Beth Bernstein, author of ‘The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery’, offers insights into what to look for and where to locate rare finds.
Beth Bernstein’s new book ‘The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery’ is filled with fun factual tidbits that are presented in a witty, conversational style, with lively narratives exploring each piece’s history. Discover why it is a must-read for all enthusiasts and collectors, who have “an affinity for the jewels of the past.”
What sparked your love for antique jewellery?
When I started collecting antique jewellery in the mid-1990s, I learned quickly that on Saturday mornings, if you were going to get ‘the good stuff,’ you had to beat the other antique-jewellery enthusiasts to the markets. This meant leaving the house just as the sun was rising. It also meant building relationships, so you could meet up with the exceptional dealers and scour through their new wares in the hope of finding that rare piece before they had even set up their stands and stalls. I didn’t know much at the time, but I knew what I was drawn to: the subtle glow of Georgian rose-cut and mine-cut diamond rings, and — as a hopeful romantic — sentimental jewellery, which I still collect today.
While at markets, I tried to educate myself, viewing and reviewing pieces from different time periods and in various styles, from Victorian lockets to Edwardian and Art Deco diamond brooch clips. I began to learn how to recognise styles and elements from different eras, but I also met new dealers, widening my scope of contacts. I often wondered what it was that intrigued and enticed me about antique jewellery. The more I was around the jewels from the past, the more I understood my obsession, one that has lasted 25 years.
There is a sacred beauty to these pieces, offering a connection to the past, to the jewellers who made them, and to the people who owned them. There are magic and mysteries that lie behind these jewels, which leave collectors like me imagining and finding more meaning each time we wear them. They defy time and offer modern-day collectors keepsakes that transport us to a place where each piece seems to resonate with our own moments and memories.
Which are your most treasured finds?
They vary with the meaning and how I obtained them. One of my rings that I never take off (for almost 20 years) is a ring with an applied horseshoe that has a small diamond in it. It was on its way to a scrapper and I rescued it; I purchased it for $22 and I have seen similar ones today for around $1,400. It seemed to belong with me.
Other pieces include a Georgian giardinetti ring, two poesy rings with wonderful mottoes that have so much significance to me, and a paste riviere necklace that looks like pink topaz and is in perfect condition. I also love an acrostic piece that is very rare and sentimental which spells out Regard. And then there is one Art Deco diamond bracelet with all different cuts of stones. The dealer I purchased it from asked me to buy it back for four times what I paid for it around 8 years after I bought it. I realised it was worth about 10 times what I paid and loved it so I kept it. The list goes on…
What prompted you to envision the book as a ‘go-to guide’ for antique jewellery enthusiasts?
I would have loved a book like this when I started collecting. I read massive scholarly books that were wonderful, but I couldn’t take it all in and often skimmed through or settled in on a time period and then would go to the next. I think this book is a true tour guide that offers the reader insight into the times, the jewels, different perspectives from the dealers and stores and ultimately gives them a working knowledge as they read it, yet they can go back to it again and again.
How does the book empower newbie collectors?
I think that if starter collectors begin to read this — they will immediately relate to the intro and the first chapter and then want to move on to read more. They will also have the end chapters which is how to shop different venues: antique shows, auctions etc… and all of this will empower them to be more confident about collecting and once that happens the passion kind of takes over.
You seem to be drawn to jewels from the Georgian and Victorian eras. Why does it hold so much appeal?
They were steeped in sentimental meaning — I personally like late Georgian and early Victorian. It was a time when people couldn’t express their feelings freely so many of the jewels spoke to romance, lust, passion, friendship through the language of flowers, acrostics, rebus, and gemstone meanings.
You have quoted many noted antique jewellery retailers such as Macklowe Gallery, Pat Saling, ALVR, Fred Leighton. How long did it take to put this book together — and what was the process like for you?
I had interviewed all of these experts before for articles and also purchased jewellery from some in the book. I knew what they excelled in speaking about (many of them are even quoted in multiple chapters) and what photos they would be able to offer to illustrate the book. They were all amazing to work with during the process which took about 10 months to write and put together — this was at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone was so wonderful in sending what I needed during lockdown when they had so much more challenging things to think about. And then, unfortunately, the pandemic set the book back eight months due to furloughs and paper shortages, and shipping problems so the process went much longer than expected and all involved were so supportive and if I needed to change something were right there in it with me again.
In your book, you have outlined 10 pieces that would help kickstart a jewellery collection —which are the top three from your personal collection?
Signet rings, especially when I find them with my initials from different people in my family, riviere necklace and brooches. I am very big on brooches as you can wear them so many ways which I do think I cover in the book, and have worn them every way I can think of.