First came the trays. I remember coming home from school and finding more and more antique serving platters littered throughout the house. Some were hung on walls, some decoratively displayed on shelves and a rare few were actually used as they were intended. No corner was without a tray. Everywhere the brightly colored tin demons glared and clinked at me. It was a nightmare.
After our house was stuffed with more trays than anyone could possibly use in a lifetime, my mother (the tray-aholic) turned her mania down a different avenue — antique clothing. Now all the closets were stuffed past capacity with coats, dresses, belts, shoes and God knows what else. But it didn’t stop. From clothing my mom turned to purses (oy) and from purses, she turned to hats (oy vey). We were starting to get worried. Her fanaticism was terrifying.
But we didn’t even know what was to come. There was no way to predict the all-out, full-throttle, complete and utter obsession that my mother was to develop next: costume jewelry.
My mother became possessed. She would go “junking,” traveling to estate sales, antique stores or thrift shops like her life depended on it. Soon, the amount of costume jewelry in the house eclipsed the combined number of trays and articles of antique clothing. Jewelry took over our lives. And since my mother lived and breathed it, the rest of the family did too.
But now, a few years later, the crazy has finally calmed down. My mother still collects costume jewelry, but not with the same fanaticism. After the initial shock of the whirlwind of brooches, earrings, bracelets and necklaces that stormed into my life, I’ve now come to appreciate — but not understand — my mother’s obsession.
Costume jewelry is beautiful. Though the pieces were created as cheap substitutes during the first phase of mass-produced jewelry, the craftsmanship is superb. Beginning in the 1930s, there was a whole world of jewelry designers and each had their distinct style. There was no way you could mistake a Miriam Haskell for a Crown Trifari, and costume jewelry collectors know this — they look for “signed” pieces, or ones with the designer’s mark on their backs.
There is an art to collecting costume jewelry. Some vintage designs were reproduced much later by frauds and paraded as genuine pieces. It takes a trained eye (with the aid of a jeweler’s loupe — which my mother carries with her at all times) to distinguish the frauds from the real deal.
But there’s more than that. As with every collection, it takes intuition to know which types of pieces should be collected. Should one try to stick to a particular era or a particular designer, or try to collect a sample from every era and all designers? The eventual destination of the collection is also a concern. Will the collection be sold to another collector, donated to the Providence Jewelry Museum, worn for fun or ultimately re-enter the cycle in the collector’s estate sale?
For my mother (and most other collectors) the answer is “all of the above.” My mother wears her jewelry almost every day, has sold some pieces and has given some as gifts to her loving daughters and family members. And her collection mirrors its use. My mother has a little bit of everything: some rare pieces to treasure and possibly sell, some fun pieces for novelty and a whole bunch of “normal” pieces for everyday wear.
Having a vintage jewelry store in my house has been helpful on many occasions, providing my sister and me with beautiful, unique pieces to wear for Halloween, school dances and other fancy events. It’s also fun to just look and admire — some of the pieces are hilarious (a huge, plastic, googly-eyed dog brooch comes to mind) and some are exquisite, like the set of Italian mosaic earrings and necklace that my mother gave me last year for my birthday.
But most important, having almost a century’s worth of costume jewelry at my fingertips has changed my outlook on what, exactly, is “vintage.” People tend to lump the century’s distinct styles and schools of art — art deco, retro, etc. — with antique jewelry from the 19th century into the all-encompassing term “vintage.”
Now, I’m no expert on style movements of the 20th century (or costume jewelry for that matter), but I do think it’s important to know what you’re wearing. It’s fine to mix together different eras, just don’t do so in ignorance. Don’t just pin a brooch to your cardigan because it’s “vintage.” Don a pair of screw backs or clip-ons because you have an appreciation for their historical aesthetic. You don’t have to be as crazy as my mother, but at least be cognizant of what jewelry you feel communicates your personality. Knowledge is fashionable.