What you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why people collect jewelry even if they have no intention of wearing it
- How understanding the historical context of a piece of antique jewelry can increase your enjoyment of it
- Why if you only invest in one vintage piece, it should showcase the quintessential style of the period
- Why interest in estate jewelry has skyrocketed
- How to choose a reputable dealer
About Ron Kawitzky
Ronald Kawitzky, with his late wife, Sherry Kawitzky, is the founder of estate jewelry firm DK Bressler. The young husband and wife team began their treasure hunts searching for the very finest jewels and rare collectible objects at markets and fairs across the country, and later expanded their travels around the world — throughout Europe and the far edges of the globe, including Ronald’s native South Africa.
The two developed a defining style and built a collection of brilliant jewelry spanning a broad array of stylistic periods from antiquity to the 21st century. This collection evolved into the DK Bressler brand, named after Ronald’s mother, Doreen Kawitzky, and Sherry’s mother, Selma Bressler.
Together the couple set up shop in New York City’s Diamond District in 1990, while continuing to scour the globe for unique treasures to bring back home. While Sherry passed away in 2001, Ronald continues their legacy, finding the very best jewels and gemstones that fit their shared style.
DK Bressler’s Website
DK Bressler’s Instagram
Ron Kawitzky didn’t set out to become a jewelry dealer, but like many collectors, once he started buying antique and estate jewelry, he couldn’t stop. His passion for jewelry (and the history behind it) led him to found the estate jewelry firm DK Bressler with his wife, Sherry. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what qualities collectors should look for when purchasing antique jewelry; how to choose a reputable dealer; and why you should always buy jewelry that excites you. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Here at the Jewelry Journey, we’re about all things jewelry. With that in mind, I wanted to let you know about an upcoming jewelry conference, which is “Beyond Boundaries: Jewelry of the Americas.” It’s sponsored by the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, or, as it’s otherwise known, ASJRA. The conference takes place virtually on Saturday and Sunday May 21 and May 22, which is around the corner. For details on the program and the speakers, go to www.jewelryconference.com. Non-members are welcome. I have to say that I attended this conference in person for several years, and it’s one of my favorite conferences. It’s a real treat to be able to sit in your pajamas or in comfies in your living room and listen to some extraordinary speakers. So, check it out. Register at www.jewelryconference.com. See you there.
Today, my guest is Ron Kawitzky, owner and founder of the estate jewelry firm DK Bressler, which is based in New York. Ron’s choices for his wares are fueled by his knowledge and his passion for history. That’s pretty evident when you look at his exhibits at tradeshows and elsewhere. Today, we’ll learn about Ron’s own jewelry journey as well as the estate jewelry market yesterday and today. Ron, welcome to the program.
Ron: Good morning, Sharon. Nice to speak to you.
Sharon: It’s so great to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Were you creative as a child? How did you get into jewelry?
Ron: I was actually creative as a child. I was an arts major at school. I dumped mathematics for artwork, which I much preferred. I won all kinds of awards for that, but I was a history buff too. Between the two, knowing about jewelry periods just seemed natural and normal to me.
Sharon: How did you segue? What did your family say when you said, “I want to be a jeweler” or “I want to go into the arts”?
Ron: My father said, “You can’t make a living on that.” For birthdays and holidays, you got a piece of jewelry, but you couldn’t make a living out of buying one or two pieces of jewelry a year. He wasn’t aware of London and New York as centers for the jewelry trade and profession. He was not ecstatic about it at all, but I’ve been collecting and buying and trading since I was young, so it seemed quite normal and natural to me.
Sharon: So, you were involved even though your bent was towards art. At the same time, you were collecting jewelry and enjoying it.
Ron: Yes, very much so. I always liked collecting things. I was kind of a nerdy kid. I bought everything from paintings to silver to small jewelry when I could find them. There was no appreciation back in those days, which was diamonds or nothing.
Sharon: You went into accounting, though, right?
Ron: Yes, isn’t that awful? It’s public now, but I would normally deny that entirely.
Sharon: Well, you can make a living in accounting, at least here in the States. It seems a little bit of a dichotomy to me, jewelry and accounting. Tell us, your firm is called DK Bressler. Obviously, that’s not your name. How did that name come about?
Ron: My last name is Kawitzky, which people can’t spell. It’s K-a-w-i-t-z-k-y. In order to try to avoid terminal problems and whatever else, we picked my late wife’s name. My late wife’s mother’s name was Bressler, and my mother’s name was DK. It worked out that way.
Sharon: When did you establish your business?
Ron: I established the business in 1990, 1989, or something like that. It’s been fantastic ever since, frankly.
Sharon: Along the way did you study jewelry? Did you continue to deal in jewelry when you were in the corporate world?
Ron: No, I bought jewelry as gifts and presents for my wife. I always loved dealing with it and playing with it. From the age of 13 I went to London with my parents, and I remember my mother had a friend in the jewelry trade. I would sit in their apartment and open a bag, and all these colors and stones would come flying out of the bag. I was always intrigued, and I was 13 at the time. This seemed great. So the idea that I could make a living out of it when I got older was very exciting for me.
Sharon: Was it always in the back of your mind as a second career if you stopped doing accounting? For me, it would be if I couldn’t take it anymore.
Ron: I really quit the day I graduated from accounting school. It was a seven-year master’s program. I couldn’t tell you one thing. The next day, I was so unmoored. I think I have a left brain, not a right brain. It went more towards style and beauty and stuff like that.
Sharon: Seven years, wow!
Ron: Columns of figures didn’t do it for me.
Sharon: So, tell us how you opened your business. Did you open the door and say, “I’m here”? Did you have inventory? How did you do that?
Ron: That is one of those critical moments that your life changes. It turns on a little occurrence you don’t give full credit to, but life is not a straight, linear thing. It evolves in twists and turns. At some point in my existence, in the 80s, I found myself unemployed, probably unemployable as well. It was a very difficult time, and my wife said to me, “You’ve talked about the jewelry business for your whole life. Maybe it’s time to finally get your hands dirty and take a chance and commit.” So, we did, with a lot of help from her, of course, and it worked.
Sharon: That’s a good point you made, several good points, about the fact that life is not linear. I guess to some people it might be.
Ron: But wouldn’t that be boring? You don’t know what’s around the corner.
Sharon: I was thinking of the description somebody once told me about their brother who had made a lot of money. He just kept rising up the corporate ranks, and they said he led an “enchanted” life. So, he had a straight line, in a sense.
Sharon: Did you open your business here or in South Africa?
Ron: No, I grew up in South Africa but I’d left South Africa a long time ago by then. I opened it over here. I had a rucksack. I put three or four things in a bag and paid calls on Madison Avenue and 47th Street, at the infamous 10 West 47th Street. It was the center of the whole antique estate trade.
Sharon: Who are your clients today? Who do you sell to? Who buys from you?
Ron: Social media is one of them. Thank God, we have a great reputation and a history that goes back since 1990, which is already a long time ago. People call us when they want things, certain styles they need to source. We put it together, or we do shows and meet new people. We do travel a lot. I travel to Europe, to England, in America as well.
Sharon: During the lockdown- maybe you did travel- but how did you manage?
Ron: People were very willing to buy. They were happy to buy. I kept them in contact and in touch. Collectors are collectors. There were even more collecting types because they wanted to amuse themselves when Covid was in full flow.
Sharon: Ron, what do you consider a collector? There’s no real answer, but I’m always curious. What do you consider a collector?
Ron: It’s quite amazing. If you’re buying something like Louis Comfort Tiffany, in many cases, it’s men who collect things. They have no intention of their wives ever wearing it, but they love the object. They love the history. They like everything about it, and they’ll buy it for their collections. He has since passed on, but I had one collector who would frame the pieces I sold him and hang them up in his bedroom. He would have a wall full of the most glorious jewelry by Tiffany, by Castellani, by Giuliano, necklaces and bracelets and things, and no one would know what they were worth. It was quite amazing. He had no expectation of wearing anything; he just loved the piece and appreciated it.
Sharon: How about the women who buy from you? Do you have any women collectors?
Ron: Yes, very much so. Women want to wear the pieces or fantasize about wearing the pieces, so that adds another dimension to it, which is nice.
Sharon: How does history influence what you choose when you’re looking at another dealer’s pieces, or whoever you’re buying from? How does history influence what you choose?
Ron: Because I was a history buff, it was so exciting to find a piece of jewelry with certain motifs or illusions to, I don’t know, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1901 or something. it’s interesting to see how people relate to these pieces. They feel part of the whole, storied past. People want to be part of a historical event. It sets you in time. It sets you in romance. It sets you in all kinds of things.
Sharon: When it comes to history and historic jewels, do you have a particular time period, like ancient gems? Is there a particular time period where you start or stop?
Ron: Yes. Roman cameos are wonderful, interesting to collect, but not always fully appreciated, not always fully understood. It’s a very esoteric, arcane business, and it’s subject to fraud and other things since you’re carving with a natural stone. But if you make a study of it and you know a little bit about Greek or Roman mythology, it makes sense. Suddenly you’re a part of something going back 1,000 to 1,500 years, and that’s very exciting. It places you in history.
Sharon: When you say that some people don’t appreciate it, are you talking about people who say, “It’s just another cameo,” or “I don’t get it”?
Ron: It’s the equivalent of—and forgive me for saying this—putting the painting over the couch in the living room. It matches the color. It’s there because it’s beautiful, not because the green of the drapes matches the green of the carpet. Do you know what I mean? The jewelry is more important than anything else.
Sharon: If someone is looking at two pieces but one has a history behind it, are you saying people will go for that? Will they say, “Oh, this one fits me better”? How does that work?
Ron: How typical it is for the period? That’s what you want. If you would like a piece of 1960s jewelry, it should be the quintessential piece. It should be by someone like Andrew Grima. You want somebody who understands context; otherwise, it might not mean all that much. You can just buy something for its beauty, too, but context is nice.
If you understand anything about art and history, and you look at a piece of Andrew Grima’s work, you understand it. There’s a synergy. There’s a joint thing there with Jackson Pollock, who also dripped oil onto canvas. I’ve seen gold dripped onto a piece of jewelry effectively. You know what I mean? It’s not a very elegant way to put it, but you need the best for its time. Everything is classical in the right sense.
Sharon: What do you think people should look for when they want to buy a piece of estate jewelry? Just, “Oh, this is interesting,” or should they be looking at value?
Ron: It should be, “This is interesting.” You have to love it. It’s like buying a share. You have to have faith in the company you’re buying a share in. It’s not just a question of buying something I don’t believe in, because if things change, tastes change, you might not fully realize it, but it might take years to be worth its value again.
Sharon: The dealers, or the people who are selling their own jewelry or buying from dealers, do they understand and appreciate the history?
Ron: That’s where we come in. We try and explain where it came from, what was happening in the world at the time. Is it a piece of industrial Deco jewelry? Do we know that it’s 1930s, 1940s? The world was at war. It has a context. You want something to collect from the time. You wouldn’t want to buy a flower brooch in 1942. It wouldn’t really much sense, would it?
Sharon: It’s always interesting to know what the history is or to have a part of history when you’re choosing a piece of jewelry as opposed to just—not even an interesting piece of jewelry, but—
Ron: You need to educate yourself, and you need to pass it onto the client who wants to be told. He has every right to be told, “This is what makes this a fine piece, and that’s not.” You do have to love the piece. You want to wear it; you want to enjoy it. That goes without saying. It is the prime mover of the whole thing, but once you pass that, you need to know details; you need to study.
Sharon: And what do you think about today when people are looking at jewelry? What do you think is the most popular when people are looking at your jewelry? Are they looking at brooches? Are they looking at rings?
Ron: Rings are probably the first seller. Rings and earrings are always the first, followed by bracelets, I would think, and ending up with brooches. Other dealers always say brooches never sell. I find that we sell brooches all the time. They’re beautiful objects, even if they’re not worn that much. I used to have a client who put the brooches on her lampshade next to her bed. She had a whole lampshade full of them. She just loved looking at them. When the light came through, she was so excited. It was a pleasure.
Sharon: There are fabulous brooches around, yes. Do you find a difference between the coasts in what people are interested in?
Ron: Yes. It’s a little bit low on brooches on the coasts because you’re wearing thinner dresses. In Palm Beach, you wouldn’t wear giant, heavy brooches because it would drag down the silk that you’re wearing. Even having said that, the ladies that wear brooches are probably also wearing Chanel and heavy fabric to go out for lunch and elsewhere.
Sharon: You do need some substance behind it in order to have a brooch.
Sharon: There are tricks to get that substance, even on a T-shirt. So, why is there more interest in estate jewelry today? Do you think there is, and if so, why?
Ron: Very much so, as evidenced by the fact that there’s not too much stuff around. We’ve really been battling to find fresh inventory. Part of it is because a lot of it is sold these days through the auction houses instead of being sold through dealers. It seems to be a push towards the auction houses.
Sharon: Are you finding it more of a challenge today to find pieces?
Ron: Yeah, very much so. Either people don’t need to sell, or these are prosperous times.
Sharon: Do you buy through auction houses?
Ron: Very, very little. I have a few things that I need that I’ll track down. The auction house can be very helpful, but mainly you want pieces that haven’t passed through those storied doors. People want privacy to a large extent as well. Some people want privacy. They want to buy; they don’t want the whole world to see what they paid for things.
Sharon: That’s a good point. During the lockdown—it seems you were online a lot more through Covid.
Ron: Yeah, we had to get more into that because I’m a little bit lost that way. I can’t fully understand the internet and what you can do with it, but luckily, I have good helpers that help me do that stuff. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m still stuck in the past history-wise.
Sharon: I think it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, including people like boomers on the tail end of the baby boom. It’s overwhelming in terms of what there is to learn and how fast it changes.
Ron: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Anyway, we found ourselves sitting in front of the computer monitor. People called up for things, and we were shipping out stuff from all over the place, which was wonderful.
Sharon: Somebody would call you up for something, and you could look on Instagram or different sites to find it?
Ron: Our own site would bring people in.
Sharon: I was looking at your site last night. Is there a lot more you have?
Ron: Yes, we have ten million things, it seems like. What you see online is probably half of a half of a percent. We have things in every category, every range. Buying is the treat, as everyone knows, and collecting and organizing things and curating is exciting to me, too. I have different collections of different things. I guess it shows if somebody’s looking for something. We have copies and duplicates; not copies of jewelry, but similar pieces in duplicate because we loved it. If a piece is in great condition and exciting, it’s worth buying.
Sharon: Do you find more pieces that are worthwhile from a historic perspective over in Europe? Do you find them in people’s safe deposit boxes around the country? Where do you find those?
Ron: You never know where the next piece is coming from, Sharon. It’s amazing. Overseas is one thing, because there’s a much greater appreciation for estate and antique jewelry in Europe, I believe, than even in America, but you’re going to beat the bushes a little bit and try to get things from your suppliers. There’s always something coming out.
Sharon: Do you think there’s more appreciation of estate jewelry abroad because people here like shiny new things?
Ron: That, to an extent. They’ve been spoiled. They treat jewelry as an accessory. I find that the Germans, the English, buy things more as an heirloom piece. They want to pass it onto a grandchild or something. They look at it differently, whereas we look at it as more decorative, completely decorative. You buy it and you get bored with it, and the wedding is over and you can’t deal with this piece again. You move, and there are people who’ll sell a piece of jewelry. Whereas the Europeans have considered it very carefully and look at the long term, thank goodness; otherwise, there would be nothing left altogether to buy.
Sharon: That’s interesting and makes sense. Not to denigrate anything or anyone, but jewelry has to be pretty. Whether it’s historic or not, it has to be something you like, whether you’re going to pass it on or whether you think it’s going to be sold to another dealer. It has to be pretty.
Ron: That’s the first thing I said. You’ve got to love it. You have to enjoy it. You must think of it as a piece of pleasure that you’re wearing on your chest, which is lovely.
Sharon: I’m always interested in this question, Ron. What is the catalyst that got you to switch? You said you were unemployed, but switching from accounting to opening your own estate jewelry business is a huge step in my book. Was there something? Did your boss come in and say, “I want this by tomorrow”?
Ron: Now, you asked me a long question. I need to lie down on the couch, probably, to answer this question. I was in a public company we founded that was very successful. Then came the stock market in the late 80s. If you recall, everyone lost their money. We lost our second go-around for money. It was a long story, but effectively, that was really it. In the food business, we came up with an idea that was very lucrative, and it worked very well, but no one was buying anything in the late 80s in the stock market. So, I found myself available, as I said.
Sharon: Some people have a business, but they’re on Ruby Lane, or you see them at the shows on weekends buying and selling jewelry. Were you doing that? Was that in the background?
Ron: We always bought things. We always knew some dealers, and we’d go and tour these antique shows on the weekends. There used to be many more of them in New York. You’d meet people and find things and dabble a little bit, but it was always just buying. We never did any selling because whatever we bought, we liked. I still have those early pieces I bought when I wasn’t even that familiar with them. It really made a big difference. I never stopped enjoying that, and it came in very handy. When I found myself unemployed, I started selling the things I’d collected. That got me in the business that way, through the back door.
Sharon: I think you said an important point about the fact that there are not as many antique fairs right now. It’s partly Covid, but are they just waning? Was this something that was going on before Covid, that there are fewer antique fairs?
Ron: There were so many. There were two or three every weekend in Westchester and Long Island. We would travel all over the place in those days. When the kids were young, we’d bundle them up and go spend money. I guess we chose well, because you’d sit in a little auction house storefront in Queens somewhere, and you’d buy a little pair of earrings for $120 and it seemed magical. By the time we got home, we’d be so nervous. “Oh my god, is this the right way? Is it the wrong thing to buy?” Then Monday morning you’d rush off to 47th Street and sell and make 30 percent of your money, and you’d say, “That was easy. I could do this again.” Confidence just gets built on confidence, and it worked, thank goodness.
Sharon: Wow! I give you a lot of credit. Some of the things I look for when I’m buying a piece of estate jewelry are, besides the fact that I should love it, that it has to be in good condition. Do you need to be somebody who’s worked with jewelry to know that?
Ron: Condition is important because that could impact the future of the piece after a year or two. It should be correct for the time, correct for the period. It’s really important, and you should get pleasure out of it. The prime thing is to enjoy it, wear it with excitement, and you’ll get many years of pleasure out of it.
Sharon: I think it’s really important to wear it with excitement, like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so fabulous! Look at this!”
I’m thinking of dealers who have sold to me, and I felt like they were selling as opposed to somebody who—I know when I’ve looked at some of your pieces, you explain where they came from or why they’re important. Is that what we should be looking for?
Ron: Yes, very much so. It’s a good question that you asked, Sharon. I think it’s important for a dealer to be reputable. They should be steeped in knowledge about what they’re buying or selling. You find out more about your car before you buy it; you should find out about the wonderful piece of jewelry. It’s of equal value in many cases.
Sharon: I’m thinking about some of the pieces I’ve seen which you’ve shown, a fabulous pair of cameo earrings.
Sharon: It sounds like you’re saying the dealer has to be the first line in terms of educating somebody.
Ron: That’s so well put. It’s exactly right, but you’ve got to do your own work. You should ask them for a write-up on an invoice, and probably in most cases, these things should be appraised for insurance purposes. It’s important to understand what you’re buying. It’s an arcane, esoteric world, and people should be careful.
Sharon: How do I know if I’m buying from somebody reputable, let’s say I go to the Miami Show in January or February, which is huge in that there are so many dealers. What should I look for? How do I know that somebody’s reputable?
Ron: Look at the other pieces the dealer has in his showcase. You’ll see the kind of pieces he gets. Most people are just buying gold for gold and not of an age and not of a period. It might not mean anything to them, and it might not mean anything for the customer, but I’m saying to enjoy the piece more profoundly, steep yourself in knowledge of the piece and the age and the epoch. I think that’s really important, and condition is everything.
Sharon: That’s a good point, having brought several pieces that I purchased from other dealers that I took to the repair shop several times. The condition is very important.
Ron: Welcome me back, and we’ll talk about it for as long as you want. I can’t think of anything more fun than discussing a piece. I love it. It’s exciting to me, and I like transmitting the excitement to the next person.
Sharon: You have several pieces you’ve shown me in the past. I could feel your excitement. They weren’t pieces that called to me so much, but I could feel your excitement in it.
Ron: I still enjoy it. I still get excited every time somebody brings a piece. You could look at it again and study again and discover something new about it, and that’s the thrill. It connects us to our whole history, to the whole background, to literature. It makes sense. If you understand it, you’ll get more pleasure out of it, like anything else.
Sharon: That’s a very good point.
Ron: Thank you so much, Sharon, it’s very nice of you to include me in your podcast.
Sharon: Thank you very much, Ron.
Ron: You are so welcome, and thank you.
Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.