Originally, in British law, heirlooms were moveable properties that had to be inherited through the family estate.
You could sell one that you owned while you were alive, but once you died, it couldn't be willed away from the family.
These days, the law is obsolete, even in Great Britain's landed classes. But the concept — a piece of moveable property tied by tradition to the family — is still strong in Western culture.
Heirlooms don't have to come with a big market value.
Most of us don't have diamonds in the family! Anything that the family values, whether it's for the item's usefulness, its price tag, or just its sentimental associations, can become an heirloom.
There's no fixed definition, but you can generally call any piece of property that's changed hands through at least one generation and remained in active use an heirloom. Dad's watch, Mom's pearl necklace; Grandma's embroidery scissors — if someone's using them and loving them, they're heirlooms.
And they're awesome to have.
Qualities of a True Heirloom
Why should families have heirlooms?
1. They Connect the Family
A well-used object is its own story. It reminds the current user of all the users who came before him or her. In the case of a family heirloom, that's a living reminder of past generations.
2. They Serve a Purpose
An heirloom is, by definition, an object in use. It fills a need in the household. That makes all the memories tied up in the heirloom an active presence, not a passive one. You're going to think about the previous owners (your family) more when you're using their heirloom on a regular basis.
There are decorative heirlooms, to be sure: vases, paintings, and so forth. But those are still serving a function, so long as they're placed somewhere you enjoy seeing them. (If it's been gathering dust in the attic for years, the heirloom status starts to get more dubious.)
3. They Replace Generic Products
Every heirloom piece in the family is one less piece you're buying new from stores.
Whether it's furniture, jewelry, art, or something else entirely, heirlooms serve the same utilitarian function as pieces with no sentimental value, while also bringing some personal joy into your life.
What would you rather have? Something out of a box from IKEA, or the same table where you grandmother and grandfather ate their breakfast together every morning?
How to Create a Family Heirloom
If you already have an heirloom (or several) in your family, congratulations! Treasure them and take good care of them.
Be willing to spend some money on upkeep, including specialty crafting skills where required. Heirlooms in good shape gain value as they age (in addition to the priceless sentimental value), so it's often worth spending more than, say, a new watch would cost to keep an old watch running.
But what if you don't have a family heirloom? Now's the time to create one!
Step 1: Think About Future Family Needs
Purchase your heirloom-to-be with an eye toward future generations. You want something your children and their children will actively want to inherit from you.
Some options are obvious. Watches, for example, are easy to transfer and, so long as the style isn't too radical, relatively timeless — no pun intended.
Larger furniture, like beds and chests of drawers, probably won't be in demand until children are fully-grown and have fixed living spaces of their own. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, as it means they'll be ready to inherit right around the time you're ready to part with the heirloom!
Don't obsess too much over future market value. You're not buying a collectible to sit in a vault as a hedge against financial hardship. You're buying a treasured property that they'll want to have in their everyday lives.
And, of course, as mercenary as this sounds, you should probably think about who you're likely to want to pass heirlooms onto, and how many of those relatives you have. To avoid family squabbles, it's nice to have a beloved heirloom piece for each of your offspring, ideally one suited to each individual's tastes and needs.
Step 2: Invest in Quality
We think of heirlooms as things that are already old, but there's a growing market for “heirloom quality” or “heirloom ready” crafted goods. These are new products built from sturdy materials with craftsmanship designed to withstand generations of use, rather than the effectively disposable furniture and other items American consumers have come to expect.
(Of course, a growing market also means a growing number of companies playing fast and loose with the term. Be cautious here.)
You can buy something brand new that's made to last for generations. You probably can't do it, however, at department stores and big-box chains. Look for small-scale crafters that are only producing a few items a year. Be willing to say “no” a lot until you find someone that does the absolute top quality of work.
It's often best to buy directly from the person or facility that makes the product. “Made in China” (or anywhere in southern Asia) should be an immediate warning sign. Family-owned watchmakers, Amish woodworkers, and other traditional businesses of that nature are a good source for true heirloom-quality goods.
It'll cost more than you're used to seeing at department and big-box stores — often an order of magnitude more, i.e., thousands of dollars instead of hundreds, or tens of thousands instead of a few thousand.
But you're not just buying for your use over the next few years. You're buying for the next hundred years of use by your whole family. It's an investment worth making.
Step 3: Do the Needed Upkeep
Everything needs a little tender loving care now and then.
Keep wooden furniture oiled and polished as needed. Take cars and watches in to have an expert do regular maintenance (as well as specialty repairs). Make sure prints and paintings are treated and kept behind archival glass to protect the images.
An heirloom in fresh repair is a gift. An heirloom that needs expensive restoration is more of an obligation. It's not hard to guess which your family would prefer you leave them.
Every heirloom piece in the family should be appreciated and loved not only because of its monetary value but also because of the history that comes with it. One particular investment can turn out to be a quality item passed on through generations. Having a family heirloom is definitely an art.
Want to know more about men's jewelry? Click here to view an infographic on ring finger and symbolism.
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