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Vintage Sees a Resurgence at Retail

A Blast from the Past

Aug 27, 2019 4:31 AM   By Lara Ewen
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RAPAPORT...
 Retail is a circle, not a line, and every trend comes back again — especially styles with distinctive looks and rich stories. As a new generation of customers discovers the charms of vintage jewelry, the style and craftsmanship of eras past have become not only a driving force in design, but a lucrative business for stores looking to find the right merchandise mix to draw in an increasingly elusive millennial customer.

While it’s popular with jewelry consumers across the board, estate has become especially desirable among younger shoppers. Since many estate pieces are vintage, made before factory machining became mainstream, the one-of-a-kind looks and handmade appeal are in line with today’s design trends. Estate also brings in customers who are shying away from mined stones, as recycled ones are an attractive alternative. In addition, today’s under-40 customers are drawn to stories and experiences, and estate jewelry has a built-in tale to tell.

“Estate and vintage [mean] anything that’s not brand new,” says Julie Walton Garland, manager at Walton’s Antique and Estate Jewelry in Franklin, Tennessee. In contrast, the term “antique” applies to anything that is more than 100 years old, she explains.

Her customers come for the stories the pieces tell, and they “love that it’s one of a kind and that they’re not going to see someone with the exact same ring on.”

The top performers

Even though there’s a vast array of styles available in the estate market, some are more popular than others right now.

“The Art Deco style is always the most popular. It’s also the most replicated style in new jewelry,” says Amanda B. Coleman-Phelps, owner and president of Nelson Coleman Jewelers in Towson, Maryland, which sells estate, custom, and contemporary pieces. Apart from certain styles and eras, she continues, branded pieces such as Tiffany & Co. or Cartier sell best, as do staple pieces such as diamond studs, tennis bracelets, and engagement rings.

Garland cites 1920s and 1930s diamond engagement rings as her store’s number-one sellers. She affirms that Art Deco and styles with vintage filigree detail are in high demand. “It’s a classic design. It’s made by hand, and light and airy, with the focus on the center stone and [with] smaller diamonds. It’s timeless, and it doesn’t look trendy.”

Platinum, which became popular in the 1920s, is also sought-after, as are old European mine-cut diamonds, which are cushion-shaped and warmer in color.

Of price and profit

One of the reasons many retailers choose to deal in estate is its profitability.

“Estate is usually a higher margin,” says Coleman-Phelps. “When we buy estate, we also own it,” as opposed to having it on memo. So while her store assumes “100% of the risk at the beginning,” she says, she is also free to sell it at her leisure, which “does help our bottom line and give us some multifaceted ways to exit from the item.”

Prices for estate tend to be lower than for custom or contemporary jewelry. “What you pay for in custom is the labor and the design,” says Garland. “So you’re paying for that time.” When it comes to contemporary, “designers charge more for their pieces. You’ll pay more for a brand name, so some contemporary can be more expensive.”

However, a recent increase in dealer pricing may result in lower margins for estate retailers. “The internet has been a great resource for education, which means deals are harder to find,” Garland reports. “Now people, and dealers especially, know what’s really popular, and they’re charging for it. We try not to have that reflected too much on the customer end, though, and we don’t purchase anything that’s too expensive, because we don’t want to charge customers too much.”

Finding the goods

Sourcing estate goods is still largely about buying directly from individual customers. For example, Coleman-Phelps says most of her estate items come from walk-in clients looking to sell.

Other retailers work with specific dealers to get the pieces they need. “We have a few vendors who go around the country to find pieces that speak to them,” says Robert Schwartz, manager of Harry Merrill & Son in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which deals in estate and custom work. “Otherwise, we get in pieces from customers who would rather trade their family estate pieces in for something more modern.”

When items come in, they often need a little attention due to wear and tear, he notes. So his staff works to restore the jewelry carefully and gently, without removing any patina or estate appeal, since that could lessen the value.

Garland gets her estate stock from the general public, antique dealers, online auction houses, and antique shows in Las Vegas and Miami, Florida. But she admits it has not always been easy to get the quality she wants, due in part to the age of the items. “A piece that’s over 100 years old has wear and tear, and sometimes it can’t be repaired,” she says. “But we have an in-house jeweler.”

In addition, says Garland, some items have been poorly restored or refinished, rendering them less valuable.

“Certain types of estate goods are in general always harder to come by,” comments Schwartz. “And jewelers who don’t appreciate the beauty in an old mine-cut diamond and elect to recut it into a modern brilliant diminish the supply of better-quality old mine-cut diamonds.”

Appraising and upcycling

In order to confirm that estate goods are both authentic and properly valued, retailers need to learn how to appraise the pieces carefully. Coleman-Phelps is a graduate gemologist and an American Gem Society (AGS)-certified gemologist appraiser, and she employs two others with the same credentials. She also relies on her store’s 40-plus years of collective experience to identify hallmarks, materials, gemstones, cuts, styles, settings, metals, and other features that determine a piece’s value.

“We do a great deal of online research, as well as using our industry contacts to help with expertise we may not have in our store,” she adds.

Garland, who has three Gemological Institute of America (GIA)-certified gemologists on staff, takes a similar approach, asserting that the best knowledge comes from experience. “I can glance at a ring and know instantly what it is by how it feels and how it looks,” she says. “And if we ever have a doubt, we do a lot of research. And if we’re not able to authenticate, we reach out to friends.”

Many retailers are able to convert the outdated styles customers bring in into something more wearable. “We have methods to update estate pieces without ruining their estate appeal,” says Schwartz. “For example, pins and brooches are not as [desirable] as they used to be, so instead of completely melting a pin or brooch, we might suggest a customer add it to a chain and convert it into a pendant. Redefining the way an estate piece is worn maintains the integrity of the piece while still enabling the owner to enjoy what they own.”

Educating the consumer

Teaching the customer about the product is an important part of the retail process. Schwartz notes that the level of customer education varies. “Most customers are emotionally drawn to estate pieces. They enjoy being told the history and time period of their own piece or the piece that they are buying. Other customers have specific interest in a certain time period or region where the jewelry was created, and will buy a piece based on their connection with the time.”

Many customers who shop estate are eager to learn, according to Garland. “Even people who come in for the emotional and aesthetic component appreciate the education. That being said, a lot of people come in with decent knowledge, because the tools to teach themselves are in their pockets.”

Coleman-Phelps finds herself educating sellers more often than buyers. “It’s usually the buyers who are more educated on what they want,” she says. “The sellers become educated when we help them determine what they want to do with their items. We help them assess their items, and make sure they are 100% certain they want to sell [a piece] instead of keeping it.”

Still, she finds the process rewarding no matter what level of knowledge the client has. “When they don’t know what they have, we educate them. And when they do know, we can talk shop,” she says. “Jewelry is always emotional, so we handle both of these situations as an advocate, teacher and counselor.”

A long time to come

Schwartz believes the trend of buying and wearing estate pieces is only getting started, because they fit with what today’s customers are looking for. “Estate jewelry pieces are often unique as well as romantic,” he says. “And many customers find the stories and histories of certain pieces to be the selling point.”

Another thing contributing to estate jewelry’s staying power is that the items are relatively durable, notes Garland. “Jewelry is intended to be enjoyed for generations. The inherent quality of jewelry materials means they can be worn for a long time.”

But she cautions that education is critical to ensuring the pieces stick around. “It’s not meant to be worn to the gym,” she asserts. “Not if you want it to last.” Accidental damage by under-informed wearers may eventually make some more delicate styles harder to find, she explains. “That comes with anything that’s older, though. There’s only so much of it made. And it’s becoming more expensive to buy.”

The segment’s future is also tied to economic factors. “I expect we’ll see an increase in both buying and selling estate if the economy softens,” says Coleman-Phelps. “Typically, if [someone] is selling, it’s because they need resources, or they want to utilize an estate price in order to make a purchase they may otherwise not be able to afford.”

Coleman-Phelps agrees with Garland that certain styles, including Art Deco and Georgian, may eventually become harder to find. “That might make the pricing for those styles go up,” she says. “However, as long as people are buying, there will be people selling.”

Selling the estate appeal A lack of education is the biggest hurdle when it comes to estate jewelry retailing, according to Edward A. Lewand, an independent appraiser of fine and antique jewelry. Retailers “need to learn how to market estate, and learn how to sell the history, the provenance, and the mystery,” asserts Lewand, who is also the director of the 33-year-old Jewelry Camp educational initiative. He offers the following tips:

  • Learn what estate looks like. Look at pieces for telltale signs such as hallmarks, trademarks, and evidence that a piece is handmade, he advises. “If a piece is flimsy, chances are, it’s not Cartier.” He also recommends books like The Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry, which can help teach retailers how to identify estate pieces.

  • Establish provenance. When retailers buy from private clients, it’s helpful to ask for as much documentation as possible. “Ask sellers if they have old insurance documents or prior old bills of sale,” says Lewand, adding that learning to recognize old mine and European cuts also helps establish age. Workmanship is a tell as well. “If you’re buying antique and estate, the piece will look [equally] well made on the front and the back.”

  • Set a price. After confirming era, provenance, materials and brand, retailers can look to auction houses to determine a fair price, Lewand says. “Go to websites like Sotheby’s and Christie’s and find comparable pieces, and see what the prices are.”

  • Be patient. “Never buy anything in haste,” he stresses. “You could be wrong, and it could cost you money, or you could be wrong and not pay the right amount, and it will be an issue.”

  • Be informed. “Don’t buy things you don’t understand or know about,” he says. “Take five minutes to do the research.”

  • This article first appeared in the August edition of Rapaport Magazine.

    Image: DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
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