THERE ARE A multitude of reasons one might be looking to buy vintage jewelry. It’s the best way to ensure your jewels are sustainable, of course. It’s also a safe bet you’ll be the only one in any room wearing that particular piece, as it’s likely to be rare, if not one of a kind. Maybe you just want the look of a family heirloom without having to put in the hours with a particularly ornery great-aunt.
Whatever the rationale, by picking up an antique piece or two, you’ll be joining a growing movement. Fine jewelry maisons themselves have begun quietly purchasing their own historical pieces from private collectors, either to keep in their own archives or to offer back to customers; rather than presenting a brand-new collection, Buccellati showcased never-before-seen vintage pieces for their July 2022 haute couture season.
Vintage has held a steady presence on the red carpet, but in recent years it has exploded in popularity with celebrities looking to stand out: YouTube star Emma Chamberlain appeared on the vaunted steps of the Met Gala wearing a Cartier tiara made in 1911 (along with a controversial choker, which is believed to have belonged to the Maharaja of Patiala), while Rihanna debuted her baby bump adorned with a statement-making Christian Lacroix necklace from the ’80s.
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Those without paparazzi on speed dial are also increasingly drawn to the appeal of vintage pieces. It’s hard to deny the romance of jewels from a bygone era — one reason why antique engagement rings are always a popular purchase. But more than the idea of a shared history, there’s an attraction to the kind of craftsmanship that was commonplace before our technological era.
“It's only [been] a century that diamonds are cut specifically to certain proportions; in the past, if you go back a century, two centuries ago, there wasn't a specific rule for cutting, so diamonds were kind of uneven. It’s called the character of stone — they’re all different, they have their own charm, all the stones are very unique,” explains Katerina Perez, a fine jewelry aficionado who shares her expertise on her eponymous website. “If you look at the quality, it is shocking how high-quality it was, how detailed the jewelry was. For collectors, it is a testament to human craftsmanship, creativity, and wit, because sometimes you have to look for such crazy solutions to make the jewel work.”
Vintage jewels are arguably a better value for the money. “You have the ability to buy a higher-quality piece of jewelry than you would in new jewelry for the same price. You couldn’t go to a jeweler and have them make it for anywhere near what you could pay for it,” adds Suzanne Martinez, co-owner of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry, a vintage and antique jewelry boutique in San Francisco.
It’s an added bonus that the aforementioned sustainability is built in when buying vintage. At the end of the day, mining is an ecologically destructive process — especially diamond mining. Even if you’re not into the look of antiques, it’s possible to buy into this aspect of vintage jewelry, thanks to a growing cohort of contemporary jewelers who repurpose old stones in their modern designs. One such designer is Sylva Yepremian, who launched her brand Sylva & Cie with a desire to give old jewels new life.
‘Why do we have to dig a hole even deeper into the earth when there’s so much out there that’s really beautiful, that can be reused and enjoyed?’
“Why do we have to dig a hole even deeper into the earth when there’s so much out there that’s really beautiful, that can be reused and enjoyed? It’s much more romantic to see a vintage diamond that, yes, is inexact in proportions — it’s lumpy and bumpy — but it was meant to be viewed at candlelight, and it twinkles,” Yepremian says. “You can’t get that today by buying something that looks like every other diamond on the planet. That’s not what I'm interested in.”
Sylva & Cie’s signature piece is the Ten Table ring, so named because it’s visible from 10 tables away in a restaurant. The first iteration of this piece was inspired by a Georgian pin, which was too ornate for Yepremian’s liking, though she was drawn to the drama of the diamonds. Not wanting to split them up (“I felt like they’ve been together 200 years, [I should] put them together for another 200,” she explains), she clustered them together against a more streamlined backdrop, combining the romance of vintage stones with a more modern design sensibility. Thus, a new fine jewelry classic was born.
But let’s say you are looking for something more period: the slinky sexiness of ’70s-era jewels, say, or the always-classic art deco aesthetic. You may want a little extra help when wading into vintage waters to make sure you’re not only getting the real deal, but also something of good quality. Before lasers were in wide use, for example, antiques were often repaired with lead solder — and, it should go without saying, you don’t want to wear lead on your skin.
“That’s why it’s important that you buy from somebody who has good ethics, has a very high-quality standard, and can answer all your questions about a piece of jewelry; you need to have somebody that is in your court,” Martinez says. “You want to know: Has this piece been repaired? What kind of repairs did you do to it? How delicate is this piece? Can I wear it every day?”
Newbies to the antique and vintage market should consider either sticking with well-vetted, reputable sellers or finding an appraiser who can help identify any potential problems with a piece. And while it’s certainly alluring to buy a signed piece, try not to get hung up on the idea of paperwork and pedigree either. There are plenty of gems to be found (pun intended) outside of the Place Vendôme circuit.
When it comes to buying vintage jewelry, though, there are only two hard-and-fast rules. Number one: Buy what you love. And number two? If you like it, don’t hesitate to throw down that credit card.
“When you see something that really moves you, you have to buy it, because there’s not another one,” Martinez says. “There’s only one, and you’ll spend the rest of your years looking for that one and kicking yourself for not buying it.”
Header image: Buccellati Aisha bracelet, Cartier tiara, Buccellati Profondo Blu ring.
Tyler McCall Writer
Tyler McCall is a New York City–based writer and editor.
Christina Gliha Illustrator
Christina Gliha is an illustrator, graphic designer, art director, and creative director based in Toronto. She specializes in illustrating food, fashion, and travel for various brands like Condé Nast, Moda Operandi, Jones Road Beauty, Issimo, and Canada Goose. Gliha illustrates in an emotive, painterly style with visible brushstrokes and imperfections to show a joyful, human hand behind the imagery.