Many of the U.S. servicemen who crossed the Atlantic to fight in World War I were teenagers, with no idea of the horrors awaiting them. The brutal realities of the battlefield made the exchange of letters and keepsakes with loved ones back home vitally important to the sanity of these young American soldiers.
These young men initiated the tradition of sending "sweetheart” jewelry back home to their girlfriends, wives, sisters, and mothers. The custom only grew more popular during World War II, when U.S. troops were once again fighting far from home. Some sweetheart jewelry was handcrafted in the trenches, but much of it was machine-made and sold to U.S. soldiers, who then sent it back home.
The women who received these jewelry pieces wore them with pride. It let them feel connected to their loved ones on the other side of the world and also show their patriotism. It was a time when almost all Americans, from the men serving on the front to their families back home, pulled together to contribute to the war effort, whether that meant working in a factory, selling war bonds, or collecting scrap metal to be melted down.
During World War II, most precious metals were rationed and used only to build weapons, tanks, ships, airplanes, and other machinery needed for the Allies’ campaign. For this reason, most sweetheart from this era was made from non-precious or semi-precious materials such as Bakelite, celluloid, wood, mother-of-pearl, shell, ivory, rhinestones, enamel, and cheap, readily available wire. More rare pieces, sometimes adorned with diamonds, can be found in platinum, sterling silver, silverplate, brass, gold plate, gold-filled, and even solid gold.
Though sweetheart is the word used to describe this jewelry, not all of it was given to actual sweethearts. Pieces meant for moms often have the word “Mother” incorporated into their designs. “In service” items worn by family members of servicemen often feature a star for each relative in the war. A blue star stood for a “family member in service,” while a silver star meant “wounded in action” and a gold star meant “killed in action.” Pieces would often signify the region of the world the soldier was serving in, whether it was in the European or Pacific Theater, as well as his military branch or unit.
Victory pins—with “Victory” usually signified by a capital “V”—are particularly popular with collectors. They come in a wide range of quality and styles, from a small wood or brass “V” to a large rhinestone or Bakelite “V” to a rare “V” in a precious gemstone or metal. According to homefront collectible expert Martin Jacobs, “V” was not only a hopeful, inspirational symbol for Americans, but also to Allies and people suffering brutal oppression under the Nazi regime. “V” stood for “yryjheid” (“freedom”) in Dutch, “vitezsivi” (victory) in Czech, “vitesivo” in Serbian, and “victoire” in French.
Wings were another widespread symbol found in sweetheart jewelry, particularly pins and brooches. These often indicated the loved one’s specialty in the Army Air Force or the Navy, as a pilot, navigator, observer, crew member, flight surgeon, or nurse. They can be found in leather, wood, Lucite and other plastics, mother of pearl, hard-cast metal, sterling silver, or 10- or 14-karat gold...
Naturally, many pieces of sweetheart jewelry come in the shape of a heart. Heart-shaped lockets, worn on necklaces or brooches, were particularly popular, but heart-shaped sweetheart jewelry also came in the form of bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rings.
Aside from jewelry, soldiers would send their loved ones sweetheart compacts, which could be oval, square, rectangular, or heart-shaped—some took the shape of an officer’s hat. These compacts were often adorned with an image of Uncle Sam while others, like the jewelry, indicated the military branch of the man in service. Other sweetheart items sent home included embroidered pillow slips, handkerchiefs, and other giftwares.
Sweetheart jewelry is among the most affordable of home-front collectibles, even though the prices have risen in the last 10 years. That’s because these items have been growing in popularity with both military and jewelry collectors, as well as Americans who yearn to connect to veterans of past wars and express their patriotism.