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An introduction to a private vintage jewelry 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, but 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 who was full of enthusiasm and positive energy and sporting some rather lovely pieces of vintage jewelry.
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 literally thousands of pieces come from charity shops here on the Isle of Man and she gleefully told me of instances where she found something priced at just pennies that later turned out to be worth £50, £500, or more. I could understand how that rush of finding an unknown treasure could become addictive after finding a valuable collectible myself earlier this month.
Beautiful vintage jewelry found in charity shops
Isabelle began collecting some twenty years ago with the original intention being finding inspiration for her daughter, who was at the time studying fashion design. Being relatively pre-internet, vintage jewelry 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 some years ago 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 jewelry from the 80s up to the 2000s is now gaining in popularity and showed me some sets that are now worth upwards of £1000. All this talk of monetary value is more a bonus than an investment for her though since Isabelle is not interested in selling her collection at all. It’s the beauty of the items and the thrill of discovery that she loves.
An overwhelming collection of vintage jewelry
Isabelle’s collection is extensive. She’d told me that she had a lot but I was overwhelmed when I visited her home and found that she’s dedicated a full room in her home to it. This room is literally packed with dressers and closets filled 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 jewelry is commonly made of 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 jewelry 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 jewelry 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.
Secondhand shops end up with a lot of vintage jewelry
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 jewelry is harder to find
Through the years, Isabelle has popped out on her lunch breaks and at weekends to peruse the jewelry 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. I asked if she thought that finds could be made even today but she doubted it. People are just so much more aware of collectibles than they used to be and besides, she’s cleaned them 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 jewelry 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 jewelry, 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. I know very few women who wouldn’t have been excited to have been in my shoes and walk unaware of that Aladdin’s cave of wonders. 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 jewelry blog but for now, her collection is as safe and cherished as the treasure it is.
Though I’m not a huge collector of jewelry 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. I find it on the beaches here on the Island, and if you’re interested in collecting ‘Mermaid Tears’ have a peek at some of my ideas. I share how to find sea glass, and projects like this sea glass stepping stone and sea glass candle to show what you can make with it.
*Isabelle is not the real name of the collector, who wishes for her name to remain confidential.