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Jewels in the Rough

A primer on hunting for vintage jewelry.

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So you're not usually a "jewelry person." Diamonds, pearls, gold chains, silver bracelets -- your friends love them, and you agree that they're great, but generally you're not out shopping for such finery. Then, every so often, you covet something -- an exquisite pendant, maybe, or an exceptionally tasteful watch -- and the story's always the same: "Where'd you get that?" you ask the lucky owner, who tells you it was an inheritance from a rich, stylish relative.

But what if you have no relatives who are particularly stylish or rich (or generous)? What if you want a classic, timeless piece of your own old jewelry to love and to cherish but don't know where to begin looking?

Well, for starters, you need to figure out the lingo: Jewelry labeled "estate piece" is merely pre-owned. An "antique" should date from before 1900. "Period" and "vintage" items are usually from this century -- maybe from the Art Deco (1920-1935) or retro (forties) periods -- but vintage is most often used in conjunction with costume jewelry or watches. And it gets much more complicated. That's why it's a good idea to hit the bookstore and skim price guides to learn about the type of item you desire.

That way, you'll be ready to buy with confidence when you spot that once-in-a-lifetime piece. "If the beauty talks to you, you've got to go for it, because you'll never be able to acquire that object again," says Bonnie Selfe of Cartier, which almost single-handedly created the rabid market for such pieces in the late seventies, when the store organized the first exhibition of its old jewelry.

The other key for the uninitiated is to shop merchants you know you can trust -- which is where this brief round-up of the best purveyors of old jewelry in the city should come in handy.

Bidding Time
Sotheby's (1334 York Avenue; 606-7000); Christie's (502 Park Avenue; 546-1000); Christie's East (219 East 67th Street; 606-0400); William Doyle Galleries (175 East 87th Street; 427-2730)

Don't be intimidated by the auctions; they're like jewelry schools that give you firsthand knowledge of hot styles and going rates. And Sotheby's and Christie's are hosting various jewelry sales throughout the week of April 12. Always visit the pre-auction exhibitions, where you can fondle the merchandise and pepper the staff with questions -- why, for instance, does Sotheby's estimate that that gorgeous Etruscan Revival gold necklace with gold drop pendants, circa 1875, will go for $3,000 to $5,000? If you have hundreds instead of thousands to spend, head for Sotheby's Arcade sale, where they sell the cheaper stuff (a pair of gold-and-ruby earrings recently went for $747) on April 14 and 15, and Christie's East.

Beyond the big auction houses, Joyce Jonas, president of the American Society of Jewelry Historians, says you can "score big-time" when Doyle liquidates unclaimed safe-deposit boxes. Warm up for that yearly free-for-all (July 21) at the next estate sale (April 21). Prices start as low as $20 for costume-jewelry pins and break the $100,000 mark for multi-carat diamonds. (Or wait for Doyle's sale of better costume jewelry on May 12.)

The downside to an auction, of course, is that you buy as-is. "It's a real buyer-beware situation. Unless they blatantly misrepresent something, you own it," says appraiser Ralph Joseph, owner of the Jewelry Judge of Princeton. And even if you win the bidding war, you've also got to pony up a 15 percent "buyer's premium" plus 8.25 percent sales tax. So think before you raise the paddle.

In the Market
Chelsea Antiques Building (110 West 25th Street; 929-0909); Triple Pier Expo (March 20-21; 255-0022); Gramercy Park Antiques Show(April 23-25; 255-0022)

Antiques centers and flea markets carry the good, the bad, and the ugly: You have to sift through a lot of junk and damaged goods to spot the rare diamond in the rough. That's why experts steer you away from them. "A very sophisticated buyer can shop anywhere; the less sophisticated the buyer, the more sophisticated an environment they should buy in," says Joseph. The three venues above are places where you're more likely to find knowledgeable, reputable dealers.

Be prepared to ask questions (Has the piece been altered?) and get your fingers dirty (rub along the mounting of a ring or across a chain, looking for rough edges or imperfections). Look for dark-gray lead soldering or other obvious signs of cheap repair. "You may love it and buy it anyway, but make sure that's reflected in the price," says Jonas. (That's the main reason the experts suggest you shy away from shopping for jewelry online at places like Ebay.com and the auction houses: You're going to want to feel the weight of the piece and examine it from all sides.)

Always get the following on paper: the name, address, and phone number of the dealer; the approximate date, materials, and condition of the piece; and a guarantee that you can get your money back if the dealer turns out to be wrong. If you're buying a major item, ask if you can have it appraised. "Any reputable dealer will let you, and you can let your purchase be contingent on that," says Lynn Ramsey president of the Jewelry Information Center.

Good Timing
Aaron Faber (666 Fifth Avenue; 586-8411); Time Will Tell (962 Madison Avenue; 861-2663)

Both of these major purveyors of old watches guarantee what they sell for a year. No matter where you shop, make sure the watch has its original movement (inner workings) intact. And ask if the movement is signed. (A different name inside doesn't necessarily mean you're getting ripped off, though. Some companies have used contractors; that's where your research comes in.)

Both of these stores have more than 1,000 working watches on hand, starting at around $400 for your basic Hamilton. At Faber, which has a bright, new redesigned location (which is also a good place to shop for old jewelry), you can spend $8,500 on an all-gold Rolex Submariner; they cost $19,000 new. Or you can buy a Tiffany platinum pocket watch from the thirties for $2,400 or Andy Warhol's thirties pink-gold Patek Philippe for $16,500.

Time Will Tell offers a smattering of kitsch -- although if you must have that Ritz Cracker promotional watch from the seventies, it'll cost you $790. You can acquire a Vacheron & Constantin for around $2,000. Currently, you can also score a 1915 Rolex, complete with a unique silver "hunting case" that covers the face and makes the piece look like a pocket watch strapped to your wrist, for $3,500.

Hard Rockin'
Cartier (153 East 53rd Street; 753-0111); Van Cleef & Arpels (744 Fifth Avenue; 644-9500); Fred Leighton (773 Madison Avenue; 288-1872)

It costs nothing to waltz into Cartier and view a showcase full of history, including a pearl choker commissioned in 1913 by Edith Wharton (now $65,000), but don't expect to procure any of it for less than $10,000. Van Cleef & Arpels's estate prices might dip as "low" as $1,000, but most stuff there is kept in the vault. (Dare you ask to see the $250,000 diamond necklace worn by Neve Campbell to last year's Oscars?)

Fred Leighton's store, however, is the mother lode. The walls glisten with gems so bright that they should carry a warning sign: may cause migraines. Leighton says he looks for "romance, history, and magic" in selecting his pieces, which start at around $2,000; there's plenty of that in his million-dollar "Tudor Rose" (a diamond-encrusted flower brooch that must be seen to be believed). For mere tens of thousands you might score a piece of jewelry with a stone from a mine that no longer exists, since Leighton has a thing for Kashmir sapphires, Burmese rubies, and other rare gems.

The Finer Things
James Robinson, Inc. (480 Park Avenue; 752-6166); Shrubsole (104 East 57th Street; 753-8920)

Far less ostentatious and infinitely more wearable is the delicate jewelry with a contemporary feel that you find at these two neighboring stores, where the prices start around $750. Each carries a gorgeous selection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century rings (many for under $10,000) appropriate for popping the question or blowing your bonus money. Says Shrubsole's James McConnaughy, "Unlike a lot of older pieces, our pieces are not overdone."

Robinson, which has been a New York institution since 1912, carries a huge selection of jewelry dating from about 1830 to 1960. "We carry only the best quality available, things that have not been repaired or have been repaired so as not to alter the piece," says fourth-generation president Joan Boening. Of particular interest are its collections of Scottish jewelry and micro-mosaic pieces.

Something Old, Something New
Claire Bersani (by appointment only; 334-0476); Carnelian Knoll www.carnelianknoll.com, or call 662-2759 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.)

There are options for those of us who aspire to the antiques aesthetic but can't afford the actual pieces. In fact, both Fred Leighton and jeweler Helen Woodhull (who operates out of Robinson) offer lines of antiques-inspired contemporary pieces. Designer Claire Bersani, a self-designated "stone junkie" who spent the mid-eighties designing jewelry for Kuwait's royal family, says she's back to designing "for mere mortals"; prices for her handmade 22-karat-gold jewelry start at $500.

If even that is a bit much, and you can do without the rocks, Carnelian Knoll's Julie Siegmund is your woman. She fashions new jewelry, including chokers and long necklaces (a steal at $60-$210), from beads she buys at roadside antique stores (often including Czech beads from the twenties, Japanese and German beads from the fifties, and delicate nineteenth-century steel-cut beads). Says Siegmund, "A lot of my designs are one-of-a-kind, and each piece is a contemporary spin on the classics." She'll do a private show for you if you can round up five or more prospective buyers.


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