The Family Jewels


It’s often said that mother-daughter relationships are complicated. To say that mine and my mother Charlotte has been, is putting it mildly. And when it came to views on style and fashion an even bigger understatement.

I had thought I understood my mother’s sense of style a long time ago. Until recently I gave it another point of view. I came across a bag of her jewelry that was entrusted to me several years ago being the family “jewelry expert.” A role I aptly deserved to play for my middle-of-the-road Midwestern family after working in the fashion business for over twenty years at titles such as Vogue and WWD.

My mother couldn’t avoid a nursing home and resides in one in the somewhat misunderstood city of Omaha, Nebraska where I was raised mainly. We moved there when I was six from the mainline in Philadelphia—only it was the wrong side of the tracks. My safe keeping of the jewels was with the intent to sell to help care for her. New York was deemed the best choice for resale.

I had carefully selected pieces from a huge pile my siblings and I spread out on my brother’s dining room table. Though a lot would qualify as fine, we weren’t sifting through Cartier, Harry Winston or Tiffany. I, with an inherited version of snobbery then compounded by a life in fashion, snubbed my nose up at most of it hoping that it would help mom. She had squandered her finances later in life mainly in the shopping malls of Nebraska and Las Vegas. An unofficial appraisal by a friend who grew up in an Italian jewelry family wasn’t too encouraging about what it would fetch and recommended passing them down instead.

I always knew my mom had style but I didn’t agree with most of it as an adult. I have clear memories of photos and outfits of hers through my 1970’s childhood. There was the pink tweed suit she wore with a hat and looked like Jackie O in (though perhaps in hindsight, not a look of Mrs. Kennedy’s one would dare to replicate.) There were the professional photos she took in a studio that were black and white holding the family cat while looking uber-sophisticated with the photographer seeming to channel Irving Penn. She re-married when I was twelve, and wore a peachy-taupe ensemble custom-made that featured a cape organza overlay. Then, as she did many times, she looked like Liz Taylor. More often than not, all eyes were on her in the room.

When I started to work in fashion and understand it beyond the preppy halls of L.L. Bean or Brooks Brothers, I had a certain disdain for most of the things my mom was wearing. (Though once a wool calf-length tweed skirt saved me from bitchy Catholic girls school drama when I was sent home to change because my khaki shorts and Shetland sweater weren’t considered “dressy.”) When names like Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent entered my style consciousness, whatever she put herself together in however nicely in just didn’t add up in my bratty eyes.

I was exposed to W Magazine back when it was a glossy broadsheet through my mother. I vividly recall arriving at her house after school to tear through it and revel at all those New York ladies at fancy parties. I am still feverishly on the lookout for a Harper’s Bazaar coffee table book which I believe may have been made for their 100th Anniversary. Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar magazines were found regularly in her homes into retirement. My mother knew what was happening and followed fashion. As she wasn’t of means to buy designer, she sewed things or had others do it and was an early adopter of off-price deals like Loehman’s.

I recently brought the jewels out following the death of Santiago Gonzales as I kept the jewelry inside a Nancy Gonzales bag. Seeing them again, I felt a new respect for the pieces my mother had selected. Maybe they aren’t in line with the current jewelry market I witness, I see now what a unique eye she had for things. She loved aquamarine as it is her birthstone and had several large cocktail rings. She loved big cuffs as I do. A charming elephant has the right kind of modern retro look; a simple emerald hoop worn on a simple chain recalls a necklace I have from Monica Rich Kosann. A hammered charm bracelet reminds me of Ippolita. My favorite Phillip Crangi necklace has a similar vibe to a torque-style choker she had with interchangeable pendants, my favorite being the large Buddha. I’m inspired to one day melt down some of the pieces and design some contemporary styles using the stones.

I hope that I am instilling in my daughter Manon her grandmothers’ panache. But I’ve already seen just how far the apple doesn’t fall from the tree stylistically speaking. She regularly looks at my fashion inclinations, eyes with an aghast expression. The jewelry fares much better than the clothes. She has yet to like any of my Dries Van Noten clothing, even calling my latest Spring dress “frumpy” and new blouse “Shakespearean.” A slew of items including an Isabel Marant peasant dress and patchwork python Sergio Rossi knee-hi boots are labelled “witchy.” Menswear-influenced shoes? Ewww. The Saint Laurent Cape? Don’t even.

Though despite her current reactions, I revel in the thought of one day her thrill at receiving my things. She will inherit the mother-load, all puns intended. And if there is a divine being, her feet will be a size 40.


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