If you go through the women you know, you can probably recall — without thinking too hard — who’s a gold person and who’s silver. And I don’t mean new friends or old; I mean it literally.
People tend to fall into one camp or the other, and even if they mix the two, spiritually, they're often faithful to their first love. I have one friend whose arms are covered in rose gold bangles; another who has a Georgia O’Keeffe-worthy collection of silver and turquoise. These things seem as tied to their personalities as the music they like or their favorite books; both chosen and instinctive. I’m not sure anyone would know what to say about me, though; they’d probably imagine I don’t own much of either. And they’d be right and wrong.
Once, these matters were kind of fraught. When I was in college, for instance, a book came out called The Hipster Handbook. (Everything about that sentence dates me.) It was an ironic guide to what might, in hindsight, be called the height of the Vice generation and its commodification. Now, we just call that life. But in its self-loathing and you-loathing and semi-joking lists of what hipsters do and don’t do, it remains a valuable cultural artifact of a more innocent period. Anyway, there’s this one part of the book where the authors broke down different kind of hipster aesthetics, and one of the inviolate rules was that hipsters always wore silver jewelry, and never gold.
Around the same time, Lucky magazine published a pictorial guide to mastering the “Sexy ‘70s” look, and — along with plenty of skin and clingy knits — prescribed that anyone in pursuit of such Julie Christie-esque je ne sais quoi must wear only gold jewelry — ideally of a many-stranded and ethereal nature.
Both these arbitrary dicta rested on a similar premise: Gold was about ostentation, silver implied D.I.Y. honesty, and both had to be approached with full knowledge of these implications. No one seemed to care much about which colors flattered the wearer’s complexion or what you happened to like: you had to choose your team. There was also the sticky Sex and the City element: We might not have had the word “basic” yet, but no one wanted to look like Carrie Bradshaw. (I mean, unless you were the kind of person who did.)
At this period in my life, I was certainly as close to a hipster as I’d ever be (not that I’d have admitted it), and yet I was obsessed with what I then-called the “Circa-1980 Harlequin Romance Heroine” look. This aesthetic had the virtue of allowing for both the “pre-makeover” (big glasses and pussy-bows) and post-“uh-oh-the-mogul-boss-needs-a-hot-date-to-make-someone-jealous-and-surprise-you’re-a-sexpot!” after effect. The latter involved lots of slit polyester disco dresses and flimsy thrift store sandals that were always falling apart on the street. I was committed; I smoked Capris and drank amaretto sours for verisimilitude. (Because they were repulsive, there was never any risk of getting drunk.) Obviously, I needed plenty of chains and hoop earrings. But I was a coward; so my thing — during this brief time — became bronze.
Growing up, I’d never worn much jewelry. I didn’t even have pierced ears. As we got older, some of the girls wore Tiffany beans — it was a popular Bat Mitzvah gift — and there were always those people going around talking loudly about how their skin was really sensitive so they could only wear earrings that were pure gold or silver. (Sort of the ambidexterity claim of junior high — ridiculous, but obscurely impressive.) Part of it was that my mom made a big point of wearing no jewelry, not even a wedding ring — although my parents were, and are, married — which was half a vague feminist thing and half, I think, to do with her family.
You see, there’s History with precious metals.
My grandfather used to be called eccentric, but was in fact crazy, and I’m sure if he’d ever been willing to go to a doctor, they’d have diagnosed him with something clinical. He wasn’t a miser; he didn’t have any money. But he had no faith in the American government, the stock market, human nature, or banks. Instead, he bought all the gold and silver he could lay his hands on — usually at tag sales or thrift shops — and smelted them down into ingots. Some of these were stashed in a cabinet he’d built into his bed’s headboard. Some were in a series of incredibly heavy safety deposit boxes. A few are still rumored to be buried under the property, long since sold. Occasionally, very occasionally, a piece would escape the inferno and we’d be given a delicate 1920s watch or a silver-mesh evening bag. If any one of us was rumored to know a Catholic, he’d try to unload some crucifixes on them. My dad liked to say he knew the price of nothing, and the value of nothing.
Like a magpie, he also liked brass stuff (there’s a brass whale staring at me as I type this) and sometimes pewter (he showed me how to tell silver from pewter or plate by holding an ice cube to the surface), but precious metals were his Goldfinger-like passion. So I think, in short, that we didn’t know how to be normal with gold and silver. I do remember a fascination with a 1980 educational film on gold (called Gold!) that was on perpetual rotation in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Gems and Minerals. It was narrated by George Plimpton and my best friend and I thought it was hilarious. But wearing it would have been weird…like flaunting dollar bills. I remember the narration claimed that all the world’s gold could sit in the middle of a football field, and you could still play a game around it. Well, that’s not the sort of thing one forgets.
Nowadays, when everything is so rooted in references both conscious and unconscious. Claire’s Accessories cranks out cheap metals of every hue, and I don’t know that there’s quite as much judgment surrounding the metals one wears. When I read profiles of stylish women, they’re much more concerned (or say they are) with the “stories” behind their pieces than their value; my husband had this hand-crafted by a friend, or this ethically-sourced uncut ruby represents my baby. People mix metals as blithely as we do everything else. Drinking gold may not have caught on, and that guy may have turned blue from colloidal silver, but that just goes to show how comfortable we've become with precious metals.
Today, I wear a wedding ring and almost never anything else. If asked, I say it’s because my glasses are so prominent that there’s no point in confusing things with a bunch of other accessories, and that’s not untrue. I don’t have a jewelry box or travel with earring backs; and I'm not dripping in ostentation or personal history. But I probably own more gold or silver than anyone I know. Because, stashed away in a location I shall not reveal, there are several neat rows of ingots of both metals. I don’t discriminate. I just like knowing they’re there. You know — for a rainy day when I might want to play a game of football.