“People often ask me: ‘Do you feel like you’re invading their privacy?’ to which I always answer no. Because I know him well enough, I know he’d be happy about it, and my dad and my aunt have supported me. It’s part of my family’s history, so it makes me who I am too.”
We caught up with Rebecca Smith of Smith & Gibb to discover the story of her grandparents’ love letters and the jewellery collections she has built around them.
A wartime love story
They met at church, in Aberdeen, in the early years of World War Two. He was just about to ship off for spitfire pilot training.
Not daunted by his expected entry into combat, the fact that he might never return, or the Atlantic Ocean that would divide them imminently as he commenced training in Canada, he asked for her address and said he would write.
Incredibly, he did write. And not just once or twice, but almost daily, for three years from 1943-1946. Some of the letters were six or seven pages long.
Their relationship blossomed across thousands of pages. They were only able to meet when he returned home for rare, short visits on leave.
He finally returned to Scotland in late 1947, and they were married early the next year.
For years, the letters that he wrote to his ‘Darling Margaret’ languished, unread, carefully separated and tied with yellow ribbons, stashed in a plastic bag in the home they built together.
Uncovering the love letters
When he passed away, some years after her, his daughter moved into the property and stumbled across the bag.
It wasn’t until her niece, Rebecca, was doing a Valentine’s themed project at art college that she took them out properly and they sorted them into chronological order. They quickly realised that there were far more letters there than they could ever have imagined.
The letters told the story of their growing love for one another, a story and a side of her grandparents that Rebecca had never known.
The birth of a collection
Supported by her aunt and her father, these letters became the inspiration for Rebecca’s graduate collection. Rebecca was careful to preserve the privacy of the letters, all the while building a tribute to them and to her grandparents’ love for one another through her jewellery.
“I did loads of laser etching and put in sentimental notes but so much of it was personal and sentimental that I didn’t really want to sell them. I gave some to my dad and my aunt as it was all about their parents, and they had them framed especially.”
Why are the letters such a source of inspiration?
“I think really it’s been my personal journey, and I don’t think people would understand if I tried to sell it in its original form…The story and the inspiration are still there but I have tried to make them more universal. I also wanted to inspire people to start writing letters again.”
Even as Rebecca’s styles and collections evolve, the love letters are still very much an influence for her work. She still finds herself reading back through the letters. She keeps a framed selection in her studio, and their influence shows through in her work.
It appears in the yellow of the ribbon that held them together, the lapis blue of the postage stamps…
“My grandmother’s address in Aberdeen was Rosehill so I use a lot of rose and rose quartz.”
The pastel colours are taken from her childhood memories of her grandparents’ house. Many of the shapes are drawn from the components of the spitfires her grandfather learnt to fly.
Her grandmother’s replies have never been found. It is assumed that as a training pilot on the move he did not have the capacity to bring them along with him.
Letter-Writing and Jewellery
“In a world where everyone expects an immediate response through email or text, the value of the letter has been eroded.”
And yet, in many ways a letter is more valuable. A letter takes time, thought and intention. A letter is tangible, testament to an interaction between two people, something that can endure for years.
The art of letter-writing and the art of jewellery-making are in some ways similar. Both are created by someone with the intention of being enjoyed by another; both take time and thought and care. They are both testament to a connection between two people, possibly separated by a vast distance. Rebecca hand-makes her work to order, with a specific recipient in mind, from her studio in Glasgow to wherever they are in the world.
A disappearing art form?
It will be a miracle if any of our grandchildren discover a stash of love letters that we write, because, simply, we don’t write them.
Would you write a love letter?
How would you begin it?
“To the only girl I will ever love…”