Jewelry with a Past Vintage pieces wear well with '90s individualists

August 15, 1996|By Ellen Uzelac

Remember rummaging through your mother's jewelry box and playing dress-up with her rhinestones, her old Mexican silver and the delicate Edwardian filigree necklace passed down from your grandmother?

Remember how you thought the jewelry was passe? Not at all. Mother was hipper than you thought.

Vintage jewelry like Mama wore is becoming hot, hot, hot, and its new-found cachet has transformed it into a fashion-world collectible.

"There is no question there's more and more of it at antiques shows than ever before," says Frank Farenbloom, the Rockville-based promoter of Shador Inc., which produces antiques shows nationwide, including the popular Baltimore Summer Antiques Fair over the Labor Day weekend.

"People like the individuality of vintage jewelry," Farenbloom says. "The beauty of it is that it's jewelry that has withstood the test of time, held its value and come back round as a collectible. Besides that, it's fun to wear."

"These are miniature works of art, one-of-a-kind pieces that make a beautiful fashion statement," says Nel Umbaugh, a vintage-jewelry dealer at antiques markets in the Baltimore-Washington region for the past eight years. "And people are wearing it everywhere. A nice, tasteful piece of vintage jewelry goes with anything, from bluejeans to ball gowns."

Basically, the term vintage jewelry refers to items dating from the early 1900s, starting with the Edwardian period. Unfamiliar with that epoch? You only think you are. The hugely popular minimal, or Y, necklaces that are showing up on every other young girl's neck are a knockoff of the classic Edwardian filigree pieces.

Original Edwardian jewelry and early art deco pieces tend to be especially sought after, although Victorian pieces, Mexican silver and some of the finer costume jewelry from the 1930s and 1940s have their own fervent fans. Probably the most popular pieces at the moment: platinum filigree diamond engagement rings from the first decade of this century.

"I don't buy anything new anymore, and I think there are a lot of people like me out there," says Carole A. Berk, a Bethesda gallery owner, a Mexican-silver specialist and co-author of "Mexican Silver" (Schiffer, 1994). The book is an antiques-industry bible on the pre-Columbian-style silver produced in Taxco, Mexico, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s by such American expatriates as Frederick Davis and William Spratling and their followers.

Berk began wearing vintage jewelry 10 years ago, when she started buying pieces for her gallery. "Generally, people collect older things because of the workmanship, the value and the wonderful sense of history," she says. "And the jewelry itself is wearable art."

So, aside from digging into Mother's jewelry box, where do you find the stuff? In Baltimore, retailers such as Heirloom Jewels in the Village of Cross Keys and Dahne & Weinstein at Greenspring Station specialize in vintage jewelry. But it's also a good idea to shop estate sales, trade shows and established antiques markets such as the Columbia Antique Market at the Columbia Mall and the Montgomery County Women's Cooperative Farm Market in Bethesda.

"We have people who come in literally every Saturday to just take a look and marvel at the pieces," says Susan Huger, a sales associate at Heirloom Jewels, where prices range from $20 to $65,000. "It's almost a nostalgia thing, like going through their grandmother's house. And once people get hooked, they'll never set foot in a mall jewelry store again. If someone were to ask me about the latest trend in mall jewelry, I wouldn't be able to answer. Vintage jewelry has a different personality. There's artistry in each individual piece. It gets in your blood and, I'll tell you, it makes it tough to throw anything away."

More and more, major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's are defining new trends in old jewelry. Anyone interested in keeping up with what's up-to-the-minute would do well to take a look at their catalogs.

"Customers today seem to know what they want," says Nel Umbaugh, who sells to private collectors as well as retailers. "It's a sophisticated bunch. They've done their homework. They've read their books. They're very discriminating and they're not afraid to pay."

Umbaugh began selling jewelry full time eight years ago. Recently, her personal collection of Bakelite (plastic costume jewelry from the 1930s and 1940s) was showcased at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown.

Vintage jewelry is jewelry with impact. Umbaugh notes that "last March, actress Nicole Kidman showed up at the Academy Awards in a plain gown with an antique opal five-strand $l necklace. Everyone commented on her necklace when the gown was what everybody was waiting to see."

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