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Erie Basin's Russell Whitmore on Where He Finds His Victorian Bling

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Erie Basin in Red Hook has become something of a destination for couples who want to look beyond Tiffany or Cartier for their engagement and wedding rings. Owner Russell Whitmore stocks the shop with jewelery and art objects from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—everything from kitschy 1960s pins to Victorian mourning brooches. Above, Russell walks us through some recent rings from his collection. Prices are included, anything not priced has already been sold; check out his dreamy Tumblr for more. Meanwhile, after the jump, Russell tells us what it's like to hunt for antique sparkly things for a living.

How did you get into the business? What were you doing before you opened the store, and what inspired you to open it?
I spent a lot of time in antique shops as a kid, and have always been interested in old things. I also happened to go to a tiny college in part of rural Ohio that's famed for antique hunting. When I moved to New York eight years ago, I missed antiquing, and thought about opening a shop of my own. But before I did, I worked for several years doing various unrelated things, and started collecting inventory in my spare time.

Why Red Hook?
When I opened in 2006, Red Hook felt like a sleepy upstate town—the kind of place where you might stumble upon a great old antique shop full of dusty treasures. I liked the idea of opening in a place where you didn't really expect to find a store. And the neighborhood has a great history and aesthetic.

Where you find your pieces? Antique shows? Estate sales? How much of your time do you spend hunting for artifacts as opposed to managing the shop?
Finding inventory is definitely more than half the battle. I usually make one trip out of the city every week to do some buying in more remote places. But I also spend at least a day each week buying right in the city. The great thing about New York is that people are from everywhere, and have been bringing things here for centuries. But also, some of the best early Deco jewelry was made right here in New York on Maiden Lane, and much of it still remains. We've been in business long enough now, that people come to us with things—usually jewelry they've inherited and don't need or want, or collections that they're selling.

When you go looking for engagement rings, what in particular are you searching for? Is the goal to find rings that reflect one specific aesthetic? Do you ever undertake quests for customers—that is, can people tell you what they want and have you search for it?
We try to find antique rings that are particularly unusual, but compatible with modern tastes. Engagement rings are one of the most difficult things to buy, because there's so much to assess. Sometimes, we'll find one something with a beautifully designed setting, but just a terrible diamond, or vice-versa. And also they're usually worn much more heavily than a typical piece of jewelry, so they need to be well constructed and in good condition. I do think we have an aesthetic, though, too—I'm particularly fond Greek and Egyptian design elements, which can be found in a lot of Victorian and Deco jewelry.

How much of your business is wedding-related? Do you sell as many wedding bands as engagement rings?
We do a lot of wedding business, but try not to overdo it. We sell a lot of wedding bands—probably more than engagement rings. I love selling rings, but I also love selling furniture, paintings, and mourning jewelry.

As the guy selling engagement rings, you’re usually the very first person to help either member of a couple with wedding planning. Do you wind up hearing much about how the rest of the process goes? Can you recommend other vendors with a similar antique-y, Brooklyn aesthetic?
Absolutely, and I love hearing about it. It's wonderful to be a part of something so personal, and to be trusted to help. Many of our customers have gotten flowers from my friends Sarah and Eric at Saipua, who are also in Red Hook, and do incredible work.

What sort of trends are you seeing in terms of what sells?
Maybe this goes without saying, but I think people are particularly interested in diamonds right now. A few years ago, many of our engagement ring shoppers would have only one condition: no diamonds. But there's nothing like a diamond, and there's virtually no environmental or humanitarian impact in buying an antique one.

Any interesting stories about couples who've found rings at your store?
We've had several in-store proposals, where a couple wanders in with no intention of ring shopping (or maybe even of getting engaged), tries something on, and gets engaged right then. It's a beautiful thing to see.
· Erie Basin [Official Site]
· Erie Basin [Tumblr]