“I’m Always Carrying My History”: Women Share The Meaning Of Their Inherited Jewelry

When my mother died in 2013, I inherited her jewelry collection, including a gold medallion with a green enameled Sagittarius symbol — half-human, half-horse, drawing a bow. She wore this star sign on a simple gold chain when I was young, and it reminds me of the era before we landed in Canada as bewildered refugees from Romania. It hung around her neck on summer vacation at the Black Sea, while laughing in my grandparents’ garden in Bucharest, and while waiting in the interminable grocery queues of the communist regime. She took it off and put it away once we arrived in Canada — the early days in a new country are no time for adornments. When I wear it now, I think of her quiet strength, like that archer, tirelessly aiming to make life better for her family.

As a jewelry designer, I draw inspiration from items handed down to me to create pieces that can become treasured heirlooms. Pieces which will hold the stories of those who wear them, to be passed down so they can live on. I wanted to hear more of these stories, so I asked four second-generation Canadians about the rings, necklaces, and earrings given to them and heard about the resilience, selflessness, and deep love embedded in them.

Callie, 23, Ontario, Canada

Tell us about your family history.

My grandparents raised me. My grandfather was born and raised in Montserrat. He was 17 or 18 when he moved to Toronto and began to make a life for himself. He lived a really hard life and it took a lot for him to get to where he was. He stepped in and raised me because my parents were never really in my life, and for him to take over that role and be there for me just means the world to me. He instilled in me to be a strong person and never give up. My grandmother is Ukrainian and Polish. I feel very happy that I was able to experience both cultures.

Tell us about your family heirloom.

My grandfather’s chain is something he had since he was very young. It has a coin pendant on it. I also have two rings that my grandfather gave my grandmother while they were dating. A stone ended up falling out of one of them and when I got older my grandmother replaced the stone with my birthstone, and they gifted it to me together on my birthday.

What do you feel when you wear these pieces?

When I look at the ring, it reminds me of the stories my grandmother would tell me about when she and my grandfather were dating. They had a lot of adventures together, and apparently he was very big on gifts. That was his love language. She used to always get all these extravagant gifts. It’s really cute to hear her talk about these stories. The necklace is something my grandfather always wore. It makes me feel so close to him when I wear it — I feel supported and watched over. 

Farhat, 37, Montreal, Canada

Tell us about your family history.

My family is originally from Kashmir, a disputed territory between northern India and Pakistan. They fled Kashmir in 1947 because of the Indo-Pakistani War and my grandmother and grandfather were refugees in Pakistan. I was born in Montreal, and grew up in a very French neighborhood in a town called Longueuil. 

Tell us about your family heirlooms.

My grandmother was married at 10 years old because her mother was a widow. My grandfather was in the army, and from the money that he would send his family for support, my grandmother’s mother-in-law would give her menial amounts. My grandmother invested it in gold because she had the foresight to think that one day this would be our life insurance. Throughout her lifetime, any time she had savings she would buy gold jewelry because she was going to give it to her daughters when they got married.

The set I inherited when I got married in 2008 is made of two necklaces, earrings and a ring and was given to my mom to wear for her wedding. There is a style in traditional Pakistani jewellery called nauratan and it means nine stones. This set has turquoise, ruby, emerald, freshwater pearl, and some smaller semi-precious stones. My grandmother is very important to me — she raised me. I wanted to wear something that represented her on my wedding day.

What do you feel when you wear the pieces?

It’s like I’m always carrying my history with me: the history of the matriarchs of my family. Pieces of my mom and my grandmother are always with me.

Anya, 27, Edmonton, Canada

Tell us about your family history.

I have Polish, Jewish, and Armenian roots. Both of my parents immigrated to Canada from Poland and I was born and raised in Edmonton. 

Tell us about your family heirlooms.

My great-grandma, Wanda, was Jewish and during the Second World War she did not leave her apartment, not even for a walk. People in the apartment block knew she was Jewish so they blackmailed her — she gave away all of her jewelry to keep herself and her family safe. She hung on to her wedding ring, and in the last year of the war she ended up pawning her ring so that they could heat their apartment. When the war ended, my great-grandfather bought her a new wedding ring. It has a gold band with platinum and diamonds in the setting. 

This ring was passed down to my aunt Gusia (my mother’s sister), who was a second mom to me. I went to Poland in the fall of 2019, where my aunt gave me the ring. My mother was against it. I took her aside and asked: “Why didn’t you want me to have the ring?” My mom responded: “It really feels like she’s making her departure and I’m not ready to lose her.” My aunt died of Covid this year, so that meeting when she gave me this ring was the last time I saw her. I wear it every day and every time I look at my hand, I think about her. 

What do you feel when you wear the ring?

Something second-generation Canadians have is stories both from the motherland and those about the struggles that got us here. Knowing I come from such deep love, selflessness, and care is really humbling.

Suja, 35, Ontario, Canada

Tell us about your family history.

I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, and I was really young when we came to Canada as refugees fleeing the war in Sri Lanka. So technically I’m 1.5 generation, but I consider myself second generation. I grew up in Scarborough in a really low socio-economic neighborhood called Gilder, a hub of where Tamil immigrants land, so it was nice to have that community support.

Tell us about your family heirloom.

This is a necklace that was my mom’s wedding gift from her family. My mom lost her mom when she was really young. In Tamil culture, when you get married your family typically gives you a dowry, so all my grandmother’s sisters pitched in and bought her this necklace. It’s the very classic adiyal style. What her family could afford was very thin gold, and it is embellished with faux rubies and diamonds.

The few pieces of gold that my mother had were divvied up between me and my sister and she was more than happy to let us share them because this is not something that she would wear now because she thinks it’s too showy for a widow.  I have a boy and am having another boy, so for me it’s bittersweet to not be able to pass them down. But my sister has two daughters, so hopefully, one of them will find as much beauty in this necklace as I do.

What do you feel when you wear it?

It’s a piece that’s endured everything that my mother has been through: marriage, losing her husband at such a young age, immigrating to Canada, and raising two daughters. It has so much of her history ingrained in it and even though she doesn’t think it’s an expensive piece, I still think it’s one of our most valuable pieces of jewelry.

Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.

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