My Grandmother’s jewellery box, an object that has fascinated me since my toddler days, is a cherished memento of a remarkable woman. Mary Kruger passed away during my final year of studying fashion here at Ryerson in 1994, and she was not only dear to me, but was a conduit in my love of fashion and hand-making.
The box, which sat squarely centered on her bedside dresser for my entire upbringing, now resides with me. I don’t interact with it very often, for I have always known that to go there requires tissues-at-hand and a psychological readiness to feel pulsed with emotions at the very moment I pop open its latch. You see, the jewellery box represents a myriad of messages, which seem to possess the ability to penetrate to the depths of my senses and memories in a profound way. My eyes begin to water as I recall everything that was my Grandma with a simple sniff and touch.
Grandma was a stylish woman with a penchant for fashion: she loved to match her jewellery, hats, shoes and gloves to her dresses, and I spent a great deal of my childhood playing dress up with her collection. Thankfully she let me do so.
The box itself is wrapped in a now slightly discoloured beige vinyl material. Imprinted on the top is a motif of three gold roses, very similar to the motif she also had on her tableware set. A quick search of images online leads me to believe the box is inspired by Philippe of Sweden who designed very similar pieces in the 1960’s, yet Grandma’s does not bear any branding.
With the opening of the box, a distinctive scent is revealed. This scent is one that I have yet to smell in any other place or environment, and continues to smell the same forty-three years after I first experienced it. It is nothing other than the distinguishable scent of Grandma’s jewellery box–perhaps I should try to bottle it. I am always amazed how powerful the sense of smell can be in recalling memories, with its precise ability to bring one back to a certain place or event in their life. My curiosity about the power of this sense brought me to research done by Herz in 2004, who determined that “scent-cued memories were more emotional and evocative than memories cued via visual or auditory stimuli” (qtd. in Reid et al 158). The “Proust Phenomenon” is a term coined by Chu and Downes in reference to Marcel Proust’s earlier accounts regarding scent and recall. It describes “the power of scents to provoke vivid and emotionally charged autobiographical memories” (qtd. in Reid et al 158). Interestingly it was also found that memories triggered by scent are greatest at the early school year ages (Chu and Downes, Willander & Larson qtd. in Reid et al 158), the time when I was playing a great deal of dress up with Grandma’s things.
Inside the box a swing out shelf separates the smaller items. The interior is lined with a red satin that features the same gold rose motif present on the top lid. The inside is brimming with plastic baubles and beads that are carefully strung with fantastic metal clasps which seem to be a from the 1950’s and 1960’s mostly.
The cut glass clip-on earrings with matching brooches are reminiscent of Gustave Sherman’s designs from the 1950’s (Collectors Weekly.com).
Some of the clip-on earrings feature screw-back clasps which I remember clearly because of this novel mechanism which is no longer found in earrings today.
A black and cream set of earrings and pendant features a cameo motif that I had asked to borrow in my teenage years. With each piece I touch, I recall a time where she or sometimes I, had worn them.
I draw out a necklace from its resting place entwined with the others in the bottom of the box, I am quickly reminded of the distinct rattling sound of this motion. I experience a powerful jolt of connectedness to these objects and my Grandma, that takes me deep into my thoughts recalling particular moments of being at play with these items and my interactions with Grandma. I feel teary-eyed and sad in my quiet reflection, missing her greatly.
Next, I move over to touch the black name tag pins, a set for her and her husband Harry–“Belles & Beaux Mary Kruger Grenfell“ (Grenfell is the name of a small Saskatchewan town where they started their marriage). Now I am reminded of their many interests, hobbies, talents, and the “joie de vivre” that in my current reflection I realize was central to their life story.
The wealth of emotion elicited by the simple unlocking of this vintage box draws attention to “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett “The Force of Things” 351). Jane Bennett and other proponents of new materialism explore the notion that there is a vitality and force in all things (Vibrant Matter 10) which is helpful in understanding the power these baubles have on my being. Though each item alone has the ability to affect me, when the entire jewellery box is in front of me my five senses are fully-blown by the expose of materials that intermingle with each other and add up to the distinctive and provocative whole. Deeply layered in memories, feelings and nostalgia, this group of items I call “Grandma’s jewellery box” seems to control my emotional state like a joystick. Bennett claims that “in addition to the agential propensity of each member of an assemblage, there is also the agency proper to the grouping itself” (“The Agency of Assemblages” 461) which may explain the exponential power of this object in its entirety.
However, some scholars such as Jennifer Cotter who works in the area of Critical Literary and Cultural Studies, do criticize the mystification and ideological approach of new materialism (177). One may question if it is truly a liveliness flowing from the baubles and beads that is responsible for my emotional response, or if my own subjective existence based on social and cultural structures has elicited my response to the material items before me. Cotter’s critique of new materialism looks to Marx’s labour theories of value to argue that “human labor-power” is the commonality that brings the material world together, not some form of “immanent vitalism” that the new materialists’ theorize (174). If this is so, then perhaps my perception of who my Grandma was, the aesthetic qualities of her pieces, or the cherished smell of her jewellery box, are simply a reaction to what I consciously or unconsciously value based on the social structures surrounding me then and now.
Yet in this autobiographical case study of my relationship to this keepsake, I must share that when my Grandmother died I was asked if I wanted a piece of her more valuable gold jewellery, but instead I requested this box far less valuable commercially, yet priceless to me personally. The brands, the items’ monetary values, their quantities, or the specificity of each item was not at all important, rather it was the collection intact as it was on her dresser that I wanted to savour. If in fact the jewellery box assemblage has no agentic propensity, then it would be a curious experiment to break down my nostalgic yearning into its subjective parts. This exercise might help me to understand the narratives that form my interest and emotional reaction to the box beyond the obvious connection to my loved one. On further contemplation however, I am not certain that this exercise would be possible due to the complexity of the social relationships involved.
Instead I will close up the box, tell its “vitality” to “settle down”, tuck it back into its storage place, and allow my senses and emotional state time to recoup until the next moment my body and mind gets the urge to pop open the latch–one more time.
Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture, vol. 17, no. 3, 2005, pp. 445-466.
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347-372.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Collectors Weekly. Vintage Sherman Costume Jewelry, www.collectorsweekly.com/costume-jewelry/Sherman. 26 Feb 2018.
Cotter, Jennifer. “New Materialism and the Labor Theory of Value.” The Minnesota Review, vol. 2016, no. 87, 2016, pp. 171-181.
Reid, Chelsea A., et al. “Scent-Evoked Nostalgia.” Memory, vol. 23, no. 2, 2015, pp. 157-166.