How to Shop for Antique Jewelry Like an Expert

Courtesy Bell & Bird

The minds behind Austin, Texas, antique jewelry boutqiue Bell & Bird give their professional advice on shopping for rare, centuries-old pieces.

You’d be forgiven if  “Austin, Texas” makes you think of live music and Tex-Mex, rather than museum-quality antique jewelry. But for the dedicated collector—who can look beyond the food trucks—Austin plays home to a hidden gem of a jewelry shop, and it’s a thrill to visit.

Run by Cyrus and Rhianna Shennum, Bell & Bird (1206 West 38th Street, Austin; 512-407-8206) specializes in 18th- and 19th-century antique jewelry. That includes taxidermy hummingbird head earrings, the feathers iridescent blue and green, with golden beaks and ruby eyes, all dangling from delicate, glittering hooks. There’s also an ivory micro-carving of a Georgian-era warship as small as your thumbnail, set under a crystal dome surrounded by garnets as a late 18th-century ring. The British Museum in London has a similar, even similar one.

Cyrus has a fine jewelry background and is a certified gemologist, while Rhianna comes from a fashion background. Together they handpick each of the unique treasures on offer. Here, Rhianna offers her tips on where to look, and what to look for, when building your own collection.

Where do you find most of the pieces you have in store and online?
For us, London is the center of the antique jewelry trade. (If we loved a different period of jewelry, we might look more in the U.S.) The constant hunt for these early pieces is by far our biggest challenge, but thankfully the most fun! We travel to the U.K. every four to six weeks—as an American-based business, it is an absolute must to travel to Europe so frequently. Finding these treasures is by far the most difficult part of our business so we source from anywhere we can. We source from trade shows, large antique fairs, private dealers, auction houses as well as—more and more often—individuals who seek us out with private collections to sell.

Victorian Era blue enamel and diamond snake with ruby eyes, circa 1860. 

The antique business is very old fashioned. We have yet to find a dealer who will email or text jewelry pictures to us. It is just not how the business is done. Dealers tend to think of us because they see us frequently. I wish there was a secret to it, but the longer we do this we realize that the only real secret is persistence. Or maybe we don't yet know the secret!

What are your guidelines when you’re considering buying a piece?
First, we have to love a piece aesthetically. When you’re dealing in antiques you walk a fine line between tired, old-fashioned pieces and a timeless treasure. We want everything to be wholly authentic in its antiquity, but still relevant as a fashion piece. Authenticity is important, and we try hard to find pieces in their original condition. However, when dealing with pieces that are centuries old, we do have to find well-executed repairs acceptable.

As a non-expert buyer, what are the key things to be aware of to make a smart purchase?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to find pieces in their original form. Always give a piece a very slow look on the front and back—many antiques have poorly executed repairs that can compromise the wearability of the piece. Also, keep in mind that any object that has been around for hundreds of years will show signs of its age. Even a well-cared-for, rarely worn piece will reveal the passage of time. Antique pieces have a softness that a newly made piece can’t mimic. And of course, if something seems too good to be true, you must always question its authenticity. Every dealer, collector, and museum that we have dealt with has made a mistake. If an object was made to deceive, it could be executed very well. [But there are still telltale signs of its inauthentic.] It could be the wrong faceting designs on a stone or prongs that are too sharp, even the wrong settings on a period jewel. For example it is important to know what a diamond cut from the turn of the 20th century looks like versus an older faceting style, because Georgian jewelry enjoyed a revival of style in the Edwardian period. The look is very similar but if you know these diamond cuts did not exist in the 1820's you would never mistake it for the other. Most tell tale signs are learned only with experience and study.

Emerald and diamond 7-stone ring in gold, 2nd-half of the 17th century.

How should someone care for their antique pieces?
A fine antique piece should be respected and cared for like this: At home, pieces should be kept in dry boxes or individual pouches. Jewelry shouldn't be jumbled together, as stones and metal of one piece can scratch or dent another. If a piece seems to need more than a simple cleaning, it is best to take it to a professional who has a lot of experience with antiques. The trouble you see most frequently is over cleaning. If a piece is put in the wrong hands, decades or even centuries of beautiful patina can be polished off in seconds! To put it simply, we recommend our pieces to be thought of and worn like a fine silk dress rather than a pair of jeans.

Bell & Bird is located at 26 Doors Shopping Center, 1206 W 38th St., # 1102; 512-407-8206; bellandbird.com.

Photo Credits: Courtesy Bird & Bell