Many of us have had at least one heirloom passed down to us from our (great) grandparents. Be it a brass ring or a brooch, these treasured tokens are loved and cherished as they are a unique thing connecting us to our past loved ones.
Jewelry pieces have most often been used as heirlooms because of their monetary value, their aesthetics, and their durability. Heirloom jewelry pieces are also often either gifts, hand-crafted items, and/or bought and manufactured on special occasions, so their sentimental value rises, as well.
A common misconception is that heirlooms NEED to be something ridiculously expensive and vintage, antique even, and that they must have already been passed down a couple of generations to be recognized as such. Heirlooms are much more than that - they are keeping the memory of us, our values, emotions, and the things we stand for alive, even after we no longer can.
So, how do heirlooms become heirlooms? If you don’t have an heirloom to pass down, can you create one?
What are heirlooms?
The word heirloom is described in English law as an item linked to the owner’s estate. The heirloom gets passed down to the person who will be inheriting the estate, be it with a will or by law if the owner didn’t leave a will.
No one came together to declare what objects could be considered an heirloom - heirlooms are made through customs. In fact, heirlooms already garner organic symbolic and sentimental value to a family by being passed down through generations.
As time passed, heirlooms no longer needed to be linked to house or land ownership, and smaller, more intimate pieces, like scarves and pocket watches, started being passed down from generation to generation.
Now when we think of heirlooms, we typically think of jewelry. This jewelry doesn't need to be handed down through an estate or a will, but instead can be passed on as a gift or a marker of a special occasion.
According to research, heirloom jewelry has become the most popular means of passing down customs. This is likely because they can easily serve as a talisman, evidence of family tradition and longevity, and carry on stories within that tradition. This can even assist researchers in linking historic events to certain traditions and family names which helps build a timeless family narrative.
Can you turn your own jewelry into an heirloom?
So you have values that are cherished in your family across generations, you have a tradition that you want to be remembered, you want to have a connection with your lineage and be there for their special moments, even after you have settled into your eternal sleep… but you don’t already have something that quite represents all of these things. Can you just create an heirloom? The short answer is yes, but you don’t want to force it by buying just anything and declaring that it’s an heirloom.
Truth be told, there is no proven formula on creating an heirloom. You can’t predict if your (grand)children will want to continue the tradition you set in motion. What you can do, however, is pay attention to detail when choosing the jewelry you hope to become a family heirloom and customize it in a way that it will evoke memories and stories each time someone glances over it. People don’t let go of sentimental value that easily.
When making the final decision, you want to choose or make a piece that feels just right.
Make it timeless
Unless you’re a jeweler yourself, you probably won’t be the one making a piece of jewelry, but rather ordering or buying a piece.
The first thing you should consider is quality - an imitation jewelry piece will probably be off-color or rusty just 5 years down the lane. Solid gold or sterling silver are much more likely to survive for generations to come. You can consult our guide on jewelry metals to make the best decision.
The second thing to take into account is the design choice. You can turn just about any piece of jewelry into an heirloom, but you don’t want your heirloom to be kept in a dusty box in the attic because your great-great-great grandkids are scared to throw it away lest they anger your ghost.
Large, chunky, heavy necklaces are not the most practical choice, and likely not something future generations will consider to be trendy. Choose something simple - a small silver cross, a gold ring with a delicate detail, or a necklace with a symbolic pendant containing just one word that reflects what you want to convey, something that you know will be aesthetically timeless.
If your piece is custom-made, it will already have one more thing that makes it unique. If you’re buying a commercial piece, however, adding a personal touch to it will really make it stand out from the crowd.
Engrave your message on the inside of your ring, or add a symbol reflecting it onto a bracelet charm. Add a pendant with a piece of a diamond you wore throughout your life, or perhaps add a small name plate near the necklace clasp. The possibilities on how you can physically incorporate yourself into the piece are endless - get creative!
Turn the occasion into a story
Once you’ve put thought and effort into the creation process, it’s crucial to choose the right timing. As you may have guessed, sending a piece of jewelry via post without a note won’t necessarily turn it into an heirloom.
Rather, add sentimental value by gifting your piece on a special occasion: a wedding celebration, an anniversary, a birth - any milestone that already carries a lot of emotion for the entire family. Whoever is on the receiving end of the heirloom will undoubtedly forever remember it by their special day, adding another layer to the story.
Later on in life, as the heirloom continues to be passed down, your story will be told and a new one will get linked to it, creating a ripple effect that will tie your loved ones together beyond the barrier of time.
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