“Only 22 in at a time!” shouts a sprightly man clutching his clipboard at the door. The line, which stretches to the street and numbers close to 50, is a familiar scene in Los Angeles—perhaps an opening for the latest Hollywood club or an underground foodie emporium du jour. But this time it is neither; instead, it’s a Beverly Hills estate sale at the home of silent film director Herbert Henley’s family. Someone recently died, leaving behind 18th-century French furniture, a Victorian tea set and a master bedroom filled with a collection of vintage costume jewelry that is, by far, the sale’s biggest draw. Especially for collector Neil Zevnik, who hurries past the gatekeeper to begin his bejeweled hunt. “It’s my retirement fund,” says the private chef, who has cooked for Pierce Brosnan, Walt Disney president Bob Iger and the late Elizabeth Taylor (whose vintage pieces will be sold online at Christie’s LIVE in December in conjunction with the auction house’s landmark sale of her fine jewelry collection). Zevnik began collecting vintage costume jewelry as a hobby in the mid-1990s, after his sister passed away (scouring eBay for crystal-encrusted Juliana earrings and floral Weiss brooches seemed to help him sleep). Today he owns thousands of vintage baubles that, despite being made from base metal and rhinestones, are worth thousands of dollars apiece and have become coveted accessories for professional dealers and stylish arbiters alike.
And in L.A., where estate sales are a constant, flea markets are year-round and couture-quality vintage shops cater to collectors like Eva Chow and Lily Tomlin, the search for these prized pieces is boundless. “It’s about playing dress-up,” says Decades owner and departures contributing editor Cameron Silver, whose costume jewelry collection includes old-school Valentino and Chanel, and nearly 4,000 pieces of Yves Saint Laurent. To Silver, the bigger, bolder and more statement-making the piece, the better. He also points out that costume jewelry is often undervalued. “American heritage brands like Weiss, Eisenberg and Miriam Haskell are made with similar craftsmanship as that of fine jewelry,” he says. “Not all the materials are very expensive in costume jewelry. But the labor is still there.” He was so taken with the craftsmanship of the recently relaunched Miriam Haskell, in fact, that he partnered up with the brand to design a capsule collection of Deco-inspired contemporary pieces for Decades, which debuted last month.
Related: How to vintage shop with Ann and Sid Mashburn »
Costume pieces first appeared in the Victorian era, when garnet stones were set in base metal, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, when many fine jewelers found themselves out of work, that it became a full-fledged industry. Among them was Alfred Phillipe, who designed for Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels before taking the reins at costume company Trifari in 1930. Later came designer Benedetto Panetta, whose Panetta brand began in his Naples, Italy, platinum and gold shop.
“Even jewelers like Tiffany’s Jean Schlumberger made costume jewelry,” says Hutton Wilkinson, the longtime business partner of late interior design legend and jeweler Tony Duquette and current president of the namesake company. Wilkinson still designs the signature over-the-top fine jewelry pieces, which are highlighted in his new book, Tony Duquette/Hutton Wilkinson Jewelry (Abrams), but last year he also debuted a line of vintage-inspired fashion pieces for HSN. “Jewelry is meant to be seen from the back of the theater,” he says. “That’s why I have this line; these are designs I couldn’t do with diamonds.”
Historic items from the likes of Trifari and Panetta coexist with Elsa Schiaparelli pendants, Bakelite bracelets, Larry Vrba statement stunners and rare runway pieces from designers like James Galanos and André Courrèges at upscale L.A. vintage boutiques such as The Paper Bag Princess, Resurrection and Lily et Cie, as well as less-polished resale shops and flea markets. Filmmaker and costume jewelry collector Liz Goldwyn frequents the Vintage Expo (which returns to L.A. on February 4) for guaranteed finds. “The best jewelry dealers have booths set up there,” she says. Her collection includes circa 1910 headpieces, ’60s YSL couture and a bevy of Bakelite.
But the source is less important than the piece itself. “You want to make sure the piece has been taken care of,” says Doris Raymond, president of high-end vintage shop The Way We Wore and a costume jewelry fanatic whose collection includes a Jean Paul Gaultier laser-cut leather bib from the ’80s and ’40s William Spratling Mexican silver cuffs. She recommends inspecting the piece for that green oxidative verdigris (which can cause wires to snap) and making sure the original stones are in place. Smaller generic stones can usually be switched out, but larger statement clusters are more difficult to replace.
Back at the estate sale, Zevnik has drawn an Antiques Roadshow–style crowd. “I want to know what the collector thinks,” says one shopper, waving an Original by Robert pendant that Zevnik guesses is from the late ’40s or early ’50s. He examines the piece with the skill of a surgeon and scoffs at the $165 price tag. It’s missing one small stone. “Is it worth it?” the buyer asks nervously.
“Are you gonna wear it?” Zevnik responds, knowing it’s overpriced. The shopper nods yes. “Then it’s absolutely worth it.”
Road Trip: Vintage Jewelry in Palm Springs
The desert enclave a mere two hours southeast of L.A. is known for some of the best midcentury modern furniture shopping in the country, and it also boasts one of the top olden-day bauble boutiques in existence. Route 66 West, a tiny jewel box of a shop owned by vintage costume jewelry expert and art historian Matt Burkholz, is a collector’s dream. Frequented by Diane Keaton, Trina Turk and Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, the shop overflows with what Burkholz calls “unapologetically fake” pieces from designers such as Trifari, Kenneth Jay Lane, Miriam Haskell and Schreiner; signed and unsigned pieces alike span the 1920s to the ’80s. A Crayola box worth of colorful Bakelite pieces takes up a sizable portion of the store; Burkholz is so fascinated with the stuff that he wrote a book, The Bakelite Collection (Schiffer Publishing), in the ’90s. There are also major acrylic necklaces and cuffs from Huntington Beach, California–based Judith Hendler, a jewelry designer (and stepmother of the late fashion photographer Herb Ritts) who was discovered in the early ’80s by Nolan Miller, costume designer for the TV show Dynasty. Burkholz and Hendler are currently collaborating on a new collection, available exclusively at the shop, that looks a little less Joan Collins and more like futuristic ice cubes.
Route 66 West is at 465 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-322-6669.
Ask the Expert: Cameron Silver, Departures Contributing Editor and Owner of Decades
Q: What are the true vintage jewelry investment pieces?
I am fascinated with Miriam Haskell, which is why I approached them to do the capsule collection for Decades. The perennials are Versace, Valentino, Kenneth Jay Lane, Weiss, Eisenberg, Dominique Aurientis, late-1980s Christian Lacroix and Alex and Lee, the San Francisco, hippie-flavored ’70s line (pieces commonly fetch upward of $3,000 a pop). And, of course, there’s always Chanel from both the Coco and the Karl years. You can’t go wrong buying a strand of ’80s Chanel pearls.
Favorite Vintage Jewelry of Gelila Puck, Handbag Designer and Wife of Chef Wolfgang Puck
When I moved to New York from Ethiopia 15 years ago, I had to rent a storage space just to hold my jewelry; I suppose that is when I realized I was a collector! I’m wearing a silver necklace and cuff I bought in a gallery in Spain. The other necklace is Lucite and wood, which I found at Domont, a vintage shop on West Sunset Boulevard. The black diamond and Lucite bracelet was recently made for me by L.A. interior designer Carrie Livingston. I’m wearing it with a Baccarat Lucite cuff—I like to stack vintage and new pieces together.