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.
My Jensen trove includes two rings: my grandmother’s wedding band and engagement ring. Though my grandparents eventually became fairly wealthy, that wasn’t the case in 1935, when they married. There was no way my grandfather could have afforded platinum and diamonds, but silver and pearls were in the budget. My great-grandmother directed the couple to Jensen’s first New York store. By the time I came around, the engagement ring had been relegated to a drawer of “junk” jewelry. No one seemed to care too much when I found it as a kid and started to wear it.
Unfortunately, our relationship was cut short—literally. I had a growth spurt, and the ring got stuck on my finger. My mother took me to a local jeweler to have it removed. He pressed a pair of pliers against my skin and snapped the silver band. I flinched. The pearl popped out and flew across the store’s carpet. My mother, the jeweler, and I crawled on our hands and knees, searching for what felt like an hour. Eventually we gave up. Standing in the parking lot, I burst into tears. The wedding band, however, lasted: I’m wearing it right now.
Recently, my attachment to the band made me wonder whether it or the other pieces in my family’s Jensen collection had any real value. Maybe, I thought, if they fell short on sentimental significance, historical or monetary worth could imbue them with some kind of meaning. To that end, I arranged a meeting with James Crespo, president of Georg Jensen USA. I brought my own pieces and sent him photos of my mother’s. After filling me in on the history of the gems—my great-grandmother’s were designed sometime between 1904 and 1910, he told me, at the start of Jensen’s career—he offered his own take on what might be drawing my mother and me to the jewels. “Owning a piece of jewelry can be like a Band-Aid for memories of a bad relationship,” he said. “When I look at a piece of great art, I don’t think of who has owned it. All I think is, That’s beautiful.”
An inherited ring
Crespo went on to explain that many of Jensen’s designs were produced as numbered series. The number 1 on the back of the agate necklace, then, means it was the first of its kind to be crafted. The next day, still high on the Antiques Roadshow–ness of it all, I felt a thrill when Crespo’s name popped up in my in-box. After further investigation, he’d come to believe that the piece was probably the first pendant Jensen ever produced in that line. “These are very early designs,” he wrote, adding, “Hold on to them.”
I took off the wedding band and made a tight fist around it. This, I thought, is what it is to own something unique. It’s about the one-on-one relationship with the jewelry. Well almost…. Having come to me through my own mother, my ring and pendants have been emotionally laundered. When I wear them, they remind me not of my frosty grandmother, but of the woman who somehow managed to become the parent her mother never was. The jewelry doesn’t represent what I never had; it represents what I have now. I’m only too happy to take Crespo’s advice and hold on to the things I love.
Photograph by Adam Golfer. Hair by Lizzie Arneson for L’Oreal Professional using Mousse Volupte; makeup by Suzy Gerstein for Dior Beaute at Kate Ryan Inc. Jewelry: Hannah Whitaker.