Should You Pass Down Heirloom Jewelry?

passing down inherited jewelry
Marla Brill

By Marla Brill | May 23rd, 2019

During a recent trip for a relative’s wedding, my daughter came to our hotel room to show my husband and I a diamond necklace that his mother had given her just minutes before. Repurposed from a family heirloom purchased during the 1940s into an elegant diamond pendant, the gift nearly brought tears to her eyes. At first, I was pleased with it too.

A day or two later I thought about it some more, and reluctantly realized that I had an uneasy feeling about the whole thing. On the one hand, it pleased my daughter, and that meant a lot. On the other hand, it raised questions in my mind about favoritism that troubled me. Some granddaughters had received gifts of jewelry from my mother-in-law. Others, such as my younger daughter, had not. Were the omissions unintentional, or were they meant to send some kind of signal? I’ll probably never know. And I couldn’t help but wonder if selling the jewelry might have been a better option.

Poking at Family Wounds

Among families, old wounds and long-held assumptions and prejudices inevitably reveal themselves through our interactions with each other, and gifting is no exception. In one important sense, my 87-year-old mother in law is doing the right thing by giving her jewelry to those she wants to have it while she is still alive. That way, her personal preferences are crystal clear and there can be no doubt about the intended recipient.

Contrast that with estate battles, many of which are fought over jewelry and other possessions that have sentimental as well as monetary value. When heirs disagree about how to distribute jewelry, it’s often left to the executor to make decisions and take the heat for them. I’ve also heard about cases where the person with the most ready access to the deceased person’s jewelry box squirrels away the best pieces surreptitiously.

While giving jewelry away may ensure that it’s distributed in accordance with one’s wishes, it can also highlight those fault lines in families that lead to jealousy, grudges and hurt feelings.

But gifting during one’s lifetime has its pitfalls too. It can create resentment when some children or grandchildren are left out, or receive gifts of far less value than others. One sibling may persuade mom to give her or her children jewelry or other possessions while another, wary of appearing greedy, sits quietly on the sidelines. Sometimes, the winners in this quiet tug of war are those who exert the most pressure or have the loudest voice.

Practical Matters

Jewelry is also hard to keep under wraps. It’s fairly easy to gift money without other family members knowing about it. But bracelets and rings are often worn at family gatherings or displayed on Facebook or Instagram. If you don’t know about who got what, chances are your kids or grandkids do.

And then there is the practical matter of what my daughter will do with a necklace that she is likely to wear on rare occasions, if at all. We briefly discussed having it appraised and insured. Or, she could rent a safe deposit box. In New York City, where she lives, finding a safe deposit box is about as easy as finding a reasonably priced apartment. Both insurance and safe deposit boxes cost money, and she’s on a pretty tight budget.

READ ALSO: Selling Inherited Jewelry: What I Wish I’d Known

So while giving jewelry away may ensure that it’s distributed in accordance with one’s wishes, it can also highlight those fault lines in families that lead to jealousy, grudges and hurt feelings. Don’t get me wrong–I think my mother in law’s gift to my older daughter was a graceful and meaningful gesture. But at the end of the day, at least for me, it’s also a mixed blessing.

A Better Option?

One option that crossed my mind during all this was selling jewelry. The downside, of course, is that jewelry does not get passed down from generation to generation. But that’s more important to some people than others. For many people having cash in hand from selling dusty family heirlooms beats paying several hundred dollars a year in insurance and storage costs for something that is rarely, if ever, used.

Marla Brill

Marla Brill

Marla Brill has been a personal finance journalist for over 30 years,  writing about money topics for Reuters, The Boston Globe, Financial Advisor Magazine, MarketWatch, PBS’s NextAvenue, and other publications.


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