The thing that fascinates me most about clothing is its ability to tell a story. Items hold history and memory in ways more complex than immediately knowable to the eye.
Think about it: when you wear something, physically, on your body, you form a closeness to the object. It becomes a part of your embodied identity, your personal history.
Nowhere is this notion more clear than when it comes to jewelry. Because of the precious nature of materials used for jewelry, pieces are made to last, to act as investments, to be worn daily, to be passed down. And, jewelry is often purchased to celebrate special occasions, to mark moments in our lives, to remember…
For these reasons and more, there is a huge market of pre-owned antique and vintage jewelry out there. Recently, I caught up with James Vela, founder and purveyor of Vela NYC, a curated online destination for antique and vintage jewelry. We chatted about his obsession with the hunt for unique pieces and their histories, modern trends he’s seeing come from the antique space, and the best investment pieces to start your own collection.
And the next time you go to put your rings on in the morning or to take your bangles off at night, take a moment to think about the person who bought it for you (or, maybe it was a gift to yourself!), why it feels exceptionally close to your heart, and the life it may lead after you’re gone…
What excites you about antique jewelry?
Antique jewelry contains a great deal of history and personal sentiment. In many cases, the backstory is left unknown, but in those rare instances, a piece can be traced back to its original owner or family. My heart skips a beat when I’m able to trace a piece back to its storied origins. A heart-warming inscription, a lock of plaited hair, or unique details from centuries of wear all contribute to an heirloom’s treasured story. For me, passing a piece of jewelry onto its next caretaker to cherish is what jewelry should be all about. It’s like having a collection of stories and poems and sharing them with the world.
When you’re selecting pieces for your shop with your own curatorial eye, what do you look for? What is guaranteed to strike you?
I tend to gravitate towards pieces that have character, great color, and interesting details. The idea of owning something so rare and almost impossible to obtain is remarkable. It’s a pleasant surprise to find jewelry from the Georgian and Victorian eras with vibrant stones. I especially love mourning jewelry, which can seem totally morbid, but in the bygone era these pieces were deeply beloved. I also find quirky charms & lockets that can be effortlessly combined with a personal mix of bobbles hard to resist.
In terms of investing in precious stones and/ or designer jewelry, why is vintage a smart way to go?
If an item has lasted several decades, chances are it can survive several more. A lot of jewelry is distinct to a specific era, yet can easily fit in with today’s modern trends. One can’t go wrong when investing in jewelry that has sustained the test of time to add to a personal collection. The quality, originality and most importantly, uniqueness is incomparable. Invest in jewelry that is more meaningful than a seasonal social media hit.
Are there certain jewelry designers to be on the look out for? Or, do you find unknown names to be just as exciting finds?
I’m not necessarily focused on any particular designers. However, if you happen to come by an antique designer piece, chances are it’s collectable. My rule of thumb when curating: buy what you love. Having some knowledge of jeweler’s hallmarks can be beneficial, too. For example, ‘OB’ stamped inside a ring stands for Ostby & Barton Co. The company’s cofounder, Engelhart Cornelius Ostby, perished on the Titanic in 1912. Although the company continued to produce jewelry through the mid-1900s, I love the connection to such a prominent moment in history.
Have you noticed recent trends that lend themselves to specific eras or practices of vintage jewelry design?
I’ve seen enamel bands become increasingly popular. The resemblance of those from the Georgian and Victorian eras is uncanny, but also a modern and refreshing twist that appeals to today’s customer. I’ve noticed a lot of ring stacking, too. I love the way it can be instantly personalized to your liking with a sparkling hodgepodge of designs and metals, making it the perfect opportunity to incorporate thinly designed wedding bands from the Art Deco era. I’m still waiting for the brooch to make a comeback!
When buying a pre-owned piece of jewelry, how are you both contributing to a sustainable practice AND creating a more dynamic history/ lineage for a piece?
In most cases, you can count on vintage & antique jewelry to be one-of-a-kind. The sustainable aspect is enticing, but there’s something so special about being a part of the continuous journey. To wear an item that is centuries or decades old and give it new life is incredibly gratifying. Frankly, there’s so much jewelry out there, you can likely find what you’re looking for in a pre-owned version. A piece of jewelry has been through so much by the time it has landed in your hands and usually made to last for generations.
Research and rationalization aside, do you find jewelry to be a love-at-first-sight thing?
It has definitely become a love-at-first-sight experience when I’m out scouting for jewelry. A lot of time is spent scouring resources to become more familiar with product, making the process exhilarating when coming across items similar to those I’ve seen in books, museums and the internet. Since antique jewelry wasn’t mass produced, there’s always something new to discover and learn about. The feeling is especially heightened when I’m able to dive into a piece with so much life and color to it. The mystery of a particular item’s past life, previous owners & well-traveled journey is one of the reasons I’m drawn to it.
Any staple jewelry items you’d encourage people to find vintage as opposed to new?
A Victorian or vintage gold chain necklace is a no-brainer (and a blank canvas) for starting your charm collection. Lockets might not be as popular as they once were, but I’m into the idea of finding one and combining it with grandma’s heirloom bits to create a combination that cannot be replicated.
What is the best story behind a piece of jewelry that you’ve found?
I acquired a mourning ring so small that it barely fit my pinky, making it the perfect addition to a charm necklace. The size of the ring itself sparked my curiosity and luckily the intricate enamel work, that included a name, date and age of the person who passed, was in great condition. Some online digging pointed me to a book entitled “Treasured Possessions: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” where a ring just like mine was featured. It turned out my mourning ring was one of a small group gifted to the family’s children in 1767. I’m frequently reminded of how lucky I am to have revered jewels pass through my hands.