Heirloom: A valuable object that has been given by older members of a family to younger members of the same family over many years.
I was incredibly lucky growing up to spend a lot of time with my Grandparents.
They moved to a lovely little bungalow down on the Kent coast before I was born, so as far back as I can remember, holidays were spent by the sea.
It was a good 2 hours in the car from London, but I have the most amazing memories, of flying colourful kites along the sea front, huge family dinners around the kitchen table and car boot sales early on Saturday mornings.
My Grandmother loved to collect. She had concrete garden ornaments in the garden and a magnificent collection of handmade porcelain dolls. Each doll had its own stand, seat or baby carriage, rendering the tiny bungalow almost impossible to navigate. And when our first daughter was born, she was gifted a porcelain doll, which still remains safely tucked away for when she’s old enough to care for it.
For me, heirlooms don’t necessarily have to be expensive antiques.
The things we pass down and the stories that accompany them, link one generation to the next, connecting us to a family history otherwise lost, far more so than official records or births, deaths and marriages.
So here’s my own top 12 favourite family heirlooms and treasures. What else would you add?
For most women, their wedding dress is the most important item of clothing they will ever wear and wedding gown heirlooming has become increasingly popular in recent years, with companies offering wedding dress preservation as a specialist service.
Whilst many modern brides opt to alter antique dresses in some way, the idea of passing a dress down through the generations, connecting a bride to her mother, grandmother and all the women that came before is incredibly special.
Whilst many newly engaged couples carefully choose their perfect engagement ring from a jewellery shop, or opt to have something special made, there is something incredibly beautiful about starting your married life with a family heirloom ring.
Heirloom rings often hold memories and personal meaning that can’t be found elsewhere.
Inherited rings can be from either the bride or groom’s family and can be an actual engagement ring, or, a ring made out of precious stones recovered from another heirloom piece of jewellery, such as a brooch or wedding tiara.
In 2017, Prince Harry chose two diamonds from his Mothers jewellery collection to fashion a custom engagement ring for his bride Meghan Markle and in 2010, Prince William proposed to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge with his Mothers iconic sapphire engagement ring, with its 12 carat blue Ceylon sapphire and 14 solitaire diamonds.
Engagement rings are definitely not the only pieces of jewellery passed down as heirlooms.
Wedding tiaras, St Christopher medals, vintage strings of natural pearls, Victorian cameo brooches and art deco cluster rings are just a few of the most sort after antiques.
Whilst many of these heirlooms are safely stored away and cherished exactly how they are, it’s pretty common these days for inherited jewellery to be remodelled in some way to make them actually wearable.
Gold can be melted and reshaped. Diamonds and precious stones can be reset. It’s a wonderful way to keep a loved one close without having to wear something straight out of the 1830’s and a strong alternative to selling something that might have been in the family for a hundred years.
We come from an exceptionally musical family, so the idea of heirlooming musical instruments is always going to appeal to me.
A number of years ago now, I acquired a Stradivarius violin on Ebay. It was (of course), a fake, but my Father still repaired it for me and it is at least playable.
Whilst many people dream of finding an elusive Stradivarius hidden in the loft, often heirloom instruments are simply those that remind us of people we’ve lost. A guitar, mouth organ or battered old accordion that holds memories of favourite songs, pieces of music and time spent together.
My Grandfather instilled in me a love of making sweets and preserves. Hours spent in the kitchen making the most wonderful butter fudges, marshmallows, jelly babies, fresh fondant icing, marzipan and jams.
Inherited recipes are absolutely priceless. Tried, tested, worked and re-worked until perfect.
There’s something really special about re-creating your Grandmother’s cinnamon apple pie, Christmas cake or chocolate Smartie cookies. The wonderful smells evoking fond memories of being small.
I have a particular soft spot for old photographs. My Mother has an ottoman full of them and there’s no better way to spend a quiet afternoon than flicking through looking at the familiar, yet unfamiliar people. Studying the faces and recognising inherited traits in myself and even my children.
Some black and white, some sepia, many spoiled slightly by too much sunlight., all completely priceless. Windows into days and lives gone by. Different clothes, homes, hair styles and ways of life.
In an increasingly Instagram world, photos are becoming even more important and for me that’s definitely not a bad thing. They are such an invaluable way to capture precious memories that would otherwise be lost.
A few weeks ago, I went up into the attic to look for some baby scans for a project I’m working on and inside one of the baby boxes I found my mother’s diary from when I was small.
I sat there for at least an hour pouring over the pages, neatly written in her perfectly tiny script. Little details like how much milk I’d drunk that day and where we had been for our daily walk. I appreciate that diary more than many other things in my baby box because it’s a real connection to my own life story.
Diaries are perfect heirlooms, giving a unique view of life in another time. They provide a real connection to own history and they are one of the only ways in which our ancestors can still speak to us, through the pages.
Do you remember being small and being taught to write letters? How about having a pen friend, or being asked to write a thank you letter to an elderly relative?
Have you kept any of them? I have. A whole box. Nothing like emails or social media messages that are so easily deleted, or filed and forgotten.
Letters are altogether more thoughtful. Personal, creative and carefully written.
Consider love letters dating back to the great war. Real heirlooms. The value completely immeasurable.
I wrote to my Grandmother for years. She was profoundly deaf, so picking up a phone was never an option and letter writing was a fantastic way to communicate what was going on in the day to day.4
Sadly, the speed and convenience of instant messaging means that the art of letter writing with an actual pen is fast dying out, but I hope some people continue. It would be lovely for these heirlooms to still exist for generations to come.
Remembrance Sunday is a huge deal around here. Every year, there’s a parade through the centre of the village, all the way to St Peter & Paul’s church, where we stand and listen to the names of the fallen being read out and everyone respectfully observes a 2 minute silence at 11am.
Standing there around the Cenotaph, are service men and women, past and present, in their finest parade attire, wearing their poppy’s and of course, the medals they have been awarded.
Medals, uniforms and other pieces of military memorabilia are often passed on to family members and saved for posterity. They are a wonderful way to record a family history of service in the armed forces and are something to be immensely proud of.
I am 100% biased when I say that I think handmade heirlooms like blankets and quilts are some of the best. I love handmade. Knowing that hours upon hours have been lovingly spent creating something makes it all the more special.
Traditionally, handmade quilts have always been passed from one generation to the next. Crafted at some point in time by a family member and stored safely away in pristine condition.
Quilts are made by sewing several layers of fabric together. Usually there’s a decorative top layer, a padded wadding middle layer and a fabric backing.
The top layer is often made of many different patches sewn together with a running stitch, although other more decorative stitches are also included. All painstakingly stitched by hand.
They are such a wonderful expression of imagination and the perfect way to preserve a families heritage for generations to come.
I’ve grouped these together, one, because the list was getting incredibly long and two, because all these things have a lot in common.
I remember as a child, a painting of a little girl with a collie dog hanging on my grandmothers wall.
It was a copy of course, of a painting called A Special Pleader by Charles Burton Barber, originally painted in 1983, but I still quite liked it and it was special because it reminded me of her and her collie dogs.
Occasionally though, you do hear of those people who suddenly discover that a forgotten Van Gough or Rembrant is being passed down through their family.
Artwork, porcelain and silverware have always been extremely collectable. Whether they are valuable or not, completely depends on who made them and when. So whilst most pieces end up being sentimental value only, like the Charles Barber painting, every now and then a $4 million master shows up.
Toys and other things people love to collect have always been popular heirlooms.
Of course you get the very collectable ones. Vintage Steiff teddy bears or rare Albert Marque porcelain dolls, but even more modern toys can make wonderful heirlooms. A window into childhood in another era. So if you have your grandmother’s 1960’s Sindy doll, or even your own original childhood Fisher Price Chatter phone, Care Bear or My Little Pony, they’re definitely worth keeping safe somewhere.
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