Sunflower brooch from Japanese American interment camp
jewellery history, museums, romance, Uncategorized

Making jewellery in a time of war: unusual materials

I gave a lecture on jewellery in the two great World Wars recently. One of the questions I was asked was ‘What were the most unusual materials used for making jewellery in a time of war?’

Rumour: jewellery will be frozen!

This was the heading for a Vogue article in February 1943. Was it even possible to make and buy jewellery during a major war?

Wartime conditions were difficult for the jewellery trade. Jewellery was, understandably, not a priority activity. Many of the materials which jewellers used were also vital for the military. Copper (necessary for alloying silver) was also used for shell cases and fuses. Platinum, the key element in the delicate gem-set jewellery of the early twentieth century, was also a vital ingredient in munitions making and other wartime needs. Gold wasn’t directly used in armaments but it was essential to pay for imports of food, weapons and other materials. Even gemstones were harder to find because the routes used to trade them were disrupted by war.

Nevertheless, people still wanted jewellery. Even people in prisoner of war or detention camps made jewellery as souvenirs, for trade or as gifts for loved ones. Soldiers in the first World War trenches used their downtime to make jewellery from recycled materials as gifts and for sale. And, on the home-front, humble jewels made from wool, fabric and buttons cheered people up.

So, if you couldn’t get precious metals or gemstones, what else might you try?

Making jewellery in the trenches

Making jewellery could be a way to survive the worst moments of war. It gave people a moment of peace and creativity, a distraction from the horrors around them. Soldiers in the first world war trenches, or the wounded in hospitals made jewellery to raise their spirits and to sell for small luxuries. They used the detritus of war which lay around. Pieces of shells, weapons, uniforms and scrap metal were pressed into service. Injured soldiers recovering in hospital made the rings below. They show the steps in which a shell fragment and a German uniform button became a ring. 

Making jewellery in a time of war:
Four stages showing the making of a ring from an aluminium shell fragment and the insignia from a German uniform button. Made in a hospital ca. 1916.
Imperial War Museum
Stages to make an aluminium ring, 1916
Imperial War Museum

Tasmanian Sapper Stanley Keith Pearl made beautiful pieces of art from the wreckage of the battlefield. He made a stand for hat-pins in the shape of a daisy, with some pins made from uniform buttons. It’s hard to believe that this delicate object is made from the nose of an 18 pounder shell and a shell case, bicycle spokes and a ‘rising sun’ collar badge.

Making jewellery in a time of war:
Set of hat pins and field daisy shaped stand . Made from the nose cone of a shell, bicycle spokes, uniform buttons and shell fragments by Stanley K Pearl, 1918. Australia War Memorial collection
Set of hat pins and stand, made by Sapper S.K. Pearl, May 1918 Australia War Memorial

Make do and mend: jewellery from domestic materials

‘Make do and mend’ was the slogan used in Britain during the second World War. It encouraged people to make their own clothes or mend those they already had. Rather than trying to buy new, reusing and repurposing what you already had was key. And making a cheerful accessory from household supplies was easy and cheap.

A homemade accessory ‘… will steal the eye from last season’s outfit’   

Vogue, March 1944

Suzanne Petter wrote a series of articles for WWII women’s magazines to teach people how to make their own jewellery and accessories from buttons, wool and scraps of fabric. This wasn’t just fun. It was a way to cheer up a dreary patched or darned outfit. Even if you couldn’t get hold of new clothes (and with rationing, if you didn’t have any clothing points, you couldn’t buy anything), you could feel better about what you did have. Modern Woman ran her pattern for croched bracelets – billed as a way ‘to make a plain wool frock look like a model’.

Making jewellery in a time of war:
Article from 'Woman' magazine by Suzanne Petter. entitled 'They're button's. Shows image of woman wearing a necklace made of three red and white buttons on a black cord.

Buttons were the perfect thing to make a striking and colourful necklace. They could be carved, painted and have holes drilled into them. They were big enough to make an impact, cheap and light and, crucially, not rationed.

Three big buttons and a twist of silk cord- you’d never guess they could make such an enchanting necklet.

Suzanne Petter in Woman

Image from Suzanne Petter’s papers in the Imperial War Museum archive.

Birds of freedom and love hearts from a prison camp

Making jewellery in a time of war:
Carved wooden bird perched on a twig. Green and yellow feathers. Made in the Poston Relocation Camp, Arizona. Manzanar National Historic Site
Green Bird Pin
1942 – 1945
Poston Relocation Camp, AZ
Made by Yoneguma and Kiyoka Takahashi
Manzanar National Historic Site

In 1944, after the Japanese army attack on the American port of Pearl Harbor, there was a great worry about the loyalties of Japanese American citizens. An order was passed to compel Japanese Americans and their families to report to interment camps. People had very little notice and could only bring the most essential items. Conditions in the camps were difficult but people tried their best to endure them and find what joy they could.

Sunflower brooch made from shells and metal wire. Tula Lake camp, 1940s. Manzanar National Historic Site.
Sunflower brooch made from shells and metal wire. Tula Lake camp, 1940s
Manzanar National Historic Site

The camp inmates made jewellery from scrap materials around them and natural materials like shells and feathers. Beautiful little carved birds made out of scrap timber and wire from the barrack windows were a symbol of hope and freedom. Flower pins made out of shells replaced real flowers for funerals and weddings. These jewels, made from the humblest materials, show the inmates desire to endure and to make their lives as full as possible.

Making jewellery from the remains of crashed planes

The second World War stretched into the South Pacific. The windows and interiors of downed planes offered plenty of perspex to make into cheap but pretty jewels. Small workshops in places like New Guinea made jewellery from scavenged metal and perspex, often personalised for the buyer. Australian servicemen bought or commissioned them to give to their wives and girlfriends or as souvenirs.

Making jewellery in a time of war:
Perspex and brass chain necklace, with set of stars attached by chains. Possibly inspired by the Southern Cross constellation. Made in New Guinea. Australia War Memorial

This pretty necklace was inspired by the Southern Cross. Warrant Officer Jack Robert Keen probably bought it for his wife Faith while he was serving in New Guinea.

Although Jack Keen was parted from his wife and children, sending home a piece of jewellery was a way for him to show that he was thinking of them. And, for Faith, wearing the necklace kept a little piece of him close to her.

Perspex and brass wire, 1944-45.

Australia War Memorial

Why bother with jewellery in wartime?

Even though the war years were full of dreadful suffering and loss, jewellery, which seems so superficial, was important to people. Making a jewel from what you had at hand – whether the salvaged wood and metal of a prisoner of war camp, the nose of a shell in the front lines of the First World War or a bit of wool and a button on the home front was a way to show that life and love persisted. A jewel, even if made from the humblest materials, was a sign of defiance and hope.

More on war

Jewellery was also important to a soldier prince in the 19th century Boer War. The story of the ‘A fine young fellow full of pluck and spirit’ shows how a sentimental locket taken to war became a comfort to a grieving mother.

One thought on “Making jewellery in a time of war: unusual materials

  1. A fascinating insight into the important role jewellery plays in the spirit of endurance during trying times. Jewellery was a prop for me on a daily basis during the pandemic. Worn in isolation, it embodied the conviction that “this too shall pass!”

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