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What Is Heirloom Jewelry?

what is heirloom jewelry

They're the pieces passed down from generation to generation, the ones you weren't allowed to touch as a child and now treasure as an adult.

Heirloom jewelry has a special place in our family stories. Heirlooms tie us to the love and stories of our ancestors, bridging both our past and our future. But what is the importance of family heirlooms, and what makes something an heirloom? We've created this guide so you can learn everything you need to know about these precious pieces, from what they are to how to start a family heirloom of your own. 


What Is a Family Heirloom?

Simply defined, a family heirloom is any meaningful object that belongs to a family and gets handed down through generations. They are tangible links to our family history, both to the past and to the future.

Besides jewelry, common heirlooms include furniture, religious books, clocks, silverware, diaries and letters. Jewelry is one of the most popular types of heirlooms — typically small and portable, it is easy to store, transport and wear, making it an ideal choice for a family heirloom.


What Makes a Family Heirloom?

heirloom jewelry is typically

For a piece of jewelry to be a family heirloom, it typically needs three elements — value, beauty and a story.

  • Precious Value
    Typically, heirloom jewelry includes precious stones such as diamonds, whether the heirloom is a delicate tennis bracelet, a long necklace or stud earrings. Pearls are also a popular choice, and gemstones like sapphires, emeralds and rubies are classic options. Because of their worth and durability, metals like gold, silver and platinum are the most common settings.

    These timeless materials help the heirloom maintain a timeless beauty and endure centuries of shifting trends and fads. Additionally, they give the piece a high monetary value, increasing its functional worth.
  • Unique Beauty
    Often, an heirloom possesses a unique beauty and charm — an heirloom necklace will usually have some characteristic or quirk that differentiates it from other, standard necklaces.

    We prize many heirlooms for their individuality. Your great-grandmother's antique brooch might be hand-designed by an artisan silversmith — it isn't a piece you can buy at a typical jewelry store. Heirlooms often feature unique, personal or rare designs, and this gives them an exceptional value. Not only does your heirloom come with personal stories of your ancestors, but it also has a unique beauty to match.
  • Compelling Story
    In many ways, the story behind an heirloom is more important than its physical worth or beauty.

    Heirloom pieces symbolize accomplishment, love and family. They almost always get created or passed on during special occasions, which compounds their history and emotional value. The story component of an heirloom is clear in pieces such as diaries or letters — you have the physical words of your ancestor, a glimpse into their lives and thoughts.

But jewelry can hold just as many stories. If your great-great-grandfather passed on his wedding ring to his son, and the pattern got repeated for generations, his ring holds more than monetary value. Family members have worn the ring through decades of life, and when you wear it, you are adding your stories to its history — stories of love, dreams, accomplishments and loss. This deep emotional connection is what keeps us passing on heirlooms to our children, so they can also contribute to the heirloom's history.


When to Pass on Heirloom Jewelry

If your family owns a piece of heirloom jewelry, it is most likely cherished and deeply prized. When it comes time to pass it on to the next generation, let the occasion match the emotional value of the item.

  • Coming of Age Celebrations
    Smaller heirloom pieces are wonderful gifts for coming-of-age celebrations, whether a communion, bar or bat mitzvah or graduation. Another common coming-of-age event revolves around milestone birthdays, like when a child turns 13, 16, 18 or 21.
  • Engagements or Marriages
    The presentation of an heirloom can mark significant stages in a child's or grandchild's life, such as engagement or marriage. These are especially appropriate occasions to pass on wedding-related heirlooms like eternity bands and engagement or wedding rings — the jewelry connects the recipient to the item's history of love and family, and it is a symbol of blessing over the couple.

heirloom jewelry represents

  • Birth of a Child
    What better way to celebrate your history than a new addition to your family? A birth is a perfect time to pass on an heirloom. You can either give the gift to the parents or to the baby, depending on the item. Does it represent parenthood and a new season of life, or would it better symbolize the addition of a new member to the family? If you intend to give the jewelry to the child, the parents can keep the piece until the child is old enough to wear it responsibly.
  • Significant Anniversaries
    Emotionally significant anniversaries are another excellent time to pass on an heirloom. Common occasions include marriage, but others could commemorate meaningful events like the anniversary of the return of a loved one from serving a term of military service. Big round-number birthdays are also points of celebration, and they are appropriate occasions to present a piece of heirloom jewelry.


Types of Heirloom Jewelry 

Heirloom jewelry can come in any shape or type. However, below, we've listed five of the most common types of jewelry that become heirlooms — rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and brooches.

classic heirloom jewlery

  1. Rings 
    What is an heirloom ring? Engagement rings are in some ways the quintessential keepsake. With a high financial value and a deep emotional significance, heirloom engagement rings connect a current celebration with your family's history, continuing a legacy of love. Wedding bands have a similar value, and both the men and women in your family can pass on and wear these simpler rings. 

    Eternity rings are a lovely, traditional representation of the cycle of life. A band covered with continuous, identically cut gemstones, they symbolize eternal love and fidelity. All types of precious rings — engagement, eternity and wedding bands —often make excellent wedding or anniversary gifts.

    One benefit of heirloom rings is their easy customization. When you pass on an heirloom ring, jewelers can resize it to suit the needs and tastes of your recipient — or even melt them down and recast them into new pieces of jewelry if they become damaged beyond repair, which keeps the sentimental value of the heirloom intact. You can also wear them in a variety of different ways, such as a necklace when looped through a chain. 
  2. Earrings
    Earrings are another common choice for heirlooms. Small, classy and sophisticated, heirloom earrings will be lovingly passed on through generations.

    Diamond studs are considered a jewelry essential, lasting through centuries of fads or trends. Their beauty is also practical — highly durable, diamond studs can withstand generations of wear and tear.

    A glossy alternative to diamonds, pearl earrings have proven they stay in style and make gorgeously understated heirlooms.
  3. Necklaces 
    Another popular type of heirloom jewelry, necklaces come in an endless array of lengths and designs. From elegant opera chains to striking gemstone chokers, an heirloom necklace is sure to make a memorable impression.

    Diamond or gemstone pendant necklaces are classic heirlooms — many families have lockets or cross pendants that have been a piece of family history for generations. Pendants often provide a personal touch to the heirloom, whether through a picture in a locket or initials engraved on the back.
  4. Bracelets 
    Due to their easy customization and fashionable flair, bracelets are common types of heirloom jewelry.

    Nothing matches the effortless sophistication of a diamond tennis bracelet — priceless and gorgeous, these delicate bracelets have withstood centuries of shifting fashion trends. Metal cuffs studded with gems are strong statement pieces, and charm bracelets are heirlooms your loved ones can add to for generations.

    Gold or silver bangles embossed with intricate designs are another gorgeous type of heirloom, and you can wear them seamlessly with other bracelets for a more modern look.
  5. Brooches 
    Although they have gone in and out of style over the decades, antique brooches still get passed down through many families.

    These highly ornate and detailed pins can adorn anything from a coat to a sweater, and add a touch of metallic flair to an outfit. If you have an heirloom brooch, you're in luck — they have just come back to the runways and are a rising fashion choice among top designers.


How to Create an Heirloom 

If you're wondering when to pass on heirloom jewelry, keep in mind many heirlooms don't get created intentionally — often, they start as a cherished item that belonged to a loved one and gets kept in memory of them.

But it's more than possible to begin your heirloom tradition. Keep these suggestions in mind as you look for the perfect jewelry, and you will create a beautiful and tangible piece of family history that will get passed down for decades.


Suggestions for Choosing the Right Piece

When you begin the process of creating an heirloom, look for exceptional quality, timeless style and personal elements.

heirloom invest in quality

What to Look For When Choosing Heirloom Jewelry

  • Exceptional Quality

    When selecting jewelry that will get passed down through your family, you need a piece that can withstand years of wear. That means you can't cut corners — for a successful and enduring heirloom, invest in quality craftsmanship and durable materials.

    The most durable gemstones are diamonds, sapphires, rubies and topaz. Pair them with a metal to match — gold, silver and platinum make beautiful settings that will last through centuries of use.

    If you choose a gemstone for your heirloom, go with one of the "Big Five" gems — diamonds, sapphires, rubies, tanzanite and emeralds — for the most financial value. Other stones such as jade can give your heirloom a gorgeous and unique look that will weather years of fashion fads.
  • Timeless Style 
    As you look for the perfect style of jewelry for your heirloom, go for a look that will remain wearable over time.

    While a fun piece of costume jewelry can be whimsical and trendy, it will probably look dated within a couple of years. Even classic or historic styles fluctuate in and out of fashion over time. For example, while heart shapes remain popular in jewelry, the exact design has changed significantly through the years.

    Instead, choose a style of jewelry that has stood the test of time. To make sure your piece will endure for generations, consult with a jeweler to select classic lines and shapes. People love pieces like sophisticated diamond studs or elegant pearl necklaces for a reason — timeless jewelry will create heirlooms that stay in style through generations of fashion.
  • Personal Elements
    When choosing an heirloom, look for more than a pretty piece. Often, the most treasured items have a personal touch, something that further connects them to the original owner and occasion surrounding the heirloom. One way to personalize your piece is to get involved in the design process — a customized necklace is more personal than a standard design.

    But feel free to get creative with the personalization of your heirloom — you can modify almost any item to have unique elements. Engrave your initials on the inside of a ring, and as it gets passed down through the generations, each new recipient can add their letters to the band. When the ring has no more room for initials, a jeweler can add another band to the ring, beginning the cycle again.

    A charm bracelet is another easily personalized heirloom. Begin with a single charm, one that you feel represents you and your personality. When you present the bracelet to a loved one, they can add a new charm to the bracelet. The pattern can continue until the bracelet is full of sparkling charms, a beautiful representation of the diversity within your family.

What to Ask Your Jeweler

what to ask jeweler

When selecting a piece to pass down through your family, consult with an experienced jeweler. They can help you select high-quality materials, and they can guide you toward designs that won't go out of style. Here are some questions to ask your jeweler as you look for an heirloom piece:

  • What materials are the most durable? An experienced jeweler has handled plenty of old, heirloom pieces in their career. They can tell you which materials and gems will last for centuries, as well as the ones that will require the least upkeep to maintain.

  • What designs are timeless? If you love a design, but aren't sure if it will last for longer than a couple of decades, ask your jeweler. More often than not, they can tell you whether your design is trendy or timeless.
  • How can you make it personal? Some pieces aren't as easy to personalize as others, but a professional jeweler can help you think of other ways to make your heirloom unique. For example, if your family has an ethnic heritage you would like to honor through your heirloom, you could research what gems, metals and stones are significant to that culture — adding a symbolic material to your heirloom will give the piece a unique and meaningful touch.
  • Does the heirloom have a guarantee? Sometimes a piece of precious jewelry will come with a warranty. Work with your jeweler to find the one that fits the needs of your family — if it comes with a "lifetime guarantee," ask if that warranty lasts as long as you keep the receipt. That way, your descendants may be able to have the heirloom replaced or repaired as needed.

When creating an heirloom, an experienced jeweler is a crucial asset — not only do they know what materials and gems are the most durable and timeless, but they can give advice on the design, personalization and warranties surrounding heirloom jewelry.


How to Choose an Heirloom 

Heirloom jewelry begins the same as any other beautiful piece — the selection of a lovely item of jewelry you can cherish for years. When it comes to where to buy heirloom jewelry, you don't have to go to a special "heirloom store" to find the perfect piece. Work with an experienced jeweler you trust to select the right item, one that moves you and that your family can enjoy for decades.


Visit Cornell's Jewelers to Find Your Future Heirloom, Today!

At Cornell's Jewelers, we are dedicated to creating a lasting experience, one that extends through the generations of your family. We have almost a decade of knowledge and proficiency, and we are passionate about what we do.

Contact us with any questions about heirloom jewelry or explore our collection online, and begin your family's new heirloom tradition today. 

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