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The World in a Jewelry Box

Some people bring home magnets, key chains and maps from their travels; I bring home accessories. Floral scarves, beaded headbands, colorful hats, kitschy coin purses. But more than anything else, I bring home jewelry.

Not crazy, need-a-bodyguard, can’t-check-my-luggage jewelry. Fun jewelry. Some of my frill is extra, but most of it isn’t; some of it is pricey, most of it is not — a pair of almond-shaped silver studs from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul that cost a few lira; a pair of triangular gold dangling earrings bought from a store in the center of Athens on the day I found out I was accepted to graduate school; a pair of blue circular earrings from the Malcolm Shabazz market in Harlem some 20 blocks away from my apartment (local travel, am I right?).

Some has been bought for me by friends on their own trips. Over the years, my friend Ari has given me earrings from Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa, as well as a necklace from Kenya and a bracelet from Paris. Oluseyi gave me a necklace made of the black, white, red and green paper beads that are popular in French Guiana. Selina gave me sparkling teal earrings from Istanbul when I graduated from college. And it was a long purple wooden necklace, given to me the summer before my senior year of high school by my friend Imani after her trip to Spain, that first had me daydreaming about when I too would visit the Mediterranean.

If this all sounds like a lot, you have to understand that everything about my sense of style is maximalist: I love bright colors, feathers, fringe, animal print — typically not all together, but sometimes … all together. Let’s just say that I prefer to ignore Coco Chanel’s advice to take one accessory off before leaving the house.

But my proclivity for holding onto ornaments doesn’t exactly conform to an age where a Marie Kondo-endorsed sense of minimalism is in vogue. There’s also the practical matter that my apartment is a 400-square foot studio, and one woman’s cheerful collection of objects is another’s sanity-stretching clutter. Sometimes I am both of those women.

In March, as quarantine began, like many others, I set some personal goals. I promised myself that I would declutter my closet. I would use this extra time at home to tidy up and redecorate, to care for my plants and to finally organize my jewelry. I would accept that I will not, in fact, turn the remaining earring of a lost pair into a necklace or a ring. I would let go of the items that I’ve outgrown and haven’t worn in years, along with the earrings that have been given to me that I could never work up the courage to re-gift out of fear that the person who gave them to me would one day ask if I still owned them.

As I confronted my collection, I realized that my reluctance to get rid of jewelry over the years has been less to do with personal laziness or a maximalist style ethos, and more to do with what these souvenirs give me. Stuck at home, going through my jewelry has been an escape to past adventures and a reminder of friends who are now far away. Each time I wear certain items, I’m transported to a certain city and moment in my life.

The chunky, oversize blue, turquoise and aquamarine beaded necklace that my friend Paola picked out for me from her mother’s store in Abruzzo, transports me to the final weeks of our senior year of college, a time of trepidation and joy. Days after Paola gave me that necklace we submitted our theses, and soon after our parents arrived in Rome. When I wear it, I am right back in those heady days of feeling like the world was opening up in front of us.

The sequined navy, silver and black band that doubles as a headband and necklace reminds me of romping through Paris in the winter at 21. The neon rainbow fringe earrings from Marbella remind me of my best friend’s wedding there a few years ago. A silver floral pendant was a gift from my primary school dorm mates, given to me days before I left Zimbabwe for the United States. Friends who recently visited Lisbon gave me a pair of winged gold earrings created by a designer whose work I stumbled upon years ago. Those earrings remind me of the friends who gave them to me, but they also remind me of the day I spent exploring Lisbon, and how I tripped and fell on the front step of a boutique. I got up, walked in and came out with new earrings and a necklace.

One of the reasons we travel is to connect with other people. In years of shopping for jewelry around the world I’ve always come away with more than just a new bauble: I’ve learned about the history of a town while having a bracelet made; about the customs of a country while trying on rings. I’ve met fascinating artists and business owners, people who shared their stories — and their favorite local haunts, the kind that you’d never find in a guidebook — with me. I’ve also made lasting friendships.

Years after I left Italy, I met a colleague who had a silver ring inspired by the Roman aqueducts that for 500 years brought water into the city’s center. She’d studied in Italy about a decade before I did and upon visiting Rome with her children years later, she bought the ring. When I returned to Rome, I went to the same store and bought the same ring in gold. And so the ring has come to encapsulate something slightly different: that Rome, stoic and unchanging, has imprinted its effects on new generations of visitors and inhabitants, uniting us all in shared reverence.

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