NEW YORK - Early this millennium after the grunge-fuelled minimalism of the 1990s, jewellery – all jewellery, but especially antique jewellery – was rediscovered as the most powerful expression of personal style. Renaming the pieces vintage, supermodels put on their Tiffany diamond crosses, clubgoers donned tiaras, the red carpet glittered again and the quest was on for exuberant statements of extreme, individualistic self-expression. Vintage jewels had, and still have, all the answers: by nature, they are one-of-a-kind and intensely individual; they are loaded with charm and imbued with soul – they are jewels with a past, each with its own story to tell. Plucked out of their time and freed from the rituals and strict fashion rules of their day, viewed with a contemporary eye and perfectly framed in modern clothes, antique and 20th-century jewellery invite creative experimentation, inventive originality and freedom of self-expression.
(LEFT TO RIGHT) SCARLETT JOHANSSON’S 2006 RED CARPET LOOK INCLUDED A TIARA THAT EVOKES EUROPEAN NOBILITY; NICOLE KIDMAN WORE A 19TH-CENTURY FRED LEIGHTON CHOKER TO THE 2014 ACADEMY AWARDS; BEST ACTRESS OSCAR WINNER LUPITA NYONG’O’S HEADBAND AND GOLD CRESCENT EARRINGS WERE MADE FOR HER IN A VINTAGE STYLE. © LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS/CORBIS; © FRANK TRAPPER/CORBIS; © LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/CORBIS.
New York antique jewellery emporium Fred Leighton was largely responsible for bringing antique jewellery to a new, younger, fashion-conscious clientele, and for introducing it to the red carpet. Greg Kwiat, the CEO of Fred Leighton says, “It was through the red carpet that Fred Leighton brought vintage jewellery long relationship with Hollywood continues to gather momentum; Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston are Fred Leighton regulars. The company also makes contemporary jewellery, imbued with the charm of the antique. At this year’s Oscars, up-and-coming star and Academy Award winner, Lupita Nyong’o wore a yellow gold and diamond headband, and yellow gold crescent earrings, made especially for her, in vintage style by Leighton. “This was her moment,” says Kwiat. “She created excitement, and a fresh, new and distinctive look that made a statement about who she is. Worn in the right way, jewellery has the ability to be career-enhancing.”
gloves. Photograph by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.
Nyong’o’s headband signalled the current trend for hair jewellery – bands, brooches, aigrettes, a necklace worn as a bandeau – a fashion fuelled by antique jewellery. In the 1860s, the Austrian Empress Sissi, for example, wore diamond stars tumbling down her hair, a look replicated by Scarlett Johansson at the Oscars a few years back, and the magnificent tiaras that defined Edwardian femininity have found their way onto the runways in recent years. It is a style that works best with vintage jewels, such as the Cartier haircombs from 1910 in Sotheby’s forthcoming Geneva sale, and the superb diamond lattice tiara, laced with history and poignant provenance. Like so many antique jewels, tiaras are now being worn in new ways, fresh, young, dynamic and subversive, and ultra-feminine. Hannah Teare, UK-based fashion stylist, who regularly uses vintage jewellery to underline the characters she creates for photo shoots, says “A hair ornament, worn with a plain dress, is a talking point, and for evening, a tiara is magical, but the pieces have to be old. You own your evening in a different way.”
Celebrity stylist Elizabeth Saltzman, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, says that a vintage jewel is akin to a couture jewel, yet beyond. “It’s the story behind a vintage jewel that’s so exciting, it’s a way of wearing something personal,” she explains. “Vintage today means style, makes you think of the days when women wore jewellery well. You think Diana Vreeland, Elizabeth Taylor; or in my case, Babe Paley.” Saltzman likes to “mix it up,” adding one or at most two statement pieces to modern clothes. The more minimalist the clothes, the more beautiful the jewellery looks. Saltzman says she loves “clusters,” grouping “huge, dynamic” brooches together in multiples, or adding “fabulous gold link bracelets,” usually from the 1940s and 1950s, one on each wrist. She associates these mostly with Verdura.
Vintage brooches, often overlooked or misunderstood, but amazingly versatile, are being worn in unexpected places and ways, at the waist, on the hip, on a velvet band as a choker, or, as Sarah Jessica Parker showed, in signature style at this year’s Met Ball, pinned to a long white satin evening glove. The double clip brooch, a phenomenon of the 1930s and 1940s, is also coming into its own in a big way, a stunning statement on a simple dress, clipped to a neckline, either both together or one on either side, or on a lapel.
A California collector (who prefers to remain anonymous) wears her spectacular diamond double clips with immense panache at the corners of a square neckline and loves to pair high-drama 20th-century jewels of iconic design – her Cartier panthers, a Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace – with strong, structured clothes by Alaïa, Thierry Mugler or vintage Pucci. “The more the better,” she believes. She carefully crafts jewellery outfits or sets. “For example, I put a Van Cleef Passe-Partout bracelet with flowers and bees. I’ve started collecting bees,” she explains. “I like things that match, or that work together in subject or style, a Schlumberger jellyfish brooch with Cartier sea foam earrings.” She might wear an armful of Art Deco diamond bracelets, and for everyday always, always, a huge, chunky gold chain bracelet hung with charms that again she collects and arranges according to subject, hearts, cherubs, “funky” love messages.
AN HISTORICAL AND IMPORTANT NATURAL PEARL AND DIAMOND NECKLACE, FORMERLY IN THE COLLECTION OF QUEEN JOSÉPHINE OF LEUCHTENBERG (1807–76), QUEEN CONSORT OF SWEDEN AND NORWAY (CHF760,000–1,240,000).
Finally, vintage pearls, especially the natural pearls that are so madly sought after today, have a particular warm, enigmatic lustre, the patina of time and the alluring scent of women who have treasured their preciousness and kept their secrets. This season, with a strong, modern classicism now dominating fashion, pearls – timelessly elegant and the epitome of classic – once again grab the limelight, just as an historic, regal and breathtakingly beautiful natural pearl and diamond necklace highlights the Geneva sale. Originally in the collection of Princess Augusta of Bavaria (1788-1851), the double-strand pearl necklace, hung with magnificent drop pearls in their diamond mounts, exudes a serene splendour – utterly and timelessly modern. If wearing vintage jewels demonstrates personal charm and storytelling, continuity and classic style, then this superlative necklace is its ultimate expression.
Lead image: Diamond tiara, circa 1904, from the Collection of Mrs Mary Phoebe Dangar (CHF8,000–11,500).
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It.
Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels will be exhibited in Paris (23–26 October), New York (31 October–2 November) and Geneva (7–11 November) Auction: 12 November. Enquiries: +41 22 908 4849.