, but a lot that means the world to me emotionally.

    One of my uncles was a costume-jeweller – he made the sort of brooches that you’d see ‘old ladies’ wearing in the 1950s… these days they seem to be collectable! Myself, I like stuff from the 60s/70s. I like your onyx stones in the silver setting, very nice. 🙂

    Hey, at last I’ve refound this blog. I’d had it bookmarked then lost the bookmark, now found it again.

    • I’ve never met anybody who made costume jewelry. How cool is that! People collect those brooches and are very committed to them. I like a range of jewelry . . . to look at. But to wear today I particularly like to wear the same sterling silver bracelets and earrings and occasionally a necklace. That onyx bracelet I loved so much. It was so early 70s! I still like it, but can’t imagine myself wearing it. I’d be afraid I’d break it.

      • Val

        I still have a bracelet that a friend gave me in the ’60s. It’s just a bit of tat, nothing expensive, and is missing one (plastic!) stone but I adore it. Wouldn’t wear it, though, even if the stone were replaced. I just keep it for the sake of memories. 🙂 Why are you likely to break the onyx bracelet? It looks sturdy enough.

  18. Hi Luanne. This resonated with me. I love old costume jewelry, particularly Sarah Coventry. And things from the 40s and 50s… I gave away a gorgeous set to a former in-law… I still regret that.
    It was fun that the professor had students write about your windows.
    Happy weekend hugs.

    • Teagan, I had forgotten about Sarah Coventry! I remember a bracelet and earrings–silver and black–in a box and don’t know whatever happened to it. Thanks for that fun memory! Weekend hugs to you, too!!!

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