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An introduction to a private vintage jewellery collection. Pieces from the 17th century, the Victorian era, and the 1980s, and all found in secondhand shops
I always meet the most interesting people here on the Isle of Man. Sometimes it will be another artisan, a local food producer, or someone with an amazing garden. Occasionally I meet someone who blows me away with their passion for a topic or collection. Such was the case when I met Isabelle*, a local woman sporting some rather lovely pieces of vintage jewellery.
In speaking to her I found that she’s been adding to her collection of brooches, necklaces, earrings, rings, handbags, and gloves for years. Most of her thousands of pieces come from charity shops here on the Isle of Man, too! She gleefully told me of instances where she found something priced at just pennies that later turned out to be valued at £50, £500, or more. I could understand how that rush of finding an unknown treasure could become addictive, can’t you?
Beautiful vintage jewellery found in charity shops
Isabelle began collecting some twenty years ago. The original intention being finding inspiration for her daughter, who was at the time studying fashion design. Being relatively pre-internet, vintage jewellery wasn’t as well known so it was fairly easy to find interesting and valuable items. She recounts browsing a stall of secondhand items at a fair and finding a gold and Amethyst brooch for £1. No doubt it’s worth a small fortune.
Finds such as these encouraged her to collect more and to educate herself on what to look for. Before long she was discovering forgotten and undervalued pieces dating from the 17th century to modern times. She says that designer jewellery from the 80s up to the 2000s is now gaining in popularity. Some of her pieces from this era are worth upwards of £1000. All this talk of monetary value is more a bonus than an investment for her though. Isabelle is not interested in selling her collection. It’s the beauty of the items and the thrill of discovery that she loves. One day she hopes to donate the collection to a museum.
A huge collection of vintage jewellery
Isabelle’s collection is extensive. She’d told me that she had a lot but I found out later that that she’s dedicated most of her home to it. One room in particular is packed to the ceiling with vintage jewellery. It’s absolutely filled with dressers and closets stuffed with treasures, baubles, handbags, and brilliant shining colour. She categorises her collection based on material type, era, style, and country of origin but she could open a plastic tub and have hundreds of necklaces piled in together like pirates’ booty.
Modern vintage jewellery is plastic
Though she does have very costly designer pieces and some made with precious metals and real gemstones, Isabelle says most of what she has is costume jewellery made with inexpensive materials. The prevalence of plastic in fashion came about due to the cost of using metal after WWII. It was new, shiny, readily available, and made it possible for the average housewife to be adorned in imitations of the latest baubles seen in Hollywood films.
Plastic has lasted up until the modern-day and was used in the creation of my favorite item she owns – a (plastic) jeweled headpiece by Butler and Wilson. I tried it on and only wish I could have worn it out somewhere special! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was made even more special by the fact that it features in one of Isabelle’s jewellery collecting books.
Trying on bracelets, necklaces, headpieces, and rings was more than half the fun of looking through the boxes upon boxes of shiny ornaments. You could see clear design traits such as Art Deco in the bracelet below and Victorian black in the Jet pieces just below the bracelet. Nearly all were found in thrift/charity shops but when Isabelle got serious about her collecting she also began attending auctions. Even then, she picked up amazing bargains.
Vintage jewellery at charity shops
The gold-plated snake necklace below cost her £3.99 and now is worth between £225-£240. The agate love knot brooch beneath that cost her a whistle and is valued in one of her books at £400-£800. I still find it incredible that any of these fantastic pieces would find their way anywhere near a second-hand shop.
I wonder if they were donated once their original owner passed on and their value forgotten? Whatever the reason, charity shops are wiser these days and train their employees to look out for valuable items. I have it on good authority that the American Goodwill thrift shops have cameras installed in the unpacking and sorting areas to ensure that nothing makes its way into the pockets of employees.
Vintage jewellery is harder to find
Through the years, Isabelle has popped out on her lunch breaks and at weekends to peruse the jewellery counters in charity shops around the Isle of Man. Some of my other favourite pieces she owns are the three Georgian heart brooches below. I wonder who they used to belong to and what occasions they’ve seen. I also can imagine the excitement of finding something so rare and bringing it home to be treasured.
Unfortunately, Isabelle doesn’t think that great finds are easy to make these days. At least, not in charity shops. People are just so much more aware of collectibles than they used to be and besides, she’s cleaned the local ones out already.
Isabelle wears her pieces on a daily basis but she says she has in no way worn everything she owns. Though she has jewellery destined for family members when she passes on she hopes that some of her more interesting pieces might be given to institutions that will preserve and display her treasures for fans of vintage artwork, fashion, and jewellery, alike. So far she hasn’t contacted anyone about the possibility but it’s a thought that pops up in her mind from time to time.
Keeping Isabelle’s Secret
I feel honored to have been able to see the collection and to have tried some of it on. Very few women who wouldn’t have been excited to have been in my shoes! I was so awestruck that I literally did not know where to start with capturing the experience. Just a hint of what lies behind closed doors and in display cases is featured in the photos. Maybe one day Isabelle can be convinced to put on an exhibition or start a vintage jewellery blog but for now, her collection is as safe and cherished as the treasure it is.
Though I’m not a huge collector of jewellery myself, I do love collecting sea glass. I think of it as sea jewels and they can be much easier (and less expensive) to collect. If you’re a fan too, I have tips on how to find sea glass, and projects like this sea glass stepping stone and sea glass candle.
*Isabelle is not the real name of the collector, who wishes for her name to remain confidential.