Profitable Pins: What’s selling and what’s sitting with costume jewelry dealers

Kathy FloodRecently I purchased an enameled base-metal pin clip for $15 and sold it for $1,500. If that doesn’t get your juices flowing for jewelry, I don’t know what will. Why, you could even pay for a week of your ungrateful child’s college tuition with such a sale.

This just in: Another pin from the same company sold even more recently for $2,500. (It wasn’t mine.)

You probably want to know what these profitable pins are. I only hesitate to say because, if you’re new to the jewelry world, you shouldn’t immediately run out to buy every Trifari piece you spot. (Amusing sidebar: A man was shopping for Christmas gifts for his mother in an antiques shop on Cherokee Street in St. Louis. Hearing what he wanted, I pointed out a well-priced Trifari pin in a case I was looking at. The owner of the shop cautioned the man against it, saying, and I quote: “Trifari is trash, like Avon.” Wow. The foolish critique made me inhale Christmas-cookie crumbs and start choking.) Old Trifari figurals can be uncannily lucrative. Keep an eye out for them. Chances are, though, before you hit a jackpot, you’ll first accumulate at least seven dozen pieces of Trifari you won’t be able to unload — ever. It’s part of the learning process.

Jewelry collectors can be a tough crowd. The costume jewelry category, specifically, still has much more glory than gory, but it’s not the ’80s anymore, when American and international buyers from all over the world threw gobs of mad money at it. And that was pre-Internet. Now, with everyone spoiled and choosy, delicious gems even by names long considered sexy, from Eisenberg Original to Schiaparelli, may languish in well-trafficked shops.

The first time I came face to face with the steely resistance of costume jewelry collectors was when I set up at my first show. I had great jewelry to sell and modestly estimated I’d do about $1,000 in business that day. Instead, the take was $350. The show manager noticed I looked,  let’s say, glum while packing up and said to me, “You’ll have to show up three to six times before your sales are good. Jewelry collectors don’t like new dealers.” I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard; how long a seller was around never mattered to me as a collector, but then, “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Office” make my skin crawl, so what do I know?

The other thing you might find if you decide to dip your toe in the sparkling waters of jewelry is that one seller’s goldmine is another seller’s coal mine. For example, vintage silver jewelry is highly coveted when it’s well-designed and well-crafted. After all, we’re talking precious metal and sometimes exceptional aesthetics. Last year, I decided to target sterling as an area to invest in for resale. Huge mistake (for me). I just can’t sell it. (Others can.)

Vintage Bakelite is another slightly cold category in my case, and it’s such a dreamy medium, its hard to resist. But I strictly limit myself to purchases of only the rarest Bakelite pieces. Even then, sales take a while. Maybe collectors eventually will come banging loudly at the door again for these nicest of niches. All it takes is Mila Kunis or Natalie Portman being photographed in some great Bakelite to change things around in a huge way, similar to what Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie helped do for pearls. (See Warman’s Jewelry 4th edition.) Patience is an underrated virtue. Initially you’ll be as petulant as a 2-year-old. A mellower attitude comes with time. Late note: As soon as I wrote this, I sold two pieces of silver. That’s always the way.

The flip side for me, to mention just three stars in my own sales constellation, includes Kenneth J. Lane, Trifari and many figural categories, especially fur-clip pins. People like them — a lot. Within these groups, though, are some hard-core cold spots, which is where you’ll make your mistakes, cut your teeth and get a great education.

But this column is meant to help you avoid as many faux pas as possible. First, all you have to do is look around at results for live auctions to see that fine jadeite, large-diamond and fancy-color diamond jewelry are off the charts in hammer prices at auction houses. That’s one venue. When I spoke with some successful jewelry dealers in the course of business recently, I asked what’s simmery vs. shivery for them as well, since what’s hot or not can vary depending on vehicle, venue, and exactly who the veteran is. Here’s what four active jewelry dealers had to say. Pay special attention not just to what’s hot, but what’s icy, too, because that’s where steals are sleeping. Meaning: you buy them now, tuck them away and pull them out another day — when everyone wants them once again.

At one shop, The More the Merrier, proprietor Merry Shugart didn’t equivocate in either category, dreamy or unsteamy. Her list of the hot-hot:

  1. Victorian sterling hinged bracelets. “I can’t get enough of them!”
  2. Juliana (DeLizza & Elster) necklaces and bracelets (pins, less so).
  3. Victorian overall, but mourning jewelry not so much.
  4. Better Haskell. “I especially sell a lot to collectors in Japan.”
  5. Saphirets (old and new).
  6. Native American silver.
  7. “In fine jewelry, Deco diamond rings are selling like hotcakes.”
  8. Italian silver. “Peruzzi and Parenti, especially; Cini less so.”
  9. Enamel lockets = hottish.
  10. Big, glitzy bracelets.
  11. Hobe — the drippier the better.

Her list of the fairly frigid:

  1. Weiss thermoset clamper bracelets. “ …super hot three years ago, pretty dead now.”
  2. Matisse enamels. “Not commanding the high prices they were.”
  3. Mexican silver! “I have gorgeous pieces that are languishing.”
  4. Mourning jewelry.
  5. Lockets in general … “although I still buy good ones when possible.”
  6. “Puffy hearts have really slowed down.”

Meanwhile, at Linda Lombardo’s shop, Worn to Perfection, she says, “What seems to have cooled are the fabulous Edwardian and Transitional Deco filigree pieces: usually rhodium plated, delicate, with colored glass. These happen to be among my favorites, and I absolutely believe they will make a comeback.” (Look at a few and you’ll see how fickle jewelry tastes can be. How can any pieces this pretty ever cool?)

Higher temps at Worn to Perfection can be found in these popular categories, according to Lombardo (in no particular order): Victorian lockets and Victorian in general; bolder brass or gold-toned pieces with attitude … (“I recently had four sets of Haskell, simple sets and the Maria Teresa or Teresia coin necklace. They flew out of my shop. The only one remaining is a white set, which may require some warmer weather to inspire someone.”) “Pearls are also stronger sellers right now, both real or faux. Multi-strand pearl bracelets with rhinestone clasps are very ‘Mad Men’ — and hot.”

OK, I admit it was a relief to have Claudia Roach, owner of The Pink Lady, commiserate with me over Bakelite. “I cannot give Bakelite away,” Claudia actually exclaimed. “This has been going on for a while. It may have something to do with geography?” (Claudia’s in California; I’m in the Midwest, so, maybe not. But can there be any doubt Bakelite will live to rise again to its former glory? It’ll be back with a vengeance eventually. So for now, keep an eye out for any great Bake sale.)

“What’s hot for me at The Pink Lady are reasonably priced $50 to $80 sparkly pins and bracelets. I also sell a ton of earrings, but I don’t see any pattern to it — just earrings purchased to go with outfits. With young people, costume rings are really hot, one for every finger, $25 tops each.”

At Sandi DiDio’s shop, Zi-Glitterati, she explained, “I had a vintage shop for 10 years, but recently moved my inventory to an antiques mall. When I opened my shop 10 years ago, everyone went crazy over vintage jewelry in general, especially rhinestone brooches. It didn’t matter if they were designer signed, big and sparkly or small and dainty. Antique jewelry didn’t sell nearly as fast as the ’50s-’60s pieces. But brooch sales have slowed down for me, and antique jewelry sells far better now: Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau … all are really hot! So is enamel jewelry — very hot. Anything unusual sells, of course, so I love figural brooches and clips. Rings have always sold well for me. Cold for me has always been something I really love: porcelain jewelry. It just doesn’t sell. I also love old plastics — Bakelite, celluloid, Lucite — but they haven’t been selling at all. I love dress and fur clips but can’t get customers to buy them, and you can do so much with a dress clip, even clip over a chain as a necklace. I do believe they will become a hot item in the next few years.”

It makes sense. Especially if we can get Blake Lively to wear some on “Gossip Girl.”

P.S. The $1,500 piece was the Art Deco Trifari bartender. The $2,500 price was a Trifari figural from designer Alfred Philippe’s Ming series.

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