‘It’ Jewelry Is…Old Jewelry?

From the Wall Street Journal

This Season’s ‘It’ Jewelry Is…Old Jewelry?

Vintage jewelry is in high demand—for the craftsmanship, the comforting ties to the past and, let’s be honest, the bragging rights of owning something no one else has.

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IN 2006, when antique jewelry dealer Erie Basin first opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn, customers were coveting Georgian and Victorian pieces, said founder Russell Whitmore. Their thirst shifted to art deco in the 2010s. “Now I don’t see interest in any particular era as much as a desire for rareness,” said Whitmore, “Buyers are seeking out things they haven’t seen before.” Among the items he says have recently garnered feverish admiration on the dealer’s Instagram page: a surrealist 1970s ring shaped like a hand; a 19th-century wedding band engraved with stars; and a sculptural gold band by the Mexican modernist jeweler Antonio Pineda. 

Interest has been growing both for vintage jewelry and new pieces fashioned from repurposed stones. See the chrysoprase-and-diamond earrings (below, far right), a makeover of a 19th-century brooch. One catalyst: “Buying vintage aligns with conscious consumerism,” said Mia Moross, founder of jewelry retailer the One I Love NYC. The market for old adornments over new, she pointed out, offers “sustainable and ethically responsible options.”

That thinking informed Los Angeles designer Eddie Borgo’s newly launched the Palms collection, which nestles rare, vintage diamonds in ornate filigrees of 18k recycled gold. “Plenty of wonderful, unique diamonds exist on the planet and can be upcycled,” said Borgo, who works with an antique-diamond dealer to find one-of-a-kind stones in striking cuts, many of which today’s stone-shaping technology can’t achieve. “Why would we not use them if we’re able to?” Borgo asked. 

SHINE BRIGHT LIKE A (VINTAGE) DIAMOND Tastemakers who want rare, scene-stealing accessories are turning to vintage and antique jewelry to get their thrills. (Details on pictured pieces below.) PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (BRACELET)

“People like scarcity,” said New York jewelry designer Roxanne Assoulin, underscoring Whitmore’s observation that shoppers crave one-of-a-kind pieces—whether attending a gala or posting on Instagram. Assoulin found a way to sate her clients’ hunger for singularity and celebrate her brand’s 40th anniversary. Her Out of Hibernation collection comprises 13 one-off pieces from her personal archive that she created in the 1990s and early 2000s. Among them: a pyramid bracelet (above) inspired by a long-ago find from the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in Brimfield, Mass. Cast in acrylic that resembles emeralds, the 14k-gold-plated bracelet is hand-soldered and, thus, incredibly lightweight.

Naturally, vintage adornments’ prices vary drastically depending on the material, designer, age and rarity. An unattributed crystal design from the ’60s, for instance, would cost far less than a certified Cartier diamond ring from 1920. New York store Old Jewelry, opened last year by Sarah Burns and Adam Caillier, predominantly sells vintage silver styles (like the modernist necklace above). Their prices range from about $95 to $1,200. “Because the coolest things tend to sell fast, we offer layaway,” said Burns. “That allows you to call ‘dibs’ on a piece for a deposit.” 

ELDERLY ACCESSORIES Sarah Burns with vintage wares in her New York store, Old Jewelry.

If you’re new to shopping for jewelry that’s either antique or vintage (the former, said New York jewelry historian Marion Fasel, is at least 100 years old, the latter at least 20), start with reputable stores and dealers. Savvy buyers, though, can find dynamite designs, and bargains, at auctions and estate sales.

Pieces aren’t always the legitimate examples of a style or era a dealer claims them to be. To avoid getting scammed, New York gemologist and historian Anna Rasche suggests researching jewelry styles and periods you admire by digging into a book like “7,000 Years of Jewelry” by Hugh Tate, or scanning the online Antique Jewelry University, run by San Francisco’s Lang Antiques. 

Instagram, however, has transformed the vintage jewelry business and a buyer’s reach, said Fasel. The awareness and visibility social media provides are at least partially fueling vintage’s present popularity. “You can scroll through your phone and find any number of cool pieces,” said Rasche.

Ask Tania Dunlop, 52, a contracts manager in Calgary, Canada, who keeps her eyes peeled for Victorian-era snake rings and feminine art nouveau confections. Dunlop has bought a bevy of pieces off Instagram from sellers such as Estate Jewelry Mama, Fortune Baby, and the Fab Nab. “It’s like-minded people right at my fingertips,” she said.

Look for established accounts (many are attached to retail stores), ask questions and request to see videos to gauge an item’s condition before buying. “It’s very important to trust the person you are buying from,” said Angela Sheldon, 58, a senior educator at the New-York Historical Society who has been ardently collecting everything from Victorian mourning jewelry to art deco rings since the early ’90s. 

“The handmade craftsmanship of antique jewelry is amazing,” said Sheldon, adding that she loves buying items that other people have used. Old baubles might also appeal to shoppers’ notions of a more stable world, said Whitmore. “With uncertain times comes nostalgia for the past, and there’s a comfort in old things.” But even with all the respectable rationales for buying vintage, from sustainability to thoughtful connections to the past, it’s the “mine, all mine!” factor that truly drives the trend. As Rasche put it, “How fun is it to have a piece that nobody else can ever have?”