Finding Meaning in the Past

Writer Amanda Christmann

Photography Courtesy of Cynthia Ann Jewels

It reads as if it came from the pages of a fairy tale.

On the streets of Paris, where emperors once ruled, revolutions were borne, and where creative minds like Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse and Wilde found their muses, Cindy Stewart was searching for something she couldn’t name. 

She wasn’t interested in the souvenir postcards or Eiffel Tower figurines that fill many of the shops that line the city’s roads. Even the artists with their easels and palettes couldn’t tempt her eye.

Pretty things and baubles may have brought a momentary smile, but Cindy needed something bigger—something deeper—to fill an emptiness in her heart. Her mother had died a few months earlier, and she was drowning in waves of grief. She wanted something to hold onto, and she was searching for it an ocean and a world away from her Houston home.

She pushed open a door to a shop whose window promised old and interesting finds. As she closed the door behind her, the busy sounds of the street gave way to the heavy, reverent silence of a long, narrow antique store. She made her way through the stiff, ornate furniture and large and small leftovers of other people’s lives when a box caught her eye. 

It wasn’t the plainness of its shape or its solid weight. Its contents were what drew her nearer. Thousands of medals, each hand-forged and crafted to signify something that was once special to its owner, were piled inside. Atop the pile was a small Madonna medal inscribed with the words “Jesus,” “Mary” and “Joseph.”

Cindy’s breath caught in her throat. She grew up with her mother using the phrase, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and she could almost feel her mother’s presence as her fingers traced the coolness of the metal.

“That was the epiphany moment for me,” Cindy says. “I was struck with an overwhelming sense that she hadn’t left, and she was telling me she hadn’t left. That’s what really started me on my journey.”

Cindy bought the entire box of 2,000 medals. They dated back hundreds of years, symbolizing everything from small crosses to patron saints. That box would be the start of a soulwork of sorts that has touched thousands lives.

The Presents of the Past

Once home, Cindy got busy. She’d always had an interest in fashion and design. Though she’d been working in the corporate retail world for over 25 years, she’d also begun a jewelry boutique on the side. 

She had no trouble at all determining what she wanted to do.

“Life is short,” she says. “My whole path and journey has taken me here. I closed up my store and started designing jewelry around these medals.”

Using techniques and resources she’d learned about in her corporate life and as a boutique owner, she cleaned and polished each one, inset them in gold and added diamond bezels and bales. 

She took them to a trade show and received an overwhelming response. People didn’t just like them because they were pretty; they liked them because they felt their deep connection to the present and the past, and to the part of life that cannot be broken by distance or death.

“They had the same response I had when I found my first medal,” she explains. “It was just a cascade of people who were relating to a product that was so important and so close to my heart.”

They became the first in a long line of Cynthia Ann Jewels.

She soon found herself combing European antique fairs. She was most attracted to Victorian-, Edwardian- and Georgian-era jewelry. Their history, brilliant craftsmanship and unique stones tugged at her heart. The more that she found, the more people wanted.

Unlike most start-ups, Cindy’s problem wasn’t that she couldn’t reach customers; with a retail base that reached 65 stores in a relatively short amount of time, her issue became maintaining the integrity of her mission. 

“The number of medals available is very, very limited,” she says. “We started growing too fast. People wanted me to reproduce the medals, but I wouldn’t do that. 

“It was important to me to use those pieces that had passed through history, that people had held, and that people were happy with, sad with, and that had a story that went along with them. We may not know the whole story, but every one of them has a story. 

“I love that each one has a life that continues, and that helps people in their own journeys, whatever that journey may be.”

Beauty in Symbolism

Medals have been recorded in history since the early Egyptians forged jewelry out of fine metals to show their devotion to deities. 

In the fourth century, Roman emperors Constantine and Maxentius were fighting over power. Christianity had not yet been embraced by the empire, so when Constantine saw a vision that he should use “Chi-Rho,” the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name, upon his sword, he was likely as confused as any. Still, “Conquer by this sign,” is the message Constantine would heed.

Constantine’s army soundly defeated Maxentius, paving the way for Constantine to rule the western half of the Roman Empire. Religious jewelry would become an important symbol for people to show they’d renounced their earlier religions and had embraced the Christian God.

“Chi-Rho” loosely resembled a cross, and it metamorphosed into a primary Christian symbol. It is one of many symbols Cynthia Ann Jewels showcase. 

“I have grown to really appreciate the symbolism in old jewelry,” Cindy says. “I love the meaning of a swallow and the symbolism in heart bracelets, for example. All of them have interesting connotations, and I’ve loved learning about them throughout this journey.”

Guardian angels are among her favorites.

“Whatever the language it is, it’s ‘Let me be your guide.’ We’re all born with a guardian angel. It’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament; we’re all born with this guardian here to be our spiritual guide throughout our lives. I love that. I don’t leave my house without my guardian angel spiritually, but I keep my guardian angel medal with me as well.”

Another favorite seems like an unlikely affinity at first glance.

The Latin term memento mori translates literally to “remember you must die.” Represented by a skull, it seems a morbid reminder for someone so positive, but Cindy doesn’t see it that way.

“The skull is such an amazing representation and appreciation of life,” she explains. “We’re all so afraid of death because we’re not educated about it. That’s why it was so difficult when my mom passed away. We just had no grasp about where we are going, and the memento mori is a reminder that God promised eternal life in his kingdom with him. 

“I found my first piece from the 1700s in Bulgaria. I now understand who he is and what he represents. He’s not creepy at all. He’s a reminder that we are to live each and every day to the fullest because we were promised eternal life. That’s what we were promised here.”

Cynthia Ann Jewels is currently working on new collection memento moris, and although they are limited in number to about 46 in total, Grace Renee Gallery in Carefree will feature several pieces, along with many of her other limited editions.

About 80% of Cynthia Ann Jewels have religious connotations, and not all are Christianity-based. Many date back to biblical times, between 300 and 450 AD; others are from 19th century European and Russian collections.

From medallions to St. Benedict symbols to guardian angels, Cindy’s goal is to make beautiful pieces that are unintimidating. 

“It’s meant to be modern, very accessible jewelry. I don’t want it to be something people are afraid to wear. It’s beautiful, but it’s not so overly serious that you wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing it every day.

“Whether you have on lululemons, jeans or a little black dress, my jewelry is accessible.”

In its short time here in the North Valley at Grace Renee Gallery, it’s clear that message, and her jewelry, is being embraced.

For Cindy though, it’s more than just creating pretty jewelry. Restoring and repurposing historical artifacts has given her peace, and helped her to recognize that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves.

“My collection holds a very special place in my heart. It’s my journey, and I am excited to share it!” 

gracereneegallery.com

Cynthia Ann Jewels Trunk Show

May 1–31 | Grace Renee Gallery | 7212 E. Ho Hum Rd., Carefree | 480-575-8080 | gracereneegallery.com

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