In every woman’s wardrobe, there are certain accessories that cannot be separated from their backstories. Admire my handwoven scarf and you’ll get “Thanks, I got it in Prague!” Or “It was $20!” Offer a kind word about my green agate necklace, Art Nouveau brooch, or Teen Witch–esque amber pendant and I will almost certainly let you know that they belonged to my grandmother. The response to this is almost always “Aw, that’s so sweet.”
“Not really,” I’ll say, removing my necklace from your well-meaning clutches.
Every day of my adult life, I have worn at least one piece of jewelry from my maternal grandmother’s collection, all of which were manufactured by famed Danish silversmith Georg Jensen. To the naked eye, I am either a Jensen loyalist or a grandmother loyalist. Really I am just a Pretty Things loyalist. My dirty secret is that I feel no great fondness for the woman who once owned them. Perhaps because she was not what you’d call a “nice person.”
To be fair, the worst things I know about my grandmother were told to me. As a kid, all I understood was that the ratio of birthdays forgotten to hugs given was depressingly disproportionate. Despite the fact that we lived just a few towns apart, I saw the woman so infrequently that opportunities for legitimately maniacal behavior were scarce. My grandmother was a kind of Scarsdale, New York, society woman, best known in her day as the author of the 1959 book Growing Your Own Way: An Informal Guide for Teen-Agers—this despite being a person whose parenting style made Joan Crawford’s wire hangers look like pool noodles. When my mother started complaining of back pain, for example, my grandmother yelled at her to be quiet and sit up straight. Her scoliosis left untreated, she would go on to have a bone graft and two giant metal rods flanking her spine as an adult. It’s safe to say that the eight people who attended my grandmother’s funeral wouldn’t have spoken to her if her ghost plopped down at the end of the pew and asked everyone to scooch over. Apparently she learned everything she knew about child rearing—and jewelry—from her own mother, who was lucky enough to stumble across Jensen’s first store in Copenhagen when she was painting her way through Europe in the Twenties. Happily, generations later, my own mother seems to share only two things with her female forebears: a fondness for Jensen and an artistic bent (she used to handpaint my lunchboxes with jungle scenes).
When I wear the Jensen jewelry, then, I don’t wear it because of my sweet relationship with my grandmother (I mean, wear her? I hardly knew ’er!). I wear it in lieu of said relationship. Of course, this is socially unacceptable. Just the other day, the hostess of a party asked me about the amber pendant. When I explained it belonged to my grandmother, she said, “You must have been very close.” Must we have been? I smiled politely. It turns out very few people respond well to “Thanks, this bracelet belonged to Beelzebub.” Our culture’s obsession with vintage objects has rendered us unable to separate history from nostalgia. People want heart. They want a chaser of emotion with their aesthetics. But when it comes to my jewelry, I can’t give them that.