A few months ago, I took my favourite bracelet to be fixed. A simple, chunky silver bangle with an inscription from my granny on the inside, I’ve worn it every day for almost a decade – and every night, with every outfit, until the day in October when the loose hinge gave out and sent the two halves clattering to the floor in Marylebone station. Without it, my wrist looked naked and sad. But it was good to have it repaired, I told the jeweller when I picked it up, as I’d been forever worrying about it falling off in the swimming pool.
“YOU SWIM WITH IT ON?” he bellowed, like I’d told him I showered in acid. “STOP THAT IMMEDIATELY.” But, I protested, I never take it off. That’s the point.
“Ignore him,” whispered the cashier conspiratorially as she handed over my receipt. “It’s part of your life – you have to love it your way.”
She was right; the bracelet lives along with me and, by extension, so does my gran – and my cousin, who has a matching one. Likewise the other piece that I never take off: a delicate initial necklace that was a bridesmaid gift from one of my best friends. Those things stay on me wherever, whatever, and if they get tarnished and scratched and tangled with hair in the process, then that’s part of the deal. To my mind, it’s still better than leaving them forlornly in a box, “for best”.
Beyond the obvious engagement rings and wedding bands, the jewellery people choose not to take off tends to come with the greatest stories. Ask people about their rings and pendants, and you unpack a whole trove of family history, travel stories, kismet and coincidence.
You can’t always predict what you’ll love for ever. My friend Jemima wears a pair of silver star earrings her mum put in a Christmas cracker seven years ago
When I started asking around last week for other people’s never-take-it-off jewellery, the most common responses were rings and necklaces gifted by parents and grandparents, or to commemorate a legacy. “I wear my great-grandma Anne's necklace everyday,” says Jenny. “My middle name is hers and the necklace makes me feel a stronger connection to her.” Mourning jewellery has been around for centuries, since that time before we had photographs to remember people by – and, while it’s an obvious idea to keep loved ones close by wearing them physically on our bodies, it’s no less powerful in its simplicity.
While locks of hair probably won’t have a revival anytime soon, plenty of people wear gemstones made using loved ones’ ashes, or – and I had no idea this was even a thing – breast milk. “A lot of people find [it] really weird,” says Jen, owner of a sparkling, pale rock that was made with her own milk while nursing her daughter. “But I love it because it reminds me of a hard-fought achievement.”
And there are just as many of these happy, triumphant memories linked to our jewellery as there are sad. “I wear an Alex Monroe bee necklace,” says Laura. “It was a 'leaving London' present to myself – using a voucher given as a leaving gift from the job that sucked the life out of me for years. It makes me wildly happy, which is fitting.”
In fact, my favourite of all the stories are the pieces people have gifted themselves. They’re often triumphant post-break-up symbols, solo travel souvenirs, adult riffs on friendship bracelets, or just defiant gestures of the kind to make Destiny’s Child proud – like Fiona, who bought her Tessa Metcalfe “power orb” on her 30th birthday, or Emma, who wears a ruby ring she bought, “when it dawned on me that I don't need to wait for someone to buy me nice jewels". Throw your (beautifully bedecked) hands up at me.
And the glorious thing is that, often, these aren’t “classics”. Not the kind of discreet, homogenous accessories one is supposed to be able to wear (and I defy you not to read this in the voice of Julian from Bridget Jones) with anything, to any occasion, but unapologetic attention-grabbers. Dusty St Christophers and claddaghs, gothic bits from our teenage years and trinkets from the end of the pier; tourist novelties, costume bling and clunky heirlooms that we’d probably never buy in a shop, but love because they found their way to us anyway. You can’t always predict what you’ll love for ever. My friend Jemima wears a pair of silver star earrings her mum put in a Christmas cracker seven years ago. “They probably cost less than £5, but I love them and never take them out. I even wore them on my wedding day,” she says.
Most importantly, the jewellery we never take off is jewellery that transcends trends. These pieces don’t “go” or clash with our clothes any more than our hair or eyes or elbows. And we wear them not just as style statements, but as a living archive; they’re little exhibits in the museum of our lives. Perhaps, one day, we get bored of them and change the collection. Maybe they fall off or break irreparably, and for a while we feel lost without them. We worry the man in the jewellery shop was right.
But – notwithstanding those urban legends we all heard at school, of people being throttled to death by necklaces while they slept – it almost feels like a bigger risk to be too precious and deprive your favourite jewellery of a life. Besides, it’s not just laziness but a tiny act of rebellion, choosing to go against caution and keep those special pieces on, even when everything else is stripped off. If you love something, they say, set it free.
Or at least wear it swimming.