For soldiers during World Wars I and II, exchanging letters and mementos kept them connected with the home front and strengthened bonds with friends and loved ones back in the States. Many of the sentimental items that were sent home from servicemen are referred to as “sweetheart” collectibles now.
The tradition of sending home keepsake items actually started during World War I when the strain of the Great War made keeping in touch with the folks back home seem even more important. The sweetheart custom continued when the U.S. faced more formidable opponents during World War II.
One of the favorite ways to show patriotism and feel close to those serving our country was expressed through wearing a special piece of jewelry reflecting the branch of service a sweetheart, son or brother was representing. Whether in the form of a necklace, bracelet or pin, these patriotic symbols provide a heartfelt look back at the 1940s and beyond.
Collectors of Sweetheart Jewelry
Often found at military collecting shows, those familiar with service symbols have traditionally been attracted to these items more often than avid jewelry collectors. More and more, however, jewelry lovers and other collectors are appreciating these sentimental treasures.
For many people, wearing these mementos in interesting groupings to celebrate patriotic holidays adds festivity and flair while offering a fond reminder of the veterans they represent. Others just want to replace a familiar item lost during years gone by and purchase the piece as soon as it is rediscovered.
For these reasons, along with the revived appreciation for patriotism in the United States, the popularity and price of sweetheart jewelry have risen during the past five to ten years. Like most other crossover collecting interests, this can be expected when the same limited group of items entertains more than one audience. Even so, many items can still be found reasonably priced for collectors just getting started.
Collectors find that reproductions are not prevalent in this collecting field. But as sweetheart jewelry continues to gain popularity, it is always a good idea to be wary of items that seem too new.
A Reflection of History
A unique aspect of sweetheart jewelry comes with the identifiable history immediately associated with these pieces. No matter who the pieces originally belonged to, there are some inherent factors that went into the thought, manufacture, and subsequent distribution of these treasures that most anyone can appreciate.
These collectibles represent an era when practically the entire country backed the war effort. Women moved into factory positions while children were mounting ration campaigns. Working together to achieve a goal never meant more. A soldier gave this jewelry to someone special as a gesture of love and remembrance. And many times the piece would signify his general location, like the South Pacific, or his branch of military service.
Sweetheart Jewelry Manufacturing
Sweetheart jewelry was machine made and sold to servicemen abroad, but many pieces were also handcrafted. The lack of materials available for jewelry manufacturing led artisans to get creative, too.
Many pieces are constructed of inexpensive wire, natural materials such as mother of pearl, hand-carved wood, coins, and anything else readily available. Many pieces handcrafted by lonely service personnel made their way back home. These are often referred to as "trench art," since some of them were literally made in the trenches overseas.
Even the machine made pieces crafted of sterling silver tell a tale, since practically all other metals found a place on ration lists to be used for war machinery and weapons at that time.
Symbolism in Sweetheart Jewelry
Since mothers also fell into the sweetheart category as far as gift giving goes, lots of this jewelry simply bears the "Mother" designation. Some pieces worn by family were also adorned with stars, one for each member serving. Pins showing more than four stars are fairly hard to come by. Every piece comes with a story to tell, the secret comes with decoding the symbolism.
"Keepsake items remind us that wars are fought by human beings. Jewelry and collectibles are proof that war extends beyond the battlefield and help us realize just how much the lives of large numbers of civilians were significantly altered as they worked together for the survival of our free world," Nick Snider wrote in his book Sweetheart Jewelry and Collectibles.
What's the Difference in Sweetheart Jewelry and Patriotic Jewelry?
While sweetheart jewelry was technically what was given to a loved one before his deployment or before he was sent home from the front, collectors categorize most all items from World War I or II that have a military association with them as sweetheart jewelry. Some of the pieces may have been purchased by a family member or loved one and worn to show support during the war, but they're still often described as sweetheart jewelry.
Sometimes other patriotic jewelry, such as flag pins that are more generic, get placed in this category as well, if they were made during the same eras. Flag brooches made of pot metal or sterling silver (used extensively during World War II for jewelry manufacture when other metals were rationed), may fall into this category. Usually those made later are just considered to be patriotic, although even modern ladies who have family members in the armed forces wear jewelry with these themes in the sweetheart tradition.
Pamela Y. Wiggins is the author of Warman's Costume Jewelry (Krause Publications).