VINTAGE JEWELRY’S NEW CACHET
Byline: Marcy Medina
LOS ANGELES — The arrival of vintage costume jewelry as a cultural phenomenon was marked recently by the sale of a brass necklace for $27,000 at the famed Doyle New York couture auction.
It served as poignant evidence that the business of selling old treasures and personal baubles to new customers has become a commercial force from high-end auctions to department stores and a bevy of boutiques and dealers. The movement is being governed as much by current fashion trends as factors within the vintage market and on the Internet.
The craze also goes beyond costume jewelry. Fine jewelry, often from estate sales, is also in demand and it’s no longer just the domain of the high-end auction houses. For many customers, it’s more a matter of the story behind a piece, the period it comes from and how rare it is rather than its karat weight. Indeed, some dealers sell both costume and fine jewelry.
“The desirability or rarity of a piece can cause it to sell for up to 10 times what it normally would,” said Elizabeth Mason, owner of Paper Bag Princess boutique in West Hollywood and a regular at Doyle auctions. “But that’s still not even close to what you would pay at retail for a comparable new piece.”
Despite a slight downturn in the economy, Mason and others said their businesses are still strong.
“I’m thriving and in general the industry is booming because more and more pieces are coming out of the closet, thanks in large part to the Internet,” she said. “Now, rather than letting treasures sit in someone’s drawers, mom and pop are digging it out and putting it up for sale.”
In New York at SoHo’s Antique Addiction, Elizabeth Kaczmarczyk said her business has increased 35 percent over the last five years.
“I price things according to how hard they were for me to find,” Kaczmarczyk said. “A Victorian necklace would be $250 to $500 and a Fifties’ rhinestone necklace is about $30. Some things I sell for less because that’s what people will pay me.”
Kaczmarczyk, who opened a strictly vintage operation 10 years ago, started selling new lines like Vintage Creations, Liz Palacios and Judith Jack in 1998 to meet the demand.
“I couldn’t keep my cases full, and I was always panicking,” she said. “Now, by doing a separate reproduction business, I can buy big quantities in one shot instead of going from auction to auction.” She said for some customers, it’s not important if a piece is truly vintage because “they buy it for the look.”
Still, many people prefer to own something with history. That’s where dealers like Los Angeles-based Connie Parente come in. Parente claimed that her genre is less bottom-line driven — “We vintage dealers are free spirits who do this so we don’t have to answer to anybody, and luckily we earn a living from it” — but even she said her business has increased by 25 percent over the last five years.
“Even though I’m not getting the huge markups that existed in the Eighties, I’m selling more product at more antiques shows because the demand is there,” she said.
While one-on-one vendors like Parente scramble to feed a hungry market, department and specialty stores are meeting the demand on two fronts, with specialized antique jewelry departments and new vintage-inspired lines.
Saks Fifth Avenue is getting in on the action, according to Jennifer DeWinter, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for fine and fashion jewelry.
“We are very excited about the costume vintage opportunity for 2001,” said DeWinter. “We have a very strong costume jewelry business and have been selling bigger, bolder retro looks. The return to glam for spring is the perfect time to launch a vintage costume-jewelry business.”
On the fine jewelry front, DeWinter said Saks’ existing estate jewelry business represents “a significant portion of our fine-jewelry business.”
According to Margaret Myers, Nordstrom’s vice president of main floor accessories, the chain carries a limited selection of vintage estate pieces in the fine jewelry departments of some locations, plus reproductions of vintage looks in its fashion jewelry departments.
Some of the most popular lines include the Victorian-inspired Liz Palacios collection, the Art Deco styles from Judith Jack, plus Sorelli and Nadri.
Barneys New York has housed an antique fine jewelry department for over 12 years, but it has evolved from a few pieces of Victorian jewelry to more elaborate collections featuring rose-cut diamond engagement rings and necklace and bracelet suites.
“Our antique business has steadily grown based on what people are most interested in,” said Judy Collinson, executive vice president. She added that “even in some of our modern lines, there is a vintage tension.”
As examples, she singled out Milanese line Anaconda, which features rose-cut diamonds, and Malcolm Betts, a designer who places antique stones in modern settings.
One only needs to go up a few floors at Barneys to find another link to the past: an in-store boutique for Decades, the Los Angeles-based vintage couture clothing shop.
Owner Cameron Silver has found a niche selling vintage Hermes and Gucci accessories from the Sixties and Seventies. Even though they’re made of gold-dipped sterling, enamel, and Lucite instead of diamonds and platinum, these treasures don’t come cheap: Gucci Lucite watches that retailed for $80 to $125 in the Sixties now sell for six times that price, and a rare sterling Hermes necklace retails at $4,000.
“Hermes has the highest markup for silver and gold, higher than Cartier,” said Silver. “If you’re going to buy anything as an investment, buy Hermes. It’s money in the bank.”
Just a few months ago, Silver said accessories made up 20 percent of his merchandise, now they comprise closer to 35 to 40 percent.
Back at Doyle, the source of many of the finest pieces in the market, changes abound. After an unprecedented sale of costume jewelry last November, the venerable institution plans to add another auction to its schedule this summer.
“The economic forecast is a little shakier now,” said Susan Sullivan, head of the jewelry department. “But there’s always going to be a market. Plus, buyers are beginning to discover they can still get the goods for half of what they would in a store.”
For those who can’t wait months for an auction or days for a flea market, The Cranberry House in Studio City offers wares from 140 vintage dealers seven days a week, year-round. For eight years, the antiques mall has been a source for local buyers and sellers alike.
Increasingly popular Bakelite bracelets are available for up to $295, compared to the tag at Doyle, where some sold for $1,000 apiece, plus more reasonably priced diamante necklaces, compacts and cameos.