There’s a maudlin charm to vintage jewellery. Imagine ruby bracelets, inscribed with a lover’s secret code. Or glittering emerald necklaces that bring out the green in a loved one’s eyes.
So it’s funny to know that amassing vintage jewellery really comes down to the 3 big ‘D’s — death, divorce, and debt.
“That’s how we get access to rare, vintage pieces from different houses,” says Brenda Kang, the founder of Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects. Lest you think you’re exploiting a bad situation, she hastens to say that, sometimes, “you have to part with things to start fresh”.
The soft-spoken Kang recalls a particular ruby and diamond bracelet from the Art Deco era that left an impression on her. “It belonged to a French actress who was going through relationship issues, and she had told us to ‘just get the jewellery out of my sight’. I don’t think she recognised the value of her jewellery. But I remember holding that bracelet, and I just knew it couldn’t be from a regular jeweller.”
“Sometimes, you have a gut feeling that it’s something special. There’s a certain heft, and fineness to the craftsmanship.” Kang called it right. Turns out that the actress’ bracelet was produced by Van Cleef & Arpels, and it sold for over 100,000 euros at a Christie’s auction.
Kang has over 20 years of experience handling pre-loved jewellery. She spent 15 of those working at Christie’s as a specialist and cataloguer. When she first opened Revival Vintage Jewels in 2013, she had more than her fair share of naysayers. “People advised me to open in Hong Kong (where the market is bigger),” she says.
“But I had a gut feeling that with more exposure, and if people here at home got to know the stories behind each piece of vintage jewellery, they would see the same things I do.”
There’s a lot to be said for her instincts. Today, Kang has grown her clientele from 50 to over 400. She divides her time between running her shop in Wheelock Place and travelling around the world to attend trunk shows. She names the V&A Museum in London and Madison Avenue in New York, by the way, as her favourite places to wander and discover vintage trinkets.
How does one tell if a piece is truly ‘vintage’? Kang’s advice is to look at the cut of the gemstones. “This can be a good indicator of its age… older pieces usually feature stones that are not perfectly symmetrical, as technology for cutting and polishing was not as advanced,” says Kang.
Of course, “vintage jewellery has a very different look to what is carried on the market these days”, she adds. Thus, she advises owners to embrace the patina of old-world glamour that their vintage pieces take on over time.
“Don’t over-polish. Just use gentle soap and water. Emeralds don’t hold up well to polishing. And be sure to keep your jewellery in different compartments,” she says. “Diamonds are hard, but throw them together often enough (in the same drawer) and they can get scratched, too.”
Her collection at Revival Vintage Jewellery currently includes pieces by Cartier, Bulgari, and JAR. Viewings are by appointment only, for privacy reasons. She’s not short of those, since “when people see how good the jewellery looks on their friends, they are always interested to come by”, she says with a smile.
Keyyes checks out pieces across three popular time periods.
Victorian (1830s – 1900s)
This era coincided with the Industrial Revolution, when people were getting richer and could afford to buy trinkets for themselves, or as gifts for family and friends. It was also when Brazil’s diamond mines were discovered. As such, this era is punctuated with jewellery that’s an eclectic mix of diamonds, gemstones and fine craftsmanship. The antique cameo brooch is a prime example: The chiselled face is painstakingly carved out of a whole piece of agate with a saw, then carefully set in minuscule glass and gold beading.
Art Deco (1920s – 1930s)
Just after the first world war, artists began to reject the flowery and elaborate. With that rejection, Art Deco was born. Pieces from this period are defined by streamlined, geometric movements. Platinum and coloured stones came into favour. And with advances in technology, the fancy shapes for diamonds, such as emerald, baguette and rectangular cuts, made their debuts.
In the later part of this period, jewellers were influenced by Asian and Egyptian imagery and motifs. The carved gemstones pictured above are set in the Tutti Frutti style, first invented by artisans from Cartier and inspired by the magnificent maharajas of India.
Retro (1940s – 1970s)
After the novelty of the Art Deco period wore off, people began to tire of the ‘white’ look (read: platinum and diamonds). Women began to favour teased hair, shoulder pads and oversized coats over the 1920s’ streamlined looks. Jewellery changed to match the style of the day. Pieces in this period were oversized, futuristic and ultra-modern. Yellow gold made a comeback. The Retro period is characterised by whimsical, gold-centric jewellery, accentuated with bright stones like turquoise and coral.