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There are so many good reasons to shop vintage: the uniqueness factor, the not-going-broke factor, the warm afterglow that comes from knowing your money isn't going to corporations that employ 13-year-olds. But when the holidays roll around, many of us shy away from buying vintage presents. It's one thing to pick out a pre-owned piece for yourself, but it gets harder once you're trying to buy for a hard-to-size friend, a picky significant other, or a parent who thinks all thrift stores have cooties.
To make the process a little easier, we asked three vintage vendors for their shopping secrets. Stay tuned for tips from Sierra Fromberg of East Village vintage shop Grey Era and Justin Dorset of mid-century furniture showroom Dorset Finds. But first, let's hear from Erica Weiner, who turned an undergraduate art history education and an interest in accessories into one of the city's best affordable antique jewelry shops.
Erica runs her eponymous boutique out of a tiny space—literally a jewel box—on Elizabeth Street in Nolita. She spoke to us on a rainy afternoon recently, with her business partner Lindsay Salmon chiming in from time to time to add details.
"Father" inscribed on an 1884 dime, $265
There are a lot of people who sell antique jewelry in New York who are older. But someone with a younger sensibility—that's rare.
Erica: There are only a few of us. I'm pretty sure it's going to change though because the wedding industry is blowing up. I don't know if it's just me because I just got married, but it's like there's this revival of getting married as a thing that you do that's a huge goddamn right of passage. It seems sort of hip and indie and DIY, but really it's a billion dollar industry and those arty hip young people have money. Antiques are really just another branch; it's a way to be different.
It's weird, it's a very of-the-moment thing, but luckily this old stuff sticks around. People keep it until they can't anymore, until they die and it goes to an estate sale. There's the revival of the whole heritage thing. People want stuff that's well-made, that's from a time when things were made properly.
What about shopping specifically for the holidays? What do you need to know when you're buying a gift that's pre-owned?
Erica: With the holidays, unless it's a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, you're probably not buying an engagement ring. So staying away from rings, there's a couple things that I like as holiday gifts. Necklaces are great gifts because you don't need to know the person's ring size, you don't need to know if they have their ears pierced or if they're allergic.
We sell antique coin necklaces like crazy. In the 1800s, people would take these coins to a jeweler and have their monogram inscribed on them, or their name or a special date. Sometimes they were kind of dirty, sometimes they had a poem on them. But you can always tell the date, because they're coins. I love knowing the exact date: 1862, 1859. There's a whole built-in story that you can figure out. Like, who the hell was Bert and what the hell was going on in 1890?
"Bert" and "Ethel" tokens, $225
I love that you have Bert and Ethel.
Erica: We have a whole selection! Sylvia, Momma, Aunt, Nanny. Some of the coins that are out right now are from British-owned Hong Kong, and some are American. The Poppa and Momma ones sell right away because it's literal—you get it for your wife who's having a baby or whatever. But the other ones with names are good too. And we're selling tons of them at $150 or $200. It's a great gift for a sister or a girlfriend or a wife. I wear one of them most every day.
As a shopper, is there anything you need to consider in terms of authenticity? Any way you can know that something is really 100 years old?
Erica: That's a good question. We became vintage buyers without really meaning to, so often in the last year or two we've bought a lot of thing where we're like, this is really too clean to be antique. Since I don't have a gemology degree, I don't want to say anything uninformed. But one thing you can check for is the stamp. Gold is stamped inside. It'll say 14k, 18k. However, if something's older than about 1904, it won't be stamped. Everything has exceptions depending on where it's from.
Lindsay: You can sort of tell by the work. Reproductions are often called re-strikes, and you can tell those because there will be flaws in the casting. Because all this fine filigree work was done by hand, like 130 years ago.
Erica: The layperson won't really be able to tell.
Lindsay: They won't fake it under a certain price range because it's not worth it.
Erica: But if you're buying like a $5000 diamond ring, you better be sure it's authentic. Another thing we sell a lot of are these Victorian baby rings. We made them into necklaces because nobody's really going to give their babies rings. They're for women. Or kids. And at one point we decided to make our own reproductions from the best one we've found. You can really tell the difference if you look.
One thing I really like about antique jewelry is that there are formats of jewelry that don't exist anymore, like the baby rings. I feel like if you're going to buy an antique, buy something that's really costume-y and history-y, don't buy something that looks like it would be popular now. Of course, that's a personal taste thing.
Photo lockets, $225. The oldest dates back to the Civil War.
Are there categories of antique jewelry that are just blowing up right now?
Erica: Any kind of locket. Men come in a lot and say "I need a locket." It's like instant sentimentality with the photo. There's a built-in nostalgic value. So we always try to keep a lot of lockets in stock. And old lockets are so pretty. They usually have a lot of inscriptions.
Anything with a compass. Men used to wear compasses as a watch fob decoration, and we buy them and put them on necklaces and sell them as soon as we put them online. They still work. They're kind of practical. And there's all kinds of sentimental ideas associated with your path in life, where you're going. They're from between the 1860s and 1920s. Also, anything with a blade. Old pen-knives, cigarette cutters. Anything with a function, really—things that aren't just decorative objects.
Do you feel like people shop differently around the holidays?
Lindsay: They buy more expensive stuff.
Erica: I was going to say people buy the cheaper stuff. That's why we put out the grab-and-go-rings. Actually, I think people are buying the expensive stuff online, and the cheaper stuff in store, like to tie on top of a gift. And then the middle tier of our business is the vintage stuff, which really is available in so much quantity when we find it. It's not precious. I mean, people mark it up like crazy, but there's no real point. People love it as much.
Where do you find your merchandise?
Erica: The antique stuff is a combination. Lindsay is from Oregon, and she has a network of antique people in the Pacific Northwest. You get to know them, you schmooze, you schmooze some more, they get to know what you like. We also just started having people come to us with their antiques.
We've never really bought our antiques from New York. The diamond district trade is still something we haven't made out way into. But I do a lot of shopping in Maine, where my parents live. It's not tourist coast Maine, it's in the interior, and there are a lot of old giant homes there and really rich people who lived around Bangor and Belfast, and their jewelry sort of trickled down into the antique stores there. There are a lot of small-town auctions. And we also befriended some of the antique dealers who do the antique circuit.
Lindsay: It runs from the Midwest all the way east, and from spring through fall.
Erica: There's a huge get-together in this town called Brimfield in Western Massachussets. It's a four-and-a-half hour drive. We just take the car, throw on our sneakers, it's an outdoor thing. And we sort of haggle for a whole weekend with people and fill up paper bags with jewels.
Lindsay: Those people are really old-school, and they'll do this thing called pick-boxes. What they'll do is send you a box of jewelry with a list of prices, and you pick what you like, and you write a check for that amount, and you put it in the box with the jewelry that you're rejecting and you send it back. It's really, really cool.
Erica: And that sort of goes back to the antiques business being something of an older person's trade. No one our age would ever do something like that.
Lindsay: I won't even let people have more than two rings out of the case at the same time.
Working WWII harmonica, was $90 (now out of stock)
Erica: One of my best sources is this woman who's probably close to 90. She doesn't have a computer, she doesn't have a credit card. She's a Victorian jewelry specialist. She's been collecting her whole life. She wanted to know that I had a connection to Maine. I don't think she would have been that friendly to me if I was a New Yorker. There's something about these older people: They're totally willing to share information. They're not out to rip us off. They're excited about a younger generation getting involved. Though they're a little confused. This woman was like, "New York? People in New York want Victorian mourning jewelry?"
We were both history majors in college—well, Lindsay was an anthropology major—and we just dork out about this stuff in an art history way. Once you know what you're looking for, once you know the terms and what might be relevant, it becomes easier to find. You can get on the internet and find it. It's worth studying in a really nerdy way.
And then when it comes to the 60s and 70s, we get a whole lot of it in Providence, RI. It's the birthplace of brass costume jewelry parts. It was manufactured there, I guess starting around WWII.
Lindsay: It was the center of production until the 1970s when it all went to China.
Erica: All that stuff that was overstock ended up in one of three or four warehouses in Olneyville. We know it well. We're talking city-block sized warehouse up to the ceiling of charms. And every time you go there, you just feel like you're going to find some treasures.
Any more practical advice for shoppers?
Lindsay: If something looks really dirty, it's probably antique. You can always clean it or replace the parts. Almost no repair is un-doable. It's also a good way to get a good deal on rings because the dirty ones don't sell because they don't look pretty. And there's so little info on jewelry that it's easy to get a good deal. It's not like vintage YSL.
Also, don't get too caught up in certification. In the end, if you love how it looks, that's all that matters.
· Erica Weiner [Official Site]