When I was a child one of my favorite things to do when visiting my grandmother was to sit beside her as she shared her beautifully lacquered Japanese jewelry box with me. That box held a special place in her heart and brought back many memories of when she and her family had been stationed in Japan, when her husband, (not my Grandfather) was in the service.
The post war officers clubs hosted many a "social". These events afforded military couples stationed on foreign military bases, to experience a taste of controlled nightlife with their loved ones and friends.
I'd watch her as her hands lovingly caressed the ornate mother of pearl and abalone inlay that decorated the box with images of Mount Fuji and fancy Geisha girls. When my grandmother opened the box she was instantly transported to faraway places and distant memories..
This type of jewelry chest was traditionally purchased by American military men and given to the one they loved. These chests were often referred to as "Sweetheart Tansu" during Post-war Japan.
As each little compartment and padded drawer was opened, the treasured item within brought back memories of a special time, place, or person - connecting her viscerally to that moment, forever.
When Grandma passed away, several items from the box were given to me and I love them still. A strand of Mikimoto pearls, a beautiful sterling silver necklace etched with Thai dancers, earrings, a brooch and matching bracelet, and an intricately carved ivory pendant, simply hung on a worn leather cord.
Thoughts of my beautiful grandmother, her glamorous personal style, and jewelry have always warmed my memories of her. I think not only of the moments associated with them, but the fine craftsmanship, design, and quality they possess. They are as "cool" to me now as they were 40 years ago.
My grandmother - or - Glam-mother!
The phrase: "They don't make 'em like they used to," sits with me as I reflect on current trends in the marketplace. The jewelry industry today is afflicted by trends moving so fast, that an item is often passé by the time you bring it home. Semi-precious stones often are replaced with a dab of epoxy resin for color. Gold and silver have been replaced with scary toxins like cadmium, chromium, nickel, brominated flame retardants, chlorine, mercury and arsenic - dangerous carcinogens that have no business being near our skin, let alone hanging around our necks. Like lead, cadmium adds weight and shape to jewelry and is cheap to use in manufacturing.
Last week I spoke with two chatty, darling little girls who came into my store oooohing and ahhhing over the jewery cases. Adorably they inquired as to the cost of several pieces of jewelry in the shop. The conversation briefly went something like this. "How much is that, and that, and that?" in true childlike manner, they asked.. "It's $ 69.00, $119.00, $250.00" I replied. I chuckled as their little eyes and and jaws gaped wide as they both breathlessly and repeatedly chimed the word, "... Dollars?" These sweet little girls were approximately 10 years and they excitedly proceeded to —show and tell me— about the bounty of jewelry they had just purchased with "only five dollars"! They had obviously be given money to entertain themselves, and my heart broke when I saw what they had each purchased. These sweet babies were so proud of the sparlkly treasures they had found and excitedly proceeded to tell me how much it "cost", or rather - didn't cost, compared to the cost of the jewelry they encountered in my store.
Hello! Parents!!! Children’s organs are still developing! A level of cadmium that may not be as toxic to a healthy adult is seriously toxic to children; the problem with cadmium is that it accumulates in the body and itt can cause kidney disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It can contribute to brittle bones. It has been linked to neurological disease, lung cancer and even prostate enlargement. Children deserve the best chance possible to grow up healthy - in mind and body. I am concerned that they are being subtly poisoned and many people aren't even aware of it. $10.00 may have purchased a moment of peace quiet for the parents of these youngsters, but at what possible longterm cost?
With so many health related issues striking the young and not so young today, might it be related to the hidden toxins in our world? It's no secret that manufacturers have become careless and complacent in their use of cheap, hazardous materials - which is why it's so important for retailers like me to play watchdog and be diligent about the items we present our customers with. I care about my customers, and I care about the health of my community; therefore, I refuse to sell items made in toxic foreign factories with cancer-causing chemicals. Sadly, many retailers are not doing their due-diligence. The bottom line speaks louder than public safety, and if it's sparkly and cheap, it'll sell.
Last year, the non-profit organization The Ecology Center ran tests on 99 pieces of jewelry (some of which were geared toward children but most for adults) that were purchased from 14 different stores across the country, many big boxes or chain stores. They checked each piece for dangerous additives like lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, brominated flame retardants, chlorine, mercury and arsenic. And, surprise, surprise, over half of the jewelry had high levels of these hazardous chemicals, including 27 of the pieces that had lead levels exceeding the 300 ppm limit for children's products. Ninety percent of the pieces had chromium and nickel, which can cause allergic reactions, and 10 percent of the pieces had cadmium, which is a toxic metal that's been the subject of other jewelry and toy recalls. There's also the problem of brominated flame retardants, which are usually sprayed onto jewelry made in China, and can rub off onto your skin or be inhaled. The compound used is a known hormone disrupter - definitely not the best accessory one can think of. Are you really going to be satisfied buying something that is simply "compliant," meaning allowable toxicity, because its pretty, trendy and cheap? As the Christmas season approaches, I (like you) am considering the gifts I'll be giving to my loved ones and I thoroughly renounce this unfortunate trend. In the past 30 years, the persona of the retail marketplace has changed, and with so many opportunities for excellence and personal expression, too many stores have made shortcuts and mediocrity king.
If a company can have a mission other than simple survival, mine is to resist the current direction the market is taking and suggest another way. Good design isn't something disposable, and you can take pride in something you bought years ago; perhaps even sharing it with generations to come, creating memories around something special and precious.
Anything truly valuable takes some care, whether it's your grandmother's jewelry or your grandmother herself. The things you wear really can be an expression of who you are; they can make you feel good, but they also can make you sick if you're not reading labels and asking questions.
What will be the story around a piece of jewelry you buy? Will that item reflect a special and lasting memory, or it will expose you or your loved one to toxins?
Lauren Woltman is the owner of Hop Sing Trading Co. in the Bashford Courts, 130 W. Gurley St.