What becomes an heirloom?

By on July 31, 2014, in Soft Surroundings

When you walk through the legendary antique markets of Paris and southern France you see an enormous variety of chairs, armoires, and architectural remnants that are two- three- and four hundred years old. You can’t help but wonder, what makes one piece an heirloom, and not another.

Here are a few tips the experienced dealer uses to evaluate antiques and also judge whether new pieces will stand the test of time.

The true fact is well built furniture almost always starts out as a piece of solid wood.

Master woodworkers choose solid oak, maple, cherry or birch to make great furniture. And they craft with special attention to how much stress each panel and joint will need to hold, whether the grain is positioned to seamlessly match and whether it will easily expand and contract as temperature and humidity fluctuate.

So give an eye to the construction and the composition of a piece. If a new or old table or chest is made of solid wood with sound joints, the piece was made to last. If it’s upholstered, look at the quality of the fabric, and how many nails were used to secure it.


One of our favorite examples of luxuriously upholstered furniture is the Soft Surroundings Violet Chair. One hundred percent linen is ruffled like none other. And the linen makes it beautiful and durable.

All of Soft Surroundings French reproductions are made with quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. Most are made using the same old-world techniques as the originals.

A chest like our Place des Vosges has a hand-planed solid oak top and an intricately hand-carved Rococo motif on the drawers. It’s a perfect example of a piece of furniture with the “bones” and the look of an heirloom.

place des vosges chest place des vosges chest 2

And, details matter. They indicate skilled workmanship. You may fall madly in love with a sleek quarter sawn oak chest that some might call plain. But what clinched it for you was the antique brass lock and key and elegant brass drawer pulls.

Something simple like the selection of ornate antique brass hardware on our Les Halles Cabinet elevates the chest and gives it a grand finish. If things like this attract your eye and stick in your memory, it’s likely they’ll do the same for your descendants to come.

las halles cabinet voilet chair

Beyond Furniture
Of course, heirlooms don’t have to be big, heavy pieces of furniture. Nearly every family has something small and unexpected they’ve passed down through the ages. Maybe it’s a musical instrument. Or a cup and saucer made of fine bone china. In my family it’s paper! —A collection of love letters written between my mother and father.

I have a good friend who treasures a bottle of Shalimar perfume that doesn’t have a drop of perfume in it! The empty bottle was her grandmother’s, bequeathed to her mother, and then given to her. She can’t imagine parting with it, other than giving it to her own daughter. If that’s not an heirloom, what is?

Collections are another great way to hand things down that appeal to you, en masse. But first, have a lot of fun collecting them.

Jewelry is a classic heirloom, and a collection of pocket watches, cufflinks or cameo brooches are some of the finest. If you’ve started a collection with the intent of handing it down, think about the proper display.

collectorstable collectorstable2

A smart and elegant option is Soft Surroundings Vitrine Table. The glass is tempered and beveled and it hinges open at the top, not the side, so your collection can come in and out more easily. With its hand-rubbed patina and poplar wood construction, it will be kept as dear as the precious things it holds.

Beyond Monetary Value
Some would say the only thing that separates one man’s trash from another man’s treasure is sentimental value. The story, the inspiration, is an important ingredient in an heirloom. Could a grandfather’s forgotten harmonica be the seed that grows into an “heirloom” song, discovered and rediscovered by generation after generation? Why not? And isn’t that story almost as valuable as the hit song?


When you comb through a French flea market sale, you unearth as much inspiration as antiques. And if stories are big part of what makes something an heirloom, then your house is probably filled with heirlooms-in-the-making, already!