Cabinet of Curiosities: Shopping for Vintage Jewelry

April 14, 2014

 Vintage Jewelry Shopping at Antique Shows: Kenneth Jay Lane

Antique shows are a great opportunity to connect with the past, meet interesting people, and most importantly, add new trinkets to your tchotchke collection. My latest antique show adventure was a quest to acquire a piece of vintage jewelry. I arrive on Day 2 of the show, hoping that the vendors wouldn’t put up much of a fight when I haggled with them, but that there would still be abundant pickings left. Navigating through this show is a difficult feat for I am easily distracted by sparkly things, all things feline-related, and dishes. I must remain focused and set my sights on vintage jewelry only. I know that when I find my new potential bauble, I would just know that it was meant to be. Always go with involuntary reactions when it comes to jewelry, ladies.

I arrive at the show, heart racing and excited to discover the pretty things scattered about. First, I walk past a gorgeous peacock tapestry without looking directly at it. Out of the corner of my eye it just looks pricey so I don’t even bother looking at the price tag. There is an abundance of vintage colored glassware everywhere and in every color too. It’s so pretty! I wonder if I should I start a collection a la Martha Stewart? No. I’m here for the jewelry. I must remain focused because for some reason I really want to buy vintage ceramic cats. I don’t know why. I seriously have to fight the urge. I am distracted by a vendor who has nothing but vintage nesting dolls in an assortment of beautiful patterns, including kitty nesting dolls. I run away.

I weave through the aisles, scour the displays, and some contenders start to come up on my radar. There is a pair of dainty turquoise daisy earrings, an opal cluster ring, a delicate gold and amethyst art deco necklace, and a white and blue rhinestone Kramer necklace. A gorgeous, jewel encrusted serpentine bracelet blinds me and I’m afraid to ask for the price. Yeah, it’s $7,000. Moving on. I’m starting to grow weak from hunger and dizzy from looking down at display cases for hours. Then I spot it, a turquoise and coral stone encrusted hinged bangle. Immediately I know it was a Kenneth Jay Lane (KJL). It’s from the 1960s – the Mad Men-era. In great condition too! I try it on. “Ooooh, soooo pretty,” I exclaim to no one. It’s heavy too and feels great on my wrist. I’m a firm believer that all jewelry should have a satisfying weight–or else, why bother with it? I put it back in the case and decide to finish looking at the remaining displays. This is my top contender, knocking the Kramer necklace to a distant second, but I must be certain.  I arrive at the last display case and nothing better catches my fancy. I decide to head back for my bracelet and hope that no one else swooped it up in my absence. I’m starting to grow weary from my exhaustive search, scooting from vendor to vendor, but I’m at an antique show so I know there are old fainting couches somewhere nearby if I need one. I’m also dangerously close to caving to this weird ceramic-cat-thing at any moment, so I decide to take this swinging bangle home with me and leave ASAP.

When I return, the vendor informs me the bracelet is priced at $200 but she will let it go for $125. A reasonable offer and I don’t see a need to negotiate. Thank you Day 2 vendor-fatigue! Sold! With my KJL in hand, I make a beeline for the door. There are ceramic cats everywhere and it’s far too dangerous for me to stay any longer. I make one last stop to say goodbye to the turquoise earrings and then I’m off.

I love my new (old) bracelet! It’s beautiful and I feel so lucky to have discovered it. I like to imagine that my new bauble has a tawdry past, once adorning a tipsy wrist that held far too many mojitos at fabulous soirees in Palm Springs (while wearing Pucci). I will do my best to show it a fabulous time as well. And by fabulous I mean me wearing it while I scoop the litter box, in my pajamas, with Rachel Zoe reruns on in the background.

Here are my tips for shopping for vintage jewelry at antique shows:

1. Listen to your gut: It doesn’t matter how expensive or “valuable” a piece is if it doesn’t give you that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. What catches your eyes and lingers in your mind?

2. Look for the maker’s mark:  Vintage costume jewelry often have small initials or other maker’s marks. Finding and recognizing the marks is half the fun–and may significantly increase the value as well.

3. Check for the condition: Even if you find a pair of vintage Givenchy earrings, missing stones, tarnished metal, or a broken link will make it significantly lower in value. If you are still in love with it, make sure it can be repaired.

4. Talk to the vendor:  Reputable dealer will be able to tell you the vintage of the item, materials used, and often the maker/label. Learning the history of the piece is almost as much fun as wearing it.

Vintage Jewelry Shopping Tips - Bakelite Necklace, 1930s-50s

Vintage pink bakelite necklace, 1930s-50s

5. Try it on: A piece can look completely different on a person than on the jewelry stand. Look for the right proportion, color, placement, and mood on your body. Does it accentuate your features or overwhelm them? Does it complement your skin tone or bone structure?  Where does it fall on your neck, chest, or wrist? Does it have a satisfying weight? (A certain amount of weight can also signify better materials/metals than lighter, cheaper materials.)

6. Think in terms of your wardrobe: Will it complement the rest of your jewelry, clothing, hair, or general style? How do you imagine you will wear this piece–every day as your signature piece, or as a statement piece? Will you be able to mix and match with your existing jewelry?

I’d love to know – what amazing objects have you uncovered at flea markets or antique shows?

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Photo: Tanya Lichtenstein; Peaceful Dumpling

Tanya Lichtenstein loves trying out new recipes in the kitchen. When she's not making cookies, she enjoys writing, yoga, and strolling around the farmers' market. Follow Tanya on Twitter @heytheretal.


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