Taking treasure out of the chest

I recently celebrated a dear friend's 60th at a dinner party.

Birthday Boy's wife, R., admired a bracelet I wore and said, "Hmmm. My mother in law gave me one like that years ago, but I never wear it. I'm not sure if it's nice or not."


She ran upstairs to retrieve a buried treasure from the bottom of her jewelry box: a 3-inch wide 18k gold cuff that bore an etched, 'retro Aztec' geometric design. The bracelet, bought in the '60s in Mexico City, was absolutely perfect on her.

When we draped that that smart swath of gold on her wrist, all women guests cooed, "Oooooh."


"But I don't get dressed up", she said, "so I have nowhere to wear it." A casually beautif
ul woman, R. is dean of the design faculty at a local college. Her style is spare, unadorned, and modern; she wears only neutrals.

We suggested she pair her treasure with jeans and a crisp shirt (what she was wearing at the party), a scoopneck tee and pants, or a Banana Republic sweater and simple skirt. The bracelet needed less, not more to set off its exotic heritage.

If you have vintage pieces, precious or
not, bring them out and try them with your favourite casual clothes. The brooch your aunt wore on the shoulder of her suit can look wonderful on a cardigan worn with jeans. Mix a real gold bangle with J. Crew enamel bracelets.

Costume pieces


Many pre-70s costume piec
es were better-made than even the best of today's. Just as you would with vintage clothes, invest in renovation and professional cleaning; new life's revealed with a little care. Sparklz web site has good information about how to clean and perform basic repairs to costume jewelry.

A site that calls itself "the first online store for the repair of costume jewelry",
Vincenzo Taormina, is based in Philadelphia, and offers a an array of services. Finally, a place you can send those pretty but ear-numbing clip earrings, and have posts put on them. They can replace missing stones, solder broken joins, and replace pin backs.

Enamels, pla
stics and coatings are more complicated and sometimes impossible; they'll advise you before beginning.

You could also talk to your local jewelers about repair or renovation; however, some techniques used on costume pieces differ from those used for gold, silver or platinum pieces, so they may not have the skills or equipment.

Schiaparelli earrings, shown, $450; from Very Vintage.

Fine jewelry


R. needs only a simple repair to the security clasp on her bracelet. If your piece is set with stones, check that they are not loose. (This may not be apparent to you without a loupe.) Have major pieces appraised. The result can go both ways; I've heard of "diamonds" that turned out to be paste, and of stones thought to be glass that were precious.


To renovate or not?

Barbara thought that the three-stone ring she inherited from her aunt was costume, because the "diamond" wasn't very sparkly. She discovered she owned a signed Cartier ring with a 3ct European-cut diamond and several large sapphires.
She had it remodeled as a brooch, wore that for a while, then had a modern ring made.

If I had a ca. 1930 Cartier piece, I would not renovate it.
I'd enthusiastically restyle unsigned, out of date jewelry.

Should you sell? Not unless you don't care, and just want it off your hands. I'd encourage you to create something wonderful from your bequest, rather than earn a bit of cash from an auction house or dealer.



To have, but not always to hold

Once the piece is ship-shape, ask yourself, Will I wear it?

If you don't love it, is there another family member who would cherish a Victorian locket or a seed-pearl torsade? You could, for example, give a young niece your heirloom pearls, with a note saying the gift includes restringing and a new clasp of her choice.

A jewelry swap of costume or semi-precious pieces is fun, too. Have an idea of the value, so you can exchange fairly with your friends, and provide some mirrors. That's how I got a beautiful silver bangle that would forever remind one woman of an ex, and she got the "tortoise" combs I wore when I had long hair.

18 comments

StyleSpy said...

Amen! Beautiful things were meant to be worn!

diverchic said...

I was told yesterday that with all my good and old jewellry put neatly away, I couldn't see what I had and therefore wasn't wearing it. I am now in the process of clearing space to display it visually so that I too will be able to add accessories and be less of a dull bird.
I received a particularly beautiful modern necklace of pearls, silver and stones that a dear friend gave me yesterday and I think I will never take it off. Thanks again, Duchesse.

Mardel said...

I agree that what is put away is forgotten, and beautiful things deserve to be worn. I have just sorted through and rearranged my jewelry. There are still a few old pieces I need to figure out what to do with, and some I would wear more.

Have you, or do you know anyone who has, used the repair website. I have a fabulous gold-plated bracelet that I adore that seriously needs refurbishing but on one around me can do it.

Duchesse said...

mardel: Have not used them or know anyone who has. Perhaps a phone call to talk about your project would give you a sense of suitability. Am planning to send them a large costume brooch but not till fall.

diverchic: So happy you like it!

Frugal Scholar said...

Love that bracelet. As always, thanks for the inspiration.

materfamilias said...

I'm so glad you counselled your friend's wife to get that bracelet back out into the world where it deserves to be seen!
Wish I had treasures like that lurking in my drawers . . . what I have are a few very small gold pendants (wee crosses, an amethyst on a gold clasp, ditto for an opal) along with the approx. 1-inch gold locket my dad gave my mom almost 60 years ago. Following advice in an earlier post, I've gathered these together and am going to take them to a local jeweler who does custom work to see if he can devise some way to pull them all pleasingly into one piece -- I'm thinking a gold neck chain a bit like a charm bracelet, but I'll see what ideas he might have. I'll let you know how it all turns out. Thanks for the inspiration.

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: Those heirlooms sound perfect for a charm necklace or the type of pendant where each is attached (with a ring) attached one large ring, which in turn hangs from a chain. Sometimes the addition of one or two elements, such as an amethyst nugget brings everything together. What fun to play with these sentimental bits and pieces.

Frugal: If that were my bracelet I'd sleep in it!

materfamilias said...

I think your suggestion might even be better, Duchesse -- I can already envision it! I'll see what the jeweler thinks, but I think the kind of cluster you describe might work better with the smaller pieces to give them a bit more heft. Thanks again!

Maggie said...

Duchesse, thanks for a great post. I wish now that I had kept all of my mother's jewlery. But at 21 I was devestated enough at her passing to not think I would want these reminders. Luckily I have a few. I like the idea of the charm necklace. Your friend sounds like many women. They wear so little jewlery that they sometimes feel awkward putting such a piece on. I hope she is enjoying it now after your encouragement.

lagatta à montréal said...

I wish there were such a swap club for mismatched earrings; mostly silver, a couple of gold.

CompassRose said...

When my hair is shorter, I usually wear just one more interesting earring, and a stud in the other ear. It feels less overwhelming than having TWO huge chunks of metal on either side of my face. A friend of mine gave me quite a few mismatched pretties to wear thus (she once had a coat with a collar that brushed off all her left hook earrings unless she put rubber keepers on them, and sometimes even then).

I have some really nice pieces of chunky costume jewellery, including some great Nordic-modern silver things from I think the fifties. My father's mother, the artist, liked them. I find them hard to work into my style, though. The few good bits of old jewellery I have are impossible for me, all being gold, tiny, and dainty - I doubt my style will ever shift towards the gold, tiny and dainty! (These include a lovely Victorian locket with engraving and an enamel flower, from my great-gran.) I still like having them in my box, though. Every now and then, I sift through things, and hold them fondly.

I wish I had a massive neo-Aztec cuff, though! That I could wear, even if it is gold! Gorgeous piece.

hollarback said...

THANK YOU (!!!) for the Vincenzo Taormina information! I have many vintage costume pieces that need a little repair and I have never been able to find someone who I trust to have work on them.

Can't thank you enough :)

Oh, and that bracelet is a beauty.

Imogen Lamport said...

Love an old piece of jewellery - often it's the history of the piece that also is important. Yes I'm a sentimental fool at times. And wear everything - you may die tomorrow!

s. said...

Another lovely post. Thank you, Duchesse. It was heart rending when my house was burgled last year and most of the jewellery that I had inherited from my late mother was stolen. In an effort to ensure that I'd wear it more often, I had taken most items from the safe and kept it in my dressing room. It still kills me to think that the antique amythest necklace my late dad gave her for their 25th wedding anniversary will probably be ripped apart: gold melted down and 25 stones sold separately... so much exquisite craftsmanship and history worth much more than the sum of its parts. Folks, when it's not on your body, please ensure that it's kept somewhere that a nasty thief won't find it.

Duchesse said...

CompsssRose: Thank you for bringing up the pleasure of jewelry as memento. A friend had made a shadowbox with Victorian famliy pieces and laces made by her great grandmother. Your fifties silver sounds fabulous.

s.: I'm so sorry to hear that, it is so painful to lose family treasures. That is why so many people keep things in a box at a bank, then seldom wear. Good idea to have hiding places to deter a smash and grab- the main thing is to realize anything in a usual spot (dresser drawer, jewelry box, bedside table) will go.

lagatta: See CompassRoses' idea. My mismatches usually get recycled, it only reminds me of my loss to have one lonely earring in the box.

Imogen: Agree, and another advantage of vintage pieces is that you can go quite 'big' without looking over the top.

s. said...

So, a question for all of you (I hope you don't mind, Duchesse; if you do, please just delete) Is it vulgar to wear big diamonds on a day to day basis? I always cringe when I see massive "ice" at 10AM in the local starbucks - I was raised that honkin' jewels are to be worn only for evening occasions - but maybe this is just an antiquated notion on my part. Or maybe I'm cringing because many of these women seem vulgar in countless ways, and the bling is in fact the least offensive of their crimes.

Duchesse said...

s.: Thanks for asking. What do you think, everyone? (Whether you have big bling or not:))

Anjela's Day said...

Wonderful article. I am rereading some of your entries while you are on hiatus.Hope you have an enjoyable time.
I was working as a student in a store when a woman came in and plonked down a necklace on the counter- She wondered as to the value of the piece- was it 'real' was it fake.Her mother-in-law whom she didn't like on sight had given it to her on the morning of her wedding. They hardly spoke afterwards and she was since departed and the piece looked like junk jewelry- tons of 'diamonds' in layers with what looked like a rhodium finished sterling silver or even silver plated.
The jeweler took it in for inspection and it was valued at $250,000 It was platinum.They were all diamonds.
She was about to dump it because of its associations. Her mother-in-law had never mentioned the cost or insurance leaving her to believe it wasn't very special.