I love shopping for vintage costume jewellery, but looking back I remember being really intimidated by it all when I first started out back in the 1990s. Over the years I’ve found some bargains, made some awful mistakes, and had the chance to discover towns and cities I’d never consider going to if I weren’t for my treasure hunting passion!
So here are my top tips for vintage costume jewellery shopping ..
1. Vintage jewellery is uncommon to find in ‘real life’ shops, unless it’s a specific vintage shop. Charity and thrift shops do sell it occasionally (I absolutely LOVE charity shopping for vintage and make a day of it), but you have to search them out to find the best places, and even then they’re not consistent; a town bursting with unbelievable retro treasures in January may not produce anything else vintage jewellery-wise for the rest of the year. I actually keep a little calendar log of the towns I’ve visited, and don’t visit the charity shops there more than four times a year – yes, I’m that dedicated about it!
2. Not everyone like treasure hunting, so if you want to buy a vintage jewellery without the hours of rummaging through crappy stuff, then a good bet is to head for areas in cities which have a cluster of dedicated vintage shops in one road (often in student areas). A concentration of shops means competition, which often equals better quality goods at lower prices. A single vintage shop in a town or district can sometimes mean higher prices for a more limited range of items.
3. Have some background knowledge to what you want to buy if possible, especially when it comes to dating vintage stuff, or looking out for fakes. Ask your seller questions about an item, and trust your instincts. I’ve written some guides to dating vintage jewellery which can be found on this blog, or ask away here!
4. Quick vintage jewellery dating tips: Any necklace that has a lobster clasp is generally modern. T-bar hinges on brooches mean very old antique jewellery (yay!). Gloopy pearlized enamel is generally modern. Aurora borealis (also known as ‘AB’) is a special type of rainbow lustre found coated on glass stones and beads, and was invented in the 1950s; therefore it’s never found on art deco nor antique jewellery.
5. Try not to buy vintage jewelry which is damaged – things like flaking pearls and damaged enamel are not fixable and will only get worse, and definitely avoid metal that has little green patches (called verdigris) which will only get worse no matter how you try and clean it, and it will spread to other jewellery it touches too).
6. You may hear people talking about ‘signed jewellery’. This means that the company which made the piece has had it’s name stamped on the back (eg Trifari, Napier, Hollywood, Exquisite). Unless you specifically collect vintage costume jewellery (which is a big passion for many people, but a subject for a different blog post), I wouldn’t be too concerned about this, and certainly don’t pay over the odds for something your not 100% in love with just because it has a stamped ‘name’ on it. Some of the most stunning vintage jewellery I’ve come across has been ‘unsigned’ (ie, no stamp), and it’s been whole lot cheaper too (WINS all round :))
7. If you fall in love with jewellery which is damaged and you know how fix it (eg, replace missing stones) then have a go at (nicely and respectfully) haggling the price down if you feel it’s too high. While vintage will show signs of light wear (eg, gold tone metal fading, slightly dull rhinestones), don’t fall for some dealers sale speak of damage being a ‘natural’ part of owning a piece of vintage – it isn’t. If you want your items to last (or sell on at a later date) then the jewellery should be good condition.
8. You can find some real bargains at auctioneers – not the famous Internet ones, I mean the real life ones, with humans and hammers and dodgy winks and head shakes. In my experience, they’re great for buying vintage costume jewellery in bulk, or individual items of vintage fine jewellery (ie gold or gemstones) at a bargain.
9. You never know what lies inside that town or small city your innocently passing through. My best finds have been: a pile of art deco Bohemian glass necklaces in Accrington (£1 each), a huge 1950s rhinestone brooch from Carlisle (£3), an antique Victorian Whitby Jet necklace from Knutsford (£4), a carved 1950s mother of pearl powder compact from Kendal (£5), a carved art deco Bakelite bangle from Chorley (£1), some 1940s reverse carved Lucite jewellery from Altringham (£3 each), and an art deco glass paste bracelet from Caernarfon (£4). BTW, in the interest of balance and honesty, I usually don’t find one single thing when I’m out on a treasure hunt!
10. It’s what you’ve been hoping for all blog post – where to shop (ie, outside London, as that’s a blog post for someone who actually knows London well and who isn’t an odd day tripper like me). I’m not going to give away all my favourite places, but here’s a random 5 to get you started. In no particular order:
- Glasgow: Byres Road area, which is near Glasgow University. A treasure trove of good quality vintage shops at proper prices (hint – don’t forget to investigate the cobbled side streets off it too – some of the best shops are found down there).
- The cities of York and Chester – different counties but similar in enchanting olde world feel, and both a treasure trove of good quality second hand shops that don’t overcharge. If in Chester and you’ve got time, nip over to Wrexham too.
- If you want proper couture and luxury designers such as Chanel, then head over to Alderley Edge in Cheshire (apparently the town with the highest concentration of millionaires or something). As seen with my very own eyes when I decided to have a quick nosy in while passing through on other business, the charity shops there are rightly the stuff of legend.
- Ramsbottom in Lancashire has some great charity shops, and for the full vintage experience you can even catch an old vintage train there too. It’s also home to the incredible ‘Memories Antiques’ vintage emporium centre, which is bursting at the seams with stalls selling vintage clothes and vintage jewellery from floor to ceiling, all at very reasonable prices too. Even thinking about it brings a warm smile to my face and song to my heart.
- And last but not least, take a day out along the lovely North Wales coast, from Prestatyn to Colwyn Bay and ending in Llandudno. All three are packed with charity shops and the odd old fashioned antique curiosity shop (the one in Prestatyn is legendary), and what the heck, ambling along these neighbouring seaside towns is just lovely way to spend a day.