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Becoming an antique jewelry collector
21st July 2022 • Jewelry Connoisseur • Rapaport USA Inc.
00:00:00 00:22:12

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Author Beth Bernstein discusses her latest book on how to appreciate and purchase jewels from the Georgian period through Art Deco.


Jewelry Connoisseur Podcast – Episode 8 – Season 2

Welcome to the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast. And now your host, Sonia Esther Soltani.

Welcome to the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast, a podcast for people in the jewelry industry that want to learn more and for people who love jewelry and want to expand their knowledge. Here we talk about everything that has to do with antique and vintage jewelry.

I am your host, Sonia Esther Soltani, the editor in chief of Rapaport. I edit a monthly magazine that covers everything from mining to retail. I also edit an online publication, called Jewelry Connoisseur, like this podcast and I curate an Instagram account, Rapaport Jewelry Pro on which we share information about gemstones, antique jewelry and contemporary design.

I love jewelry, I love to learn more and I love to have exciting guests. Today my guest is Beth Bernstein, the author of the Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery, that has been release by ACC Art Books. Beth is a collector, a jewelry journalist with years of experience, and she will tell us what to look for when you start an antique jewelry collection, some of the things she’s learned in the process of researching this book and what is in her dream jewelry box.

Sonia: Hi, Beth. I'm very happy to have you on this podcast today. How are you?

Beth: I'm fine. And I'm so happy to be here, Sonia, it's a pleasure to be here and ask you to do this. I'm very excited.

Sonia: I'm excited to have you because I actually read your Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery from cover to cover. I thought I would just dip in, dip out, the part, I would read one chapter, but actually one I started I was so enthused by it. The period you cover is from collecting Georgian jewelry to Art Deco. You also explain what's antique jewelry. And what I find really interesting is on top of your personal insights, because you've been a collector for years, is you interviewed a lot of established dealers in America and abroad, who give their inputs, their insights, their opinions on different periods, the styles of what you collect. So how did this book start? Why did you it feel was a necessary addition to the book library of jewelry lovers?

Beth: Well, I don't know if you know this, but I had written three books before this. One was a memoir, and then two were jewelry books. One was about modern jewels, emerging modern jewelry designers. And next one was called If These Jewels Could Talk. And it was about celebrity jewelry and jewelry and film. I'm a film geek as well as a jewelry enthusiast. So that book I had wanted to write for 20 something years. But it's very interesting. I have a library full of books, about 400 jewelry books. I have so many antique jewelry books. And I thought, what am I going to add to this? I've written so many articles about antique jewelry. I thought, How am I going to add to this amazing library that's out there on antique jewelry? And all of a sudden there was this aha moment. I was asked to give tours through the US antique shows in Miami, in New York, to seven centuries of jewelry from Georgian to, I would say, the seventies, basically, I picked the dealers I thought were most trustworthy, and they had consumers who wanted to buy jewelry, join up for these tours. I would bring them to the dealers and the dealers and I would discuss the jewelry, would show the jewelry, some dealers with a little bit more shy and so I would jump in and I would you know get behind the booth. Because there were so many people who wanted to know so many things, so the Q&As went just longer than even the tour. And that's when the aha moment came. I was going to these dealers that I had known for so many years and some I knew for 20 years, some I met 10 years ago. But they're all really trustworthy. They all have museum quality jewels. I only take those to be on the tours and I thought, that's how I'm going to write this book. I'm going to interview people that are out there that have a tremendous amount of knowledge that I trust to buy from. That I would recommend to buy from. And there'll be different perspectives in the book and it will be my voice, it won't only be my voice. And then it could also turn into a sort of travelog where you have different dealers and shops from different parts of the world. So that's how it all started.

Sonia: I think that's what makes it so interesting. As you said, Travelog, it feels like really a guidebook to the world of jewelry taking you from London and Paris and obviously places in America and well-known dealers. What were the questions these attendees of the tours asked you? Were there like recurring questions that you felt was on people minds?

Beth: Ok, so on the tour, there were designers who wanted to know just a little bit more about the time periods because they were inspired by those time periods, so modern designers came on the tours. Like I would see designers I knew on the tours. And then there were the collectors, the starter collectors, they were more in depth, more consumer collectors, and there were also dealers on the tours, other dealers on the tour. So there was such a range of questions. Starting out like, how do I tell if a shrink has been changed from a Georgian ring? And when was it changed to How do I start my collection? What is the best Art Deco piece you've ever seen on the market? So I mean, the questions just ranged. A lot of times after the tours, they would go back to those dealers and they would buy from those dealers. So that was really very interesting. And sometimes they would ask me to go back with them and help them choose things, which is also really nice to do.

Sonia: There's a lot of advice in this book. What would be a few of the top tips you would give to someone who's beginning the collection of antique jewelry, that is listening to this podcast and just has a taste for antique jewelry and maybe also just doesn't exactly know what's antique jewelry.

h is why we stopped the early:

Sonia: You mentioned the dealer you started with. I would like to tell our listeners a really nice story you tell in the book that you had a full time job five days a week and you worked two days a week extra, so you worked really all round to learn about jewelry and antique jewelry at this dealer's. And she was lending you books that you were taking back home and studying. So that really shows the passion and enthusiasm. Can you tell us a bit more about your own journey into antique jewelry? Because before writing about it, writing books, you were a collector and you also sold antique jewelry.

Beth: I love diamonds, but I really love the quality of antique diamonds, the old mine cuts and the old European cuts and the rose cuts, there was some character and personality that just attracted me so much. So I think early on I was very attracted to the subtle pieces that you could wear by candlelight. So I think I started collecting. And also, one of my favorite stones it feels completely magical and it's moonstone. The moonstone was seen in a lot of Victorian jewelry, and as I said, that's what I started to collect. So I think my first real piece of antique jewelry was a moonstone like swag necklace. I wore that a lot. So when I met the dealer that I was going to be working for I looked in her case and it was like a museum and I was just like overwhelmed. And I picked a ring and she said, You know, that's my favorite ring in the case. And she gave me a good price at the time for the ring. And I said, this is going to take me a very long time to pay off. And she said, Well, I have an idea, why don't you come work for me on weekends? And, you know, that can help you pay it off. And you can take as much time as you need. And I said, How come? And she said, because everything you've looked at so far in the case is my best jewelry. And I don't know, maybe I had an instinct for before I was a jewelry writer and a jewelry journalist, I was a fashion editor and a fashion stylist for magazines. I always loved jewelry, the best to style with. So I was working five days a week, doing freelance writing, writing for one magazine, doing freelance writing for other magazines, doing still some more, just styling on the side. And I then took the job. I said, Will you teach me everything you know? Because I knew she was really an expert, that really excited me. And she said, Yes, if you come work for me and opening her her safe is like opening a museum and like putting things out. I had so much fun and she took me to the Miami Show and she took me to other shows where I met the other dealers. So dealers I know today for 25 years I met through her. And she would introduce me and then she would bring things back and I'm like. Oh. I want that. And she's like, You can't buy my best thing that I have just bought. I was like, Oh yeah, that's beautiful. I want that. Can I pay that off? And then I found dealers on my own. I would always make sure she approves and she always would tell me about things. And you know that's really where I learned it. And that's when I also started dealing in jewelry. After meeting all these dealers, I would go from actual dealers that were in New York and also outside of New York. I would call on them and on weekends I would also run around from dealer to New York stores selling the antique jewelry to stores. And then all of a sudden I had private clients and I would sell to private clients and find things for private clients. So I did that for a long time and I've been collecting for 25 years.

The Jewelry Connoisseur Podcast will be back after this break.

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Sonia: And you feel the passion in this book, in your guide. And what I wanted to ask you is actually, if you speak to dealers for so many years, you know that is there anything that surprised you when you were doing the interviews for the guide? Did you learn something that you actually had never thought of or you thought of it differently after speaking to one of your interviewees.

Beth: I think that I learned more. It's funny because I never thought Art Nouveau was the most wearable of all the different periods of jewelry. I thought it was really an art form, that it was, because it was the rebellion against Industrial Revolution in the Victorian mass produced jewelry. But after talking to Ben Macklowe from the Macklowe Gallery, Peter Schaffer from A La Vieille Russie, you know, they showed me pieces, that I felt, oh, yes, well, these are definitely wearable. So it's just what you choose. Like, of course, you can take the dragonfly brooch that's wearable, but there were the more amazing pieces I felt were just more artistic in that you would have for artistic purposes. And also what I learned was in Art Nouveau of course, there is Lalique and Falize and Fouquet, all these wonderful jewelry designers of the time, but there were so many unsigned pieces that were made by the same houses that unsigned Art Nouveau jewelry and Art Deco jewelry was also made by the same houses as Cartier and Chaumet. The unsigned pieces, while they don't appreciate as much the time and they're not as expensive right now, you can get wonderful pieces that aren't signed. So I learned a lot more about and mostly about the Art Nouveau period I learned more about.

Sonia: That's such an interesting point you just made about the workshop. It's something that we discussed with some of our guests on this podcast that the more you know about who are the workshop of special houses, the more you're able to find really interesting jewels that are not signed but they have the maker's mark of the workshop and then you get the quality that's exceptional, but it just doesn't have the same name. But is still the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship is extraordinary. So I think that's something the more you become a connoisseur, I guess the more you're able to access these pieces.

Beth: There's one story I have about a very big dealer. He had a shop actually on 47th Street. And a lot of the dealers that had storefront shops on 47, which is our jewelry district in New York, where all the setters and casters and polishers. But one of the dealers there, I had bought an Art Deco bracelet from him, a diamond art deco bracelet with all different cuts of diamond. And it was very Cartier looking to me. And he said, you know, with the maker's marks I think it might have been made in the same house as Cartier. At the time it was expensive for me, but it was a really wonderful piece. And once again, I did my little line and I paid it off. But I would say in around five or six years later he came back to me and he said, I'd like to buy that bracelet back if you still have it, and I'll pay four times what you paid for it. Because I knew what was happening was there was less and less on the market and this was a really beautiful bracelet. And I said, I know that if you're going to pay me four times, it's probably 10 times what it was. So no, and I love it, he said smart move. So that was a good story. But a lot of times a lot of the dealers will say, If you ever want to sell my pieces back, come to me first because they love the pieces they have and they love the pieces that they sell.

Sonia: Yes, usually, and there are lots of them tell you they find hard to part with a piece and usually as the piece they like the most that goes the first so it's a little bit emotional, even if they do it for the money. But still they get attached to these beautiful pieces. And that's because you knew fashion so well. You write for different publications. One of them is obviously Rapaport Magazine. How do you see this modern collector today of antique jewelry? Is it a new audience? Are they looking for something different? How do you define these consumers that are going to dealers to look for these antique pieces?

Beth: I think the antique market really exploded because of social media and Instagram. I was never privy to that. But even going to all the shows like The Miami show, which is a huge show I still have never seen so much jewelry as on Instagram and social media. And there is a whole group of antique collectors that have looked at each other's feeds and are selling and are buying and collecting. And I think that once that happens and once people start to learn more about antique jewelry, the field just opened up. So I think the collector can be anywhere. I think millennials are collecting for sustainability because they know that antique jewelry has an inherent sustainability. We don't know really what happened back then, what they did back then, but we do know that it has been passed down and passed down for generations. So I think that they collect for that and they also buy their engagement rings, sometimes antique engagements for that reason. And then the other collectors, you know, the collectors from the thirties to their sixties, they're collecting because there is a magic and a history. And what it's so interesting about certain antique jewelry, there's so much meaning to it, especially during the love of the Georgian era and the Victorian era there was a lot of meaning to the jewelry, much of which had to do with it was in those days you couldn't speak your feelings. So if somebody wanted to express their feelings, they gave it as a piece of jewelry and a piece of jewelry. There was the language of flowers which came into being during the Victorian era, where all types of different flowers had certain meanings and many of them had meanings of love, friendship, different kinds of love and friendship. Returned to happiness like beautiful meanings, some not so beautiful meanings, but they used the ones with their meanings that would speak to the giver, would speak to the receiver. There was acrostic jewelry which you know the first gemstone spelled out a word on each piece of jewelry. So if you had a REGARD ring, let's say it was ruby, emeralds, garnets, amethyst, diamond. So regard dear, dearest, amore. And then during more of the Art Nouveau period you had the French words with different types of flowers. So there's a lot of meaning behind that you can relate to today. There were so many different types of hearts that had so many different meanings. So if you had a heart with a bow on top, I mean two hearts. If you had to heart to the bow it was like two hearts tied together as one. Or if you had a heart with a crown on top, it was a love child. You know, there's all different types of heart. And of course, the snake became very popular. The snake always had meaning throughout history, from antiquity, throughout history. And not always wonderful meaning, but snakes in Victorian times, started meaning enduring love because Prince Albert gave Victoria a snake ring as her engagement ring with her birthstone in it, which was an emerald. So it became to have the meaning of enduring love. And that history really attracts collectors, because a lot of the modern designers are using motifs from the past. But it's just that beauty and that patina. I don't know. There's just something, like I said, magical about antique jewelry. And I think it's really attracted a much wider audience than ever before. But with that said, you also need to be careful because there's a lot of repros on the market today.

Sonia: Yeah, absolutely. I hope after this podcast people will have even more interest in antique jewelry. As I said, I would really recommend every one as a beginner's guide. Or even if you want to learn a bit more to read your Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery, that's just been published by ACC Art Books. And Beth, before we close this really interesting conversation, I would like you to tell me what is in your dream jewelry box. I know you real jewelry box is beautiful and already has really extraordinary pieces in the safe or the ones that you wear. But what is in a dream jewelry box of antique collectors such as yourself.

Beth: Okay, so in my dream jewelry box would be a piece from Lalique, a beautiful piece now that I so know more about Art Nouveau. Also a piece from Falize because I'm hopeful romantic, and a lot of Falize pieces, although they were from the Art Nouveau period, has a lot to do with love. And I find that the romance is lovely. And of course I have a riviere and it's a pasted riviere that looks like pink topaz, and it's beautiful. But what I would really love would be a diamond riviere necklace in my dream jewelry box. And maybe a pair of Georgian earrings that I could wear from the Georgian period that would also be in my dream jewelry box.

Sonia: I like it and they wouldn't be too heavy.

Beth: Yeah, the Georgian can be a little bit heavy. As you go into the early Victorian period, they started as they stopped using silver top gold and just started using the gold, they started getting lighter. So I think I would go to the open back, less heavy. And also maybe en tremblant brooch because I'm one of the few of my friends who absolutely love brooches and will wear brooches everywhere and in all different ways. So I don't have an en tremblant diamond brooch, which I would definitely want in my dream collection.

Sonia: Sounds absolutely gorgeous, I love it. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. It was really a pleasure and happy that we got the chance to speak about your new book and what it means to collect antique jewelry. Thank you so much.

Beth: This was wonderful and I hope I was able to give the listeners some good information. I really appreciate you having me. Thank you so much.

Thanks for having joined us on this latest episode of the Jewelry Connoisseur podcast, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google and YouTube. If you like this podcast, give us your feedback and make sure that you subscribe so you won’t miss any single episode. You also can find information on estate and antique jewelry on



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