Saturday, March 29, 2008

How to Spot Good Costume Jewelry #2

Your Grandma’s fake jewelry probably isn’t junk, but just how valuable is it?

When shopping in flea markets or rummaging through garage sales, Dumpdiggers can spot vintage costume jewelry from well known designers of the 1940’s and 50’s and 60’s. If you are shopping for items in a local market to sell to collectors in a global market, there is nothing better than good fake jewelry.

In Canada, look for pieces by Gustave Sherman of Montreal 1947 -1981. Sherman was a jewelry designer and manufacturer who worked as a jewelry salesperson right after WWII in Montreal – this is important. He became a retail sales expert first, and was very knowledgeable in what people were buying, and what jewelry best complimented Montreal clothing styles. With no formal training as a designer or a businessman he opened the Sherman Jewelry Company in Montreal in 1947. At that time he had just one employee, Jimmy Koretza, a Hungarian jeweler who must have provided the expert craftsmanship for Sherman’s exquisite designs.

The company flourished in the 1950s, and Gustave Sherman soon became Canada's foremost jewelry designer. His firm was known for creating very high quality pieces that rivaled the real thing. He used only the finest Swarovski cut crystal, even when cheaper alternatives were available. Daniel Swarovski and Gustave Sherman were friends; the Swarovski company cut stones to spec for Sherman pieces and provided him with "reverse foiled" rhinestones. Sherman vintage costume jewelry was expensive when it was made, and it should be no surprise that it is expensive on eBay today.

How can you identify Sherman costume jewelry?

There is a wonderful Guide to Sherman at Family where the authors have gone to great length to photograph and present helpful details.

Here are some quick tips for Dumpdiggers: Sherman pieces are usually monochromatic colour schemes – the signature colors are Siam Red, Fuchsia, Rose, Peridot, Emerald, Sapphire, Black and Topaz, as well clear and Crystal Aurora (which is Swarovski’s Aurora Borealis stones developed in a partnership with Christian Dior). Round stones include both brilliant cut and chatons. Baguettes were used, but not as commonly as other stone shapes. And the stones are always prong set, never glued. The bracelets had safety chains and hidden clasps. Sherman costume jewelry was known for its meticulous design.

Each piece is usually stamped "Sherman" or SHERMAN somewhere, but experts today acknowledge the signature sometimes came separately inside the box from Birks, for example, and as a result there are many unsigned Sherman pieces today. The signature stamp on necklaces in often on the dangle and not on the clasp. If your necklace is missing the dangle, it could be an unsigned Sherman. The oval nameplate is found on earlier pieces (1950s), while the square plate was introduced in the 1960s.

What happened to the Sherman Jewelry Company?

Because Sherman’s jewelry was of the highest quality, production costs were also very high, and the finished pieces were pricey. The simple designs and easy to fabricate items were often sold at good profit to Montreal and Toronto department stores, while the more elaborate designs were distributed directly to small upscale jewelry shops and boutiques.

Somewhere in the 1970s, Sherman lost touch with his customers. When the market was trending towards silver and gold tone plate jewelry, Sherman continued to make high quality, high end jewelry with Swarovski crystal. When eventually he did incorporate more gold and silver in his jewelry, he used the real thing, and if you remember your history, the late 1970s is when the price of gold rose to over eight hundred dollars an ounce. The Sherman Jewelry Company closed its doors in 1981.

Sherman jewelry is highly collectable and sells well on eBay. The japanned pieces with purple, red, black and yellow stones are especially desirable. Marshall Gummer believes that Sherman cuff bracelets are the best investments, and online auction prices will confirm that these items in particular have doubled in value three times in the last five years.

Found jewelry must be cleaned as meticulously as it was manufactured. Do not spray Windex directly onto your jewels or submerge anything in soapy water. Do not hold your pieces under running water from a faucet - rhinestone jewelry with foil backing should never be submerged in water.

Use an old (soft) toothbrush that will not scratch the surface of the plate, or the gems. Be particularly careful with Aurora Borealis stones as they can be easily scratched. Dab some Windex on a cloth or tissue. Make sure it's not too wet – the cloth should have just enough moisture to get the dust off the piece. For the hard to get to places, use a Q-tip with tiny little bit of Windex. Squeeze the excess wetness out of the Q-tip so that it's barely damp.

After you clean your jewels, leave them out to dry for at least an hour, and make sure they're completely dry before you box them again. Moisture increases the oxidation of all metallic elements and it will even work to deteriorate the quality of the crystals themselves. It can make them cloudy.

Here is an example of some cloudy jewels for sale today. This is vintage signed Sherman figural leaf brooch on eBay that features premium Swarovski crystals in a rhodium plated setting. This piece is in overall good condition with the exception of the cloudy crystals shown in the photo. The brooch still shines well and is otherwise quite beautiful. It measures 2 1/2 inches long by 2 inches across at the widest, and has a domed appearance. If the buyer replaces the cloudy stones they will have a stunning piece. Check the link to see the price – it was $18.00 US at the time of this post, with a day and half left in the auction.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How to Spot Good Costume Jewelry #1

Your Grandma’s fake jewelry probably isn’t junk, but just how valuable is it?

My eyes fill with tears when I think about how my beloved Grandmother would wear her costume jewelry so proudly - each piece matched a specific dress or hat; worn in rotation, depending on the season, each brooch made it to church about six times a year. I have a shoe box filled with memories of her today. Of course I would never sell any of her pieces, I couldn’t. But it would be nice to know what they are worth, and why.

Dumpdiggers frequently find shiny metallic brooches, bakelite hairpins, nickel plated buttons, and loose rhinestones in their excavations in town dumps and privy pits. I have found ruby red glass beads and the remains of bracelets and necklaces in Toronto dumps. Costume jewelry is found in early 1900’s dumps because this inexpensive jewelry was disposable – if it broke or became tarnished it was discarded, and seldom repaired. Today however, it’s worth keeping around

Marshall Gummer, The Appraiser, ranks vintage costume jewelry as one of the ten best things to collect, in the MoneySense Magazine’s Trash or Treasure? March 2006 "Countless Canadian women received costume jewelry back in the 1950s to celebrate their high school graduations. Even though the jewels are fake, the better stuff is now worth big bucks."

What's the best costume jewelry to collect?
Mr. Gummer mentions Gustave Sherman of Montreal, and Rafael Alfandary (who signed simply "Rafael") of Toronto in the 1970s. Alfandary created unique pieces for Maggie Trudeau, Lorne Greene and Liberace. Both of these jewelry makers and others like Jacques Hobe, Stan Haggler, Marcel Boucher, and of course Gustavo Trifari…will be explored later in this series.

The secrets to collecting good fake jewelry are revealed only after amassing lots of otherwise useless information about the history of costume jewelry. The common sense wisdom of ‘the older the better’ doesn’t completely apply to this art of many forms... 'Name, rank and serial number' would be better advice. Which jewelry designer in which firm made the piece? When? Where? And from what materials?

Above is a Vintage Trifari Cabachon Crown Pin on eBay that sold for $72 US last week. The piece was made in 1944 and follows Trifari Sterling Des. Pat No. 137542. This pin was designed by Alfred Philippe as part of his ‘Jewels’ series – the design features at least six different types / colors of stones.

Here is another very similar Trifari Crown Pin on eBay that sold for $71 US a few hours later. Different sellers, different buyers, same price.

The best costume jewelry is ridiculously flashy... But where did it all begin? Did the Egyptians wear costume jewelry? How about the Romans? No. Probably not. But there were some baubles three hundred years ago…

Costume Jewelry in Louis XIV’s France
There is strange annotation in the 17th Century regarding Madame de Sevigne, a French aristocrat credited with popularizing faux gem-studded baubles to accent the plunging necklines in period clothing fashions. She wrote a series of open letters to her daughter, which included a trip to the waters at Vichy in 1676, and of Louis XIV’s court in 1688. The letters were copied and circulated throughout French society. One can only imagine how this primitive ‘press release’ stimulated the Great Age of French innovation – her letters served as a modern fashion magazine inspires designers today. I can only image that de Sevigne’s gem studded brooches were really composed of bits of colored glass; I wonder where that coloured glass was created? As Madame de Sevigne married François Adhémar de Monteil, Comte de Grignan, who became the Lieutenant Governor of Provence, I’d be inclined to believe the glass ‘gemstones’ originated from the Island of Murano in Venice, or maybe they were polished minerals from the mines and mills of Bohemia? Conversely, it is possible that the homegrown French glassmaking workshops that Colbert established for Versailles had already perfected the art.

Indeed some part of the combination of glass, art and jewelry was inspired by Lalique in the late 1800’s. His Art Nouveau pieces were highly esteemed on both sides of the Atlantic. Queen Victoria was one of his devotees and Agnew's of London even held a special Lalique exhibition in 1905.

The term ‘costume jewelry’ dates back to the early 20th century. Some fashion historians and collectors have published books wherein they claim the term reflects the use of the word ‘costume’ in making a fashion ensemble; ladies could use the ornamentation to accent their attire as they compose new stylish clothing combinations, everyday. Thus the jewelry worn with everyday fashion (costumes) grew to be known as "costume jewelry."

Another theory is that the term refers to the jewelry worn in theatrical productions, and indeed New York City was a hot spot for the design and manufacture of some early pieces. There is scant evidence today however on which to hang the idea that one particular play, piece, or designer inspired the entire art form.

Secret #1: Buy historic gemstones in fake jewelry
Costume jewelry is personal ornamentation composed entirely of non-precious materials. Instead of diamonds, rubies and sapphires set in silver or gold, early costume jewelry designers used bakelite, brass and other alloys, celluloid, enamel, horn, paint, paper, rubber, textiles and wood. Inside the art movements of the 1920s ‘material snobbism’ was rejected by young designers who spurned imitating expensive authentic jewelry and worked hard to make ‘fake jewelry’ respectable by the end of the Second World War.

“The House that Bengal Built’ by Mary Sue Packer follows Jakob Bengal’s rise from a provincial German watch chain manufacturer, through two decades of innovation and experimentation, to become a leading producer of costume jewelry in the 1920s and ‘30s. The book contains a comprehensive photograph collection of his best chrome and galalith pieces.

Milk Plastic Gems
Galalith, also know as ‘milkstone’ (Milchstein) was developed in 1897 by combining the milk protein casein with formaldehyde – today this called milk plastic in children's science craft books. In the early 1900s however it was high technology and used to decorate many household items. It was simple to make, and inexpensive; it was easy to color, and heat-resistant. Mrs Packer estimates that in the year 1913 about 30 million liters of milk was converted to 1.5 million kilos of Milchstein. Jakob Bengal made beautiful Art Noveau and Art Deco jewellery using this material. But the use of galalith for jewelry was prohibited in 1939 by the Nazi regime at the outset of WWII to save raw materials, and Jakob Bengel’s signature jewelry production thus came to an end.

Early Mineral and Glass Gemstones

Dumpdiggers love colored glass, in all shapes and sizes, and most vintage costume jewelry uses very well crafted synthetic gemstones in place of more valuable materials. Modern costume jewelry uses high end crystals, CZs or cubic zirconia simulated diamonds, and some semi-precious stones – but that wasn’t possible in the 1880’s.

Early costume jewelry features rhinestones and then ‘diamante’ which is a diamond simulant made from rock crystal. Originally, rhinestones were rock crystals gathered from the river Rhine. The availability was greatly increased in 1775 when the Alsatian jeweler Georg Friedrich Strass had the idea to imitate diamonds by coating the lower side of glass with shiny metallic powder. Hence, rhinestones are still called Strass in many European languages.

Swarovski Lead Glass Crystal
In 1895 Daniel Swarovski founded Swarovski Crystal with the assistance of Franz Weis and Armand Kossmann in a small town in Austria (Watten) located near a hydro electric dam. This was convenient because Daniel had just patented an electric crystal cutting machine. Between the years of 1908-1912 the Swarovski family perfected the art of making and cutting crystal. All early examples of Swarovski crystal are of course very valuable today.

The firm was very successful all through the twenties and thirties, before they created their famous 'Aurora Borealis’ crystals in 1956. The innovation produced gems coated with an almost imperceptible layer of metal to give the stone a rainbow sparkle. Manfred Swarovski, Daniel's grandson worked with Christian Dior to perfect this process.

Secrets to Collecting Costume Jewelry #2 will start with Coco Channel and the everyday fashion revolution that emboldened European and American women in the 1920s.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Herb Atkinson plans for Antiques Fair in April

Herb Atkinson manages a not-so-busy antiques store at Queen and Roncesvalles in Toronto, Ont Canada. Sedate Antiques at 1703 Queen St. West specializes in vintage kitchen and bathroom fixtures. The store is stuffed full of bargains, and only lacks customers. But Herb doesn't care - that's because he's really an interior designer, and the antiques store is just a cover, a place to 'store' all his junk.

Yesterday Dumpdiggers learned that Mr. Atkinson will be heading south to Chicago on 25-28 April 2008 to attend The Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair™ . This is surprising, because that place/event is huge.

Dumpdiggers asked ‘Why would you shop for bargains there?’ To which Herb replied ‘For me the trip is not about securing merchandise, it’s about gaining wisdom.’ and Herb is already a wise old man. He says, ‘Antique objects are rare and beautiful, but they should be functional too – even when they do nothing.

Known as the premier antiques fair in the Midwest, the Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair provides collectors, designers and the general public an intimate environment to see a broad range of antiques.

This is the kind of place where experts conduct seminars and dispense their wisdom to thousands of eager listeners. One hundred and thirty antiques and fine art dealers will display the finest in 20th Century Design - Barometers, Ceramics, Coins, Decorative Arts, Folk Art, Furniture, Glass, Jewelry, Paintings, Posters, Prints, Rare Books and Maps, Sculpture, Silver, Textiles, and even Tribal Art will be displayed. This year’s event will also feature the return of dealers from the famed Marche aux Puces in Paris and members of LAPADA, Britain’s hallmark of quality antiques dealers.