A few years ago, I attended an interesting jewellery workshop in Dubai, where the last part involved interviewing different people about jewellery. The questions I chose to stick to were very simple: How do you feel about jewellery? Do you wear jewellery? If the answer was yes, what do you wear continuously?
What’s the first piece of jewellery that you remember from your childhood (which doesn’t have to be your own)?
It so happened that the workshop had taken place during Art Week, and I was exhibiting in different parts of town as part of the DXB Store, meaning that I had the opportunity to meet and chat with a lot of people.
The most interesting answers I got were always the ones that involved the last question, i.e. the first piece of jewellery that one remembered from their childhood. The interviewees’ faces always changed; not just because they had to go back into their memory to search for the image and the story, but rather because of the emotions that surfaced on their faces. Their features started to soften, a combination of nostalgia and happiness (in most cases), and for some, tears welled up in their eyes.
The first person I interviewed remembered a pair of earrings that were often worn by her aunt. She said, “I loved those earrings so much, and I would express how I felt about them to my aunt every time that she had them on. I would also ask her about them whenever she did not have them on. One day my aunt said that she would leave them for me in her will. After she had made that promise, every single time I saw her I would ask: Auntie, when are you going to die?!”
I also interviewed my mother – the first piece she could remember was her gold stud earring set. They were little gold balls that she had been given when she was around five years old. I’d only seen my mom wearing earrings three times in my life and they were clip-ons; she had stopped wearing earrings when she was nine, her piercings had closed up and getting them re-pierced was not an option that she ever cared to explore. The other piece of jewellery she could remember was a gold and agate necklace that my grandmother always wore. She described the stones and the chain that linked them together in great detail.
The first piece that my mother-in-law could recall was her grandmother’s chain watch. Like a pocket watch, chain watches, as the name entails, hung by a chain, but instead of being kept in the pocket, the chains usually had a brooch that attached to the front of a jacket or a jumper. My husband’s great-grandmother’s watch had a chain that was decorated with small gold flowers, adorned with small sapphires and rubies. My mother-in-law got a jeweller to detach the chain from the watch and used to wear it around her neck as a necklace, which she wore almost on a daily basis since her early teens until long after she graduated from university.
A very tender tale came from a woman who told me about her grandmother’s pearl necklace – she couldn’t remember ever seeing her without that string of pearls around her neck. When she was a baby whenever her grandmother carried her, she would throw her head at the pearls and attempt to chew on them. Later she would pull on them, and her ‘granny’ would just laugh. She even had pictures of themselves together in which she was holding the necklace with one hand as her granny carried her, and it looked as though she was guiding her granny in a certain direction.
Another lovely story came from a friend of mine, who started describing a pendant that her ‘mom’ often wore. She went into all of the little details of how the baroque pearl hung, surrounded by a gold frame. Even though her mom owned much more elaborate pieces, this was the one that my friend loved the most – perhaps for its simplicity.
An interesting story came from a man who, on answering the questions, mentioned that he had a very odd relationship with jewellery. While he loved buying jewellery, both by shopping for new pieces together with his wife or on his own, he just could not stand wearing it – not even when he was getting married! The thought of himself having a ring on his finger sent chills up his spine in a bad way. He didn’t really understand why. He then proceeded to tell me how much he appreciated all the work that goes into making a piece, that he really enjoyed having conversations with designers, hearing the stories behind the design, discussing the materials and techniques that were employed in making the piece. That level of interest left me a bit puzzled, given how much he hated wearing jewellery. As we came to our final question, it all became very clear.
The piece that he could remember from his childhood was his late grandfather’s wristwatch. He started describing the watch in immense detail – the strap, the face… He then told me how close he felt towards his grandfather and how his grandfather always had the watch on. When the grandfather passed away, he left him the watch, which he started wearing. One day he was playing football with his friends and on the way home after the game, he noticed that the watch was no longer on his wrist. He rushed back to the pitch where they were playing, looked everywhere on the way there and back but it was gone. He couldn’t believe that he’d lost it. The only physical memento he had from his granddad was lost forever. He’d felt really awful; “sick to his stomach”, he said. He then looked at me and said, “I think I’ve just discovered why I can’t stand wearing jewellery! The shame and guilt that I’d experienced at that moment was something that I never could bear to put myself through again.”
As for my own recollection, the first pieces I could remember someone else wearing were my mother’s rings. The first one a double band, yellow gold with little diamond and ruby square cut stones. I can’t recall my mother without that ring ever – in fact she still has it on today. It was a present from my aunt when she graduated from university. The second one was her graduation ring from university when she finished her Bachelor of Arts degree. It was a yellow gold one with her schools’ insignia. The latter one she stopped wearing quite some time ago. The story that was most intriguing to me came from a ring that I didn’t remember ever seeing my ‘mom’ wear. She was taking a few things out of her jewellery box when I caught a glimpse of a broken ring. When I asked her about what happened she said that one day she was baking, and while taking the baking pan out of the oven she had forgotten to put her oven mittens on and burnt her hands so badly that she needed to be taken to the hospital. They couldn’t take the ring off her finger in order tend her burns properly, so they ended up cutting the ring. What I found so unusal was the fact that she cherished this ring even though it was unsuitable to be worn ever again. In my, then, young mind, all I saw was a broken souvenir that took up space meaninglessly. She was given the ring by one of her best friends, also as a graduation present. Then I came to realise that she had received all three rings on the same occasion and that marked a huge phase in my mom’s life. Even though she went on to get a Master’s degree and afterwards got married, over the years she had received and bought other pieces of jewellery, those three rings had a much more special place in her heart.
The other piece that I can vividly remember is the first necklace I ever made. I was five years old and my father had brought me home a jewellery making kit on one of his business trips. The beads were transparent, colourful and faceted. It also contained some nice big heart-shaped beads – every little girls dream. I have a picture of myself wearing that necklace, sitting with my friend and both of us feeling very fashionable.
I would really love it if you could share your jewellery childhood stories with me and I will keep on adding new ones to the journal.