Why We Collect—and What it Can Tell Us About Ourselves

I’ve never thought of myself as a collector.

Of course, I own a handful of 1920s cracked-porcelain boudoir dolls and a substantial array of handmade, one-of-a-kind clothing by my fashion-designer friends, plus vintage jewelry, a library of fashion books, and my father’s classic-rock records. But I’ve always thought that building a collection was a conscious decision made by people with particular fascinations and obsessions. I never intended for it to happen; it just did.

But then I realized: to collect is to be human.

My friend Beth Hammarlund, a self-professed beauty geek, owns 73 perfume bottles. She started collecting when she was young—“I loved the grownup smells and the beautiful bottles,” she says. But, like me, she doesn’t think of herself as an active collector (“though there’s evidence to the contrary,” she admits). “I just get lost at the fragrance counter and wake up two hours later covered in different smells with another bottle to add to my tray,” she explains. Hammarlund contends that the rarity of an object makes it all the more desirable: “With limited-edition things, knowing there’s a finite amount does make it more precious.”

Upon meeting dapper dresser Ken O’Brien at a local art event, the first thing I noticed was his hat festooned with pheasant feathers. The second was his coordinating eyewear. In fact, O’Brien counts more than 70 pairs of glasses in his possession. He scours eBay for retired and vintage frames from his favorite brand, eyebobs, and changes pairs on a daily basis. “I am to glasses what Carrie Bradshaw is to shoes,” he quips. O’Brien says his collector’s instinct was the result of a childhood of fights for seconds at the dinner table: “Being the youngest child, the act of consuming is sort of a survival of the fittest.”

We’re featuring selections from the personal collection of Stephanie Lake, a Minnesota jewelry designer who holds the archive of influential New York fashion designer Bonnie Cashin.
Lake inherited the collection of clothing, accessories, sketchbooks, photographs, personal items, artwork, and other ephemera from Cashin, her friend and mentor, who died in 2000. Over the years, she has also collected various pieces from auctions and eBay, and carefully maintains the collection in two temperature-controlled rooms of her home.

My collections might not be famous, but they show me what I value most: things that are rare and finely made and contain a sense of history and sentimental value. Case in point: a handmade sculpture made of vintage jewelry boxes by Minneapolis assemblage artist Michael Thomsen, commissioned for a recent birthday—the perfect chamber for my collection of vintage gems. What you collect can say as much about you as the car you drive or the clothes you wear—and it also might reveal something interesting about yourself.

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