ADORNED // Vanessa Agard Jones

// Taking a peek into the jewelry collections of interesting women //

Today I'm very honored to share the jewelry collection of Vanessa Agard-Jones.  I met Vanessa at Caffe 817 one early morning.  I saw her wrists stacked with silver bangles and I just had to ask about them.  We discovered a mutual love for jewelry, storytelling, and the connection that can form between women through folk traditions (we are both quilters).  

Vanessa is a professor at Yale in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Her expertise is in sexuality studies in the African diaspora.  She has been working diligently for the last few years on a research project based in Martinique that is exploring queer identities and sexuality in a place that has been impacted by hormone-altering pesticides.  Needless to say, she is incredible and fascinating to talk to.  

We poured tea and chatted at her dining room table with her sweet dog.  Here are some outtakes from our afternoon together-- enjoy her collection and stories.   

1//  This is the one I don't have the story for but is the most precious.  This coin is a piece that my Grandmother, and my Mother, and my Aunt all wore.  Growing up I always remember seeing all three of these women, the women on my mother's side, wearing these long chains with these coins dangling from them.

My Aunt got very sick in the early 80's with a brain condition call Meningioma, and ended up declining over the course of a decade.  My Grandmother had died right before her, and so my mother inherited all three of the coins.  For a time she wore all three, her mother's, her sister's and her own.

She gave me my grandmother's at a certain point, I think when she felt I had reached adulthood in her mind.  I wear it quite often and it really does remind me of the kind of women who I grew up idealizing and loving, and who really gave me a very loving and beautiful childhood.  Most of my jewelry is connected to these women.

My aunt and my mom both worked for People magazine, my mom was an editor and reporter and my aunt was a photo editor and photographer. Her husband was an architect for NBC and they were very Upper West Side, never had kids, had a gorgeous apartment on on the water on Riverside Drive, had two matching Yorkies which they fed chicken livers from Zabar's.  They had a very different life than what my mom and dad had, who had kids and had to figure how to make ends meet, and my aunt and uncle were fabulous, running around being artists.

2// This was my Aunt's and it shows her sense of humor.  It was her pinky ring and one side reads LOVE and the other side reads FUCK.  It was so my aunt, she was brazen and sort of crass and so I love wearing her ring.  You can either be sweet and gentle, or you can be, you know... I usually wear it with the fuck side up.  It's very much her sense of humor.  She was the smoking, cursing, drinking, fabulous sort of auntie.

3// The other side of her is in her other pinky ring, with these classic initials, and I think of it as representing her very classy and sophisticated side.  Her first name was Betsy, although she really didn't like her name, especially when people called her Betsy Ann.  I called her Tante, which is strange because there is no French connection in our family.  It wasn't until I was in 3rd grade that I discovered in class that "tante" was the word for aunt in French, and it was so like her to not want to be called auntie but instead, 'call me Tante'.  Just fabulous.

4// These I wear a lot less often but I keep them in my jewelry case even when I don't wear them.  They belonged to my grandmother and she wore them, and this is her.

And a picture of me in the other one.

KE:  This is you?  Oh my, so cute!  I love lockets, they are such great little storytelling devices.  I've been noticing through interviewing how much jewelry connects women to the other women women in their lives.

V: Absolutely, if you have nothing else to pass down, most women have a piece of treasured jewelry.

KE:  And it doesn't have to be very expensive, it can just be the piece that she always wore.

V: Yes, it's so true.

5// The bangles are the things that are really important because I wear these every single day of my life.  I don't know the true history of West Indian bangles but I can give you the version that I think I know, and then there might be some more clear history out there somewhere.

Most little West Indian American girls know each other by their bangles.  The history, some say, can be traced to a melding of African and Indian populations in the Caribbean.  One story of their origin is that they are worn to remind people of shackles, except they are worn on one arm instead of two so the shackles never join at the wrist, but give you the sound of what it was like as people tried to navigate their lives while chained.  Some say the origin of the bangles is in the transit of slaves, and was one of the things given as payment for selling people to slave-traders.  So there is this sort of correlation between the kind of wealth that you would need to buy your own self.

When I was a baby I had a tiny little pair of baby bangles, I still have them in a box.  Typically what happens is women wear two pairs of bangles of the same design, and men wear single bangles. These ones were my father's mother's, who I never met, and again there is that connection between generations of women.

The others were given to me at various points by my parents. I think the cowrie shell was from my graduation from college.

This heavy one, it came to me when I taught my first class as a college professor for an adult education course in New York.  I had a student from Barbados, Margaret was her name, and when the class was over she gave this one to me.  And she wrote me this beautiful card about how proud she was to have a young Bajan teacher.

All but the one from Margaret where given to me as pairs, but I've lost many of them which is the awful reality of it.  It's actually been with the advent of all the airport screening that I started losing them because it's the only time I ever take them off.  Even though they don't necessarily set the alarm off, they see them on me and make me go back and take them off which is a bit of a heartbreak.

6// Erica, my close friend, gave me this.  She gave me one and she has one so it's like our updated friendship bracelet.  We'd had a conversation one day about feeling like, somewhat socially awkward and not being totally at ease out in the world, and we were just chatting and quilting and drinking wine and somehow came up with this silly idea that everyone in the world who is socially awkward should have to wear a green thread around their wrist to help them identify each other.  A couple months later she came to my house and gave me this.  It was really, really sweet and this is our grown up version of a friendship bracelet.

Thank you Vanessa for opening up your jewelry box and letting us take a peek at your collection.  

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