For fashion history buffs, the red carpet is becoming more and more of a place to spot covetable vintage jewellery. At this year’s Met Gala, model Paloma Elsesser wore a decadent pearl piece from the 1997 Dior Haute Couture collection, while pop star Billie Eilish rocked a rarefied choker by Fred Leighton. And at the Oscars in March, we saw actor and activist Marlee Matlin sport a lapis lazuli set of earrings and a necklace from the 1980s made by Harry Winston, as well as a Van Cleef and Arpels ring that was crafted in the 1950s.
These gala moments are optimal opportunities for stars and their stylists to bring previously loved pieces back to life. The interest in donning old finery also speaks to a sustainability-focused approach to getting dressed for special occasions, not to mention the fact that vintage styles are very unique yet also find themselves en vogue every few seasons. While fine jewellery in the resale world is often unattainable to most price point-wise, a variety of costume pieces can add dimension to your wardrobe – as well as a dash of collecting savvy.
With the Toronto Fashion Film Festival set to dazzle us once again, we asked Carole Tanenbaum, owner of the retail brand Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection, for tips on how to start acquiring eye-catching old school items for your own enjoyment (and that of future generations, too).
Do your homework to avoid disappointment
“I never like to think of costume jewellery as an investment. However, as it increases in popularity, prices reflect that,” Tanenbaum says. She credits the release of Schreiner: Masters of Twentieth-Century Costume Jewelry, a book she co-authored with Eve Townsend, with helping to give costume jewellery a moment. “Before the book came out in 2017, vintage costume jewellery was starting to get attention. After the book came out, the market soared with new collectors.”
It’s prudent, though, to vet a piece if you’re unsure about its cost. Tanenbaum highlights WorthPoint as an online resource shoppers can use, for a fee, to glean this information. And social media groups dedicated to the work of particular designers, such as the Schreiner Jewelry Research Group, add a crowdsourcing element to sleuthing out intel.
In addition to cultivating spaces for enthusiasts to come together, virtual platforms can also help you find out about auctions that are open to the public – venues that Tanenbaum says often offer accessibly priced pieces. Ontario is home to several reputable businesses including Waddington’s and Miller and Miller Auctions.
Novel materials are a good place to begin
You’ve likely deduced that the aforementioned red carpet jewellery doesn’t come cheap and heightened competition in the market has caused many prices to soar for both fine and costume pieces (in January, 2021, a Christie’s auction of 106 lots of Chanel costume pieces, both signed and unsigned, went for a total of US$356,125).
But Tanenbaum says that there are still avenues into starting a collection without breaking the bank; for example, “unsigned” items – ones that don’t feature an inscription denoting their design pedigree – are in prime position to be acquired affordably.
“There are some areas in the field that have been neglected,” she says about the costume jewellery scene. “People have ignored them because they didn’t think that they had value. One of them is wood – [these pieces] have great authenticity, they’re charming, and they’re available. And another is copper. You can find such pieces for as little as $40 – that only reflects on the fact that it hasn’t caught on yet.” When it comes to retention, “early Bakelite pieces that are well articulated will always hold their value because they’re few and far between,” she says.
Take stock before you spend
While Tanenbaum’s mantra is that you “have to love it,” other factors must come into account before you splash out. “You have to look at the condition,” she says, adding that within Canada there are very few places to repair vintage pieces.
Key attributes to scrutinize include the setting of the stones and their overall quality because the older they are, the less likely they can be replaced if they are missing or broken; ditto an inspection of the enamel or gold- or silver-plating on vintage pieces to ensure integrity.
Certain brands boast more well-made items than others, too. “The construction of a piece is very important – number one for the aesthetic and number two, for the longevity of the piece,” Tanenbaum says, nodding to Hattie Carnegie, Alice Caviness and Eisenberg as being noted for the level of their craft – to name but a few.
Conversely, Tanenbaum says that she “never buy items that are soldered, because it’s always a weak point in that piece. No matter how great something is, I’ve passed because I don’t want to take the chance.”
Future heirlooms require TLC
Don’t forget that once you’ve purchased a piece, you become its custodian. Some objects might need a cleaning, but others should retain a presence of the past. “I like a patina,” Tanenbaum says of items that have a well-worn appearance. “I always encourage people not to shine the piece up.” However, you could lightly buff the item by gently rubbing it with a soft cloth.
Another care tip from Tanenbaum encourages some décor inspo. “Don’t stack your jewellery,” she says of how to store it; doing so can lead to scratched surfaces, as well as potentially tangling items. “Every piece deserves a place.” Velvet-lined trays are an option, but she also proffers a suggestion with even more flair. “A friend of mine loves fruit-shaped pins, and she shows them on a pillow in her den. It’s quite beautiful.”