I’m not good at inheriting jewelry. Or rather, I’m not good at wearing the jewelry I inherit. There were things of my mother’s I coveted from earliest childhood—her scarab bracelet, for example, purportedly the first serious piece my father ever gave her. I’d sneak into her jewelry box to look at it. I’d play with it while she wore it, turning it on her wrist to see the colors, wanting…not to own it, but to somehow enter her state of mind. That door was pretty well closed, but the bracelet seemed like it could be a key. She’d even given me one of the links, left over from when she had the bracelet shortened. The jeweler had attached a ring so it could be worn as a pendant. But it still looked like a link, not a pendant, and I never wore it.
Mother started giving away her jewelry before she died in 2005, and I, the only daughter, got most of it, including the bracelet. I tried to wear it, but it made me fidgety. I obsessed over whether the gold links had become fragile, or the stones were loose in their settings. (It hadn’t. They weren’t.) I would put it on in the morning, decide it wasn’t right with my outfit, and take it off. I loved it; I treasured it; I wasn’t happy in it. It’s still more like an honored guest in my jewelry box than a working resident: It’s mine, but I can’t make it mine. Which basically sums up the original daughter-mother relationship.
I love buying estate jewelry. I never, ever feel anything for the previous owner of a piece, except maybe gratitude that she took good care of it. But when the estate in question is of someone near and dear to me, the jewelry is a piece of that relationship—and therefore, fraught. I’ve already written about the jewelry I inherited from my close friend Juliette. She left it to me to distribute to her friends and family as I saw fit, wanting to make my job as executor as easy as possible. I didn’t long to keep it for myself; and as I’ve said, most of it was too big for me anyway.
But there’s a ring she wanted me to have, because I’d admired it, and because it was gold, which she knew I preferred. It’s an image of some Greek king—I couldn’t remember which—by the late designer Helen Woodhull. Juliette wore it as a pinky ring, which makes it too large for my pinky and too small for my ring finger. But I’ve never had it resized, because the nameless king looks too much like Jesus. I can’t, I can’t wear Jesus (for multiple reasons, which I won’t go into here). So he’s been sitting in my jewelry box, looking by turns regal and holy. It finally occurred to me (just this morning) to inquire at James Robinson, Inc., the Park Avenue retailer that owns the rights to Woodhull’s designs. No, it’s not Jesus. It’s Zeus, cast from an ancient impression. Well, you could have fooled me.
Juliette was 96 when she died. She chose her own way out, and I didn’t argue with her. (I wrote an essay on this for More magazine; here’s a link.) Her death left me in a strange space, emotionally exhausted but needing to marshall strength for the huge project of selling her apartment and administering her estate. She wanted no memorial service, which was fine with me, but I needed to mark the event. I found myself buying a tiny gold skull pendant with ruby eyes. I wore it every day for months.
He was so small he was barely visible, in 10-karat gold, so not hugely expensive. He was my little pal, a silent witness to all the interactions with friends and relatives, lawyers and bankers, the movers, the cable company, the co-op board. If I wore pearls, he lay uncomplaining beneath. He kept his own counsel. He was a good egg. I knew that when I stopped needing to wear him, the first mourning period would officially be over.
This was at a time when skulls were gaining traction in the fashion world. Alexander McQueen had scattered them as a signature over silk scarves; Erwin Pearl, costume jewelry designer extraordinaire, had come out with a “lucky skull” collection, a sure sign that the idea had penetrated deep into the marketplace. I hate being trendy, but I still wore the skull.
There is something of Juliette’s that turned out to have my name on it: her watch, with a plain round face and a stainless-steel mesh band, from Georg Jensen. She took great pleasure in its plainness, which she thought perfect. It called to me from her night table. Who else could really appreciate it? Of course it was too big for my wrist; and of course, when I brought it to Jensen to see if they had a shorter band, they were snippy about it. “We don’t make this anymore,” they told me. “We discontinued it when Skagen knocked it off.” (I had never heard of Skagen, but, yeah, they did knock it off.) Jensen deigned to send away to Copenhagen for one of the last remaining short bands, which cost me more than Juliette paid for the entire watch. But it is satisfyingly sleek to wear. And if I hold the face at just the right angle, I can tell you what time it is.