Talk of the District: Vintage Jewelry
By Annie Groer
As the leggy Washington blonde dressed for a party, she reached for some dazzle: fused bands of diamonds and sapphires last owned by Elizabeth Taylor—actress, benefactress, serial bride, and noted jewelry junkie. Dubbed Lot No. 130 at Christie’s 2011 blockbuster charity auction offering the treasures of La Liz, this modern and comparatively modest De Grisogono cocktail ring boasted a presale estimate of $7,000 to $10,000. Driven by stellar provenance, however, it sold for $35,000 to a Los Angeles gem dealer. He in turn gave the ring—along with major bragging rights—to our local heroine, one of his best friends, though it spends most of its time locked in a bank vault.
By contrast, Jessica Chang never removes the Art Deco platinum and diamond engagement ring she chose with fiancé Yuan Ye before their wedding a few years ago. While Chang was employed at Sloans & Kenyon, the couple found perfection at the auction house in Chevy Chase. Priced out of the high-end emporia, Yuan bought his intended left-hand happiness for $2,270.50, including the buyer’s premium and sales tax. It draws “lots of compliments,” says Chang, and “the more I look at it, the more I am loving it.”
That, of course is the point. Young brides on a budget and deep-pocketed professional women alike have recently joined the hunt for stunning vintage jewelry. And with the opening of several new jewelry outposts and auction houses, and expanded selections at area retailers, it’s easier than ever to buy (and sell) heirloom pieces.
I Thee Wed
“The engagement ring is often the first piece of serious jewelry a woman receives,” says Jim Rosenheim, the longtime purveyor of fine vintage baubles—necklaces, bracelets, earrings, brooches, watches—and other confections at Tiny Jewel Box, the downtown boutique founded in 1930 by his mother, Roz. “Young couples love the uniqueness and styling of vintage.”
Art Deco—the period spans the 1920s to the ’40s—remains the most coveted style, but vintage (or antique, if a piece is older than 100 years; estate if the owner has died) also includes Edwardian (still hot), Victorian, Imperial Russian, and even Napoleonic, says Rosenheim, whose Connecticut Avenue shop has served White House clients from FDR to Laura Bush. “The trend in the last few years is for geometric shapes from the ’50s and ’60s, to go along with the Midcentury Modern aesthetic in furniture,” says Stephanie Kenyon, CEO and owner of Sloans & Kenyon. “The emerald cut is undergoing a real revival.”
Yet round stones remain desirable, says fifth generation jeweler Dino Pampillonia, whose eponymous family firm, now in Chevy Chase, began acquiring estate pieces in the late 1970s. “People see an older-cut diamond, and it doesn’t quite have the sparkle of today’s stones, but it has more character. It doesn’t have that mass-produced look. Vintage is also popular because estate rings can represent a substantial value. With the exception of the really fine Art Deco or Edwardian pieces, prices tend to be lower.”
Indeed, one sweet spot for buyers may be outof- favor marquise-cut diamonds. Matthew Quinn, a vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church and an Antiques Roadshow expert on decorative a rts, porcelain, and pottery, recalled one such ring “that probably retailed for $7,000, and I thought we’d get $3,000 to $4,000 for it.” When he couldn’t even muster an $800 opening bid, the seller took it back.
This being Washington, geopolitics matter. “Pre–World War II rings are pretty much guaranteed to be conflict-free,” says Pampillonia of the so-called “blood diamonds” used by rebel factions in Africa since the ’70s to finance violent insurgencies. Since 2003, such trafficking has been subject to United Nations monitoring.
Ecopolitics and, frankly, watercooler gossip can also influence jewelry choices in the nation’s capital—a smart, cynical, and sometimes catty town where those in power (and those orbiting them) regularly eschew anything too flashy, lest they be considered tone-deaf in a down economy. As with anything previously owned, whether a Fortuny gown or a classic Rolls, antique and vintage jewelry represents temperance and stylish recycling.
Buying (and Selling) Locally
On the supply side, pieces often come to market via the three Ds: debt, death, and divorce. The demand side is fueled by collectors, dealers, and consumers seeking the best and coolest pieces they can afford. Men, of course, still buy jewelry for women, who increasingly are acquiring pieces for themselves. Madeleine Albright famously celebrated her post as America’s first female secretary of state at Tiny Jewel Box with an 1890 French yellow-gold eagle brooch set with diamonds, rubies, and a pearl.
Even as the global economy sputtered in the past few years, “extraordinary signed pieces” did well, says Susan Abeles, US jewelry director of Bonhams’s auctions. (“Signed” is shorthand for Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, David Webb, and other top names.) And with an appraisal office in the District but no salesroom, Bonhams sends local consignments to any of its six auction cities, including New York, London, Sydney, and Hong Kong.
Those of a certain age will remember well-dressed ladies of the 1950s and ’60s, who never left home without a pin on their suit, dress, or coat. These days, many local jewelry experts say women under 40 have almost no interest in small, commercial designs. They will, however spring for unusual signed brooches or dramatic “statement” pieces. Vintage metal and gemstone bangle bracelets remain popular among all ages.
While Washington jewelry trends tend to be more traditional than sensational, buying habits also reflect the area’s well-heeled, well-traveled, diplomat-journo-politico-lawyer-lobbyist-high-tech-industrial-consultant complex. These people travel and shop extensively, even if many of them display their jewels discreetly. Abeles puts bidders in three categories. “At the bottom is a dealer who doesn’t care about the mounting, and he just wants the stone. Number two is a jeweler who appreciates the piece, or has a client looking for vintage. Number three is a private person. We have a lot more privates buying at auction.”
“The ‘private’ has a big advantage,” explains Kenyon. “He or she can outbid a dealer because the piece won’t have to be marked up 100 percent for resale. A private has no overhead, [and] isn’t paying rent or staff.”
At the same time, near-record gold and platinum prices have turned countless buyers into sellers. Unfashionable heirlooms, orphan earrings, and gifts from detested exes all have gone straight to the smelter. Some unwanted pieces are sold at auction or to retail jewelers for cash or trade-up credit. Circa, an international jewelry buyer, purchases pieces outright, then in turn sells them to its global network of dealers and major collectors. “One of the most common reasons [our clients sell] is that they no longer wear the item because their fashion style has changed, and it just sits in a safety deposit box or drawer,” says Lee Siegel of Circa’s Bethesda office. “We also see a lot of clients after they were fortunate enough to inherit a piece or an entire collection. Typically, they feel the items are either too formal or [do] not fit their personal taste, so they elect to sell them and create a new opportunity for themselves.” In Bethesda, Circa has recently bought a fine Art Deco diamond brooch that unhooks to form a pair of clips; a hefty 18k gold Buccellatti pin showcasing a flourish of meticulously crafted grapes and leaves; three Rolex watches; and a 1920s diamond ring exuding a warmth and character many modern rings lack, never mind its so-so, old setting.
Beyond beauty and craftsmanship, a dishy backstory can elevate the value of a vintage piece. Jeffrey E. Post, mineral and gem curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, relates why thrice-wed Washington socialite Polly Logan happily donated the 423-carat, egg-size sapphire brooch from her philandering second spouse, Robert Guggenheim. Post says that when a friend asked how she could bear to part with such a stupendous gift, Logan reportedly said, “‘Every time I looked at it, all I could think of was my no-good, cheating husband.”’
As for our unnamed blonde, she has been known to respond to those ogling her four-and-a-half carats of sapphires and three-and-a-half carats of diamonds with a demure, “Oh, the ring? It used to belong to Elizabeth Taylor.”
photography courtesy of tiny jewel box; sophie pyle; getty images (zebra pin, leopard pin); tiffany & Co. (fleur de mer); CORBIS (OBAMA); CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. (EARRINGS)
Celebrating the start to the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner weekend at the British Ambassador's residence with the Entertainment Software Association.