History remembers Wallis Simpson as the beautiful American socialite-divorcee who spurred the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, to abdicate the throne.
The scandal occurred in 1936, but the story resurfaced in 1987 when a Cartier onyx and diamond panther bracelet belonging to Simpson was sold for US$1.27 million. Thirteen years later, the same bracelet was sold for US$7.04 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
Simpson’s name was an important factor in the price spike of the bracelet. Much like an art collection, the value of vintage jewellery increases with years, and all the more so if the piece has a salacious story to tell.
“Vintage jewellery is so much more intricate than what you find these days. Some of it is a lost art,” says Brenda Kang, founder of Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects. The 44-year-old has over 15 years of experience in vintage jewellery from working at auction house Christie’s said department.
Once thought of as ostentatious gems that belong to a period in the past, these glitzy pieces are now seen to carry a patina of old-world glamour, and have earned their place at renowned art and antique fairs like Fine Art Asia in Hong Kong, the Biennale in Paris and European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. “Well-made Art Deco earrings, rings and bracelets set with diamonds and gemstones have held their prices very well and are quite sought after in recent years,” says Kang. She shares an example of a Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina brooch that sold for US$21,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2001. “The brooch is now worth upwards of US$180,000, as the condition is excellent,” she adds.
Though she would not advise buying a piece purely for investment, Kang recognises that the fine details of yesteryear designs are nearly impossible to replicate, which only add to their worth.
“If you think back to the early 20th century, when apprentices learnt to be craftsmen at the age of 12 – they had no iPads or television – their lives were about work and the time spent on their creations cannot be compared with what is churned out today,” says Kang.
A former Christie’s specialist in acquiring and evaluating vintage jewellery, Brenda Kang of Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects tells us more about the details of owning vintage.
WHY INVEST IN VINTAGE JEWELLERY WHEN IT MOSTLY CONSISTS OF SECOND-HAND PIECES?
It is essentially second-hand, but vintage for me refers to higher-quality pieces that have been selected carefully with long-term value and collectability in mind. It’s similar to buying and collecting art, where if you buy and collect with enough knowledge and passion, the value will hold and increase through the years.
HOW DOES VINTAGE JEWELLERY COMPARE TO MODERN JEWELLERY?
Most vintage and antique pieces that have survived until now are entirely handmade, and some styles like the Art Nouveau enamels or lace-like metal work from the Belle Epoque era are near to impossible to reproduce today. The history and stories behind the pieces and the designs which speak of a certain decade and style also add to their charm.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE BEFORE BUYING A PIECE?
The cut of the gemstone can be a good indicator of its age, because older pieces usually feature stones that are not perfectly symmetrical, as technology for cutting and polishing was not as advanced back then. Look out also for the maker’s mark and check on provenance, as previous ownership of the piece by someone famous can add value to it. Embrace patina and light wear – these are hard to reproduce and help to date a piece.