I’m Lea Wait and, as many of you know, I’ve been involved with antiques all of my life. My great-grandfather sold antiques and fine Scottish and Irish silver, crystal and linens in his Boston shop over a hundred years ago. My grandmother was a dealer in antique dolls and toys; her business was very like that of Gussie’s in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series. And my mother and I were (and I still am, although I’m not as active as I used to be) antique print dealers.
I grew up in a family of both dealers and collectors. (And, yes, there’s a difference!) My father collected ivory carvings and scrimshaw. And then broken bank notes (paper money from American banks that went bankrupt.) My sister Nancy collected Thomas Nast cartoons and wood engravings and letters. My sister Doris collected miniature Mercedes-Benz cars, and vintage Fiestaware dishes. Me? When I was a teenager I collected political memorabilia and old postcards and out-of-print Edith Wharton books. When I was older I collected special Christmas tree ornaments and old Santa Clauses.
My daughter Ali collects niello jewelry from Thailand, where she was born. My daughters Caroline and Elizabeth collect Spode Christmas Tree china. One
of my grandsons has growing collections of baseball cars and LEGOs.
But in recent years tastes (and space) have changed. I’ve sold my political and postcard collections. My sister donated her Nasts to a museum. There is a limit to how much china you can actually use and hundreds of Santas can become too many Santas.
Today I don’t really collect anything (the thousands of books in my home don’t count, really, because I use them as well as admire them. And that’s my story.)
But I do have some family pieces I value, and that I won’t part with.
One small collection I have is of Scottish jewelry. My grandmother, who came from Scotland, always called it “Cairngorm” jewelry, and left a piece of hers to each of my sisters and I. In Scotland today it is called “pebble jewelry,” and souvenir shops sell imitations of the real thing. In the Harry Potter movies, actress Maggie Smith wears one.
Real pieces are different colored agates and other Scottish stones set in sterling silver settings. They became popular, along with tartans, after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought their Scottish castle, Balmoral, in 1852. Victoria and Albert often dressed in tartans, and so did their children. Some of the first pieces of “pebble” jewelry were kilt pins.
Agates include amethyst, citrine, carnelian, jasper or bloodstone … they can be cloudy or clear or transparent. In this jewelry, small pieces of stone are cut and set to be level with their silver settings. I have one piece which is just one stone; others have perhaps two dozen stones.
I first loved them because my grandmother loved them. And then I loved them more when I found out more about them. And that’s the best reason for having a collection.
For example, one of my pieces has a special meaning … it’s in the shape of an anchor. Anchor pins were worn by Scots who fished off the East Coast of Scotland, especially those who worked out of Aberdeen. Like the heavy sweaters they wore, knit especially for them by wives and mothers and sweethearts, the pins were worn to bring good luck on the waters and, if fate was not with their owners, to help identify their body so they could be brought home.
I love that my book Seaward Born, although not set in Scotland, pictured a drawing of an anchor very like my pin at the beginning of each chapter. That pin has inspired other stories, too … one of my “not ready for publication” books is about one of these anchor pins, and those who wore it.
I often look at the pieces of Pebble Jewelry I have and wonder about those who wore them before I did. Because, like all antiques, each piece has a story.
And that’s what I’ve always thought collections were: symbols of the stories they told.