Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Presenting the past

Author and collector Beth Bernstein’s new book showcases the joys of antique jewelry.

By Phyllis Schiller

Images: Fred Leighton; Wartski, London  

In the late 1990s, Beth Bernstein worked for a well-known antique dealer on New York’s Madison Avenue who specialized in early period jewelry.

“Her safe was like a museum, and she would hand me books to take home and read to learn more, while I also learned from her, hands on. I met so many wonderful dealers through her,” recalls Bernstein, who has since written an extensive list of jewelry works herself. Among her books are a volume on celebrity jewels throughout the 20th century, another on emerging independent designers, and a memoir that traces jewelry’s connection to the moments in her own life.

Her latest book is The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery, a comprehensive compendium on collecting and enjoying these well-aged pieces. Beginning with advice on how to determine which antique jewels best suit one’s style, and ending with how to wear, care for and buy the pieces that do, Bernstein’s newest offering draws on her more than 25 years of experience in the field.

“As I continued to collect and then build a clientele of antique jewelry of my own — finding and selling pieces from the time periods covered in this book — I began writing articles on the subject and was asked to be on panel discussions [and] give guided tours through centuries of jewelry at antique shows,” she tells Rapaport Magazine. “And through it all, I continued to learn more.”

Dealers’ voices

Along with photos of beautiful jewelry, the book features anecdotes about the provenance of prized examples, as well as expert information from an array of “top-notch” dealers Bernstein knows — independent sellers and high-end stores both in America and abroad. They “truly love what they do,” she says, and “still get a thrill from finding a rare piece — and also from knowing they sold a piece to a person who would love, wear and take great pleasure in owning it.”

Rather than just her own voice, she explains, she wanted to include these dealers’ “different bits of knowledge and sometimes different takes on how they view certain periods and pieces.” Hearing varying opinions makes the book “more interactive,” she feels, and without them, “part of the story I wanted to tell would have been missing.”

Through history and beyond

Bernstein writes about her subject in a conversational rather than a scholarly tone, covering topics she describes as ranging “from defining your collecting style to how to wear a 100-year-old ring without looking dated, [and] how to mix antique and modern jewelry.”

While the chapters are arranged chronologically, “if something crosses two time periods, for example, I felt it deserved its own chapter.” And although the book doesn’t include every style from a given era, it offers a brief overview of each period’s history. “You can zoom in on any chapter at any time and read about just one time period, if that is your interest, and gain enough insight into the most popular and rare...treasures from that era.”

Like a guidebook, she says, it depicts “the most popular styles of each period that can still be found today,” as well as “how to shop an antique show [or at] flea markets, how to shop online, and how to shop at auction.”

Bernstein’s intended audience is a broad one. She hopes the book will reach “everyone who loves, collects, follows, wants to learn about or buy antique jewelry from the Georgian through early Art Deco periods.”

In a nutshellHere are the five key takeaways Beth Bernstein hopes readers will get from her book:

● It’s okay not to immediately know what your taste or collecting style is. Sometimes you need to try on one style, and then it can change.

● Even the most knowledgeable of jewelry historians and dealers/shop owners make mistakes when it comes to authenticity and reproductions. Don’t beat yourself up if you make one; instead, learn how to avoid making it — or others — again in the future.

● An antique show or fair sounds like fun, but it can be overwhelming even for the consummate collector. Have a plan, do some research on dealers you might want to see prior to the show, set goals, and ask questions.

● Buy jewelry to wear, not to lock away in a safe or safety deposit box, unless you are a purely historical collector amassing a collection for art’s sake. Jewelry is meant to be worn and to bring you joy when you wear it. Obviously, certain early pieces cannot be worn every day or in every situation, but you can wear them for special occasions.

● Mix antique and modern. There are no rules to how you should wear your jewelry. It makes sense to create a style that reflects you. The beauty of antique jewelry is that it has a past, but you are purchasing it and wearing it in the present and handing it down to your future generations, which means it will continue to have an enduring presence, and the history of it will continue on.

The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery by Beth Bernstein will be published May 6 by ACC Art Books.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2022. To subscribe click here.

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