What you’ll learn in this episode:
- The surprising connection between dollhouses and jewelry
- Why vintage barware is so collectible
- How the internet has warped some buyers’ perception of antique pricing
- Why you should always get a receipt when buying vintage
- How sellers can choose trustworthy platforms to sell their goods
About Erik Yang
Erik Yang is the founder of The Lush Life Antiques, which offers a selection of vintage designer jewelry, both signed and unsigned. His primary focus is on American and European costumes, Mexican silver, Native American Indian, Bakelite, modernist and contemporary designer jewelry. Each piece is carefully hand-selected for its design, quality, and construction. In his 25 years as a jewelry dealer, Erik has segued from exhibiting at shows to selling exclusively online.
The most valuable thing Erik Yang has isn’t his collection of vintage jewelry and antiques—it’s his expertise. As founder of The Lush Life Antiques, Erik has built a reputation as a trusted dealer for his integrity and in-depth knowledge of jewelry and antiques across several periods. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how to find trustworthy vintage stores and dealers; how the internet has shaped antique pricing expectations; and why you should always get a receipt. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week.
Today, my guest is Erik Yang, founder and owner of The Lush Life Antiques. Erik has spent the last few decades buying and selling a range of jewelry and antiques, from antique items to modern items, some of which he has designed and commissioned himself. Over the years, he’s become extremely knowledgeable and well-versed in jewelry and jewelry history.
I’m going to give you one perfect example. I recently met with Erik at the Cartier exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. Although the exhibit had opened just a couple of weeks before we were at the exhibit, it was the third time he had already been attending it. As he and I toured through the exhibit, Erik would explain how many of the Cartier items were used by women in the 20s or 30s. You know the items that you look at and go, “Who used that, and where did that fit?” or “How did that hold the cigarette or lipsticks, or what was that used for?” Erik would explain to me how they were used. I started to feel like I was with the Pied Piper, because people would gather around him to listen to his explanations and ask if they could follow him around to hear what he had to say. He definitely made many of the items come alive. Today we’ll hear about his own jewelry journey. Erik, welcome to the program.
Erik: Hi, Sharon. Thanks for having me here. It’s nice to be back.
Sharon: Yes, pre-Covid, a different world. Tell us about your jewelry. I know you didn’t start out in jewelry. What was your original career, and how did you get into jewelry?
Erik: I minored in art history in college, but my degree was actually in zoology/biology. I worked in a laboratory for a couple of years, specifically in the biochemistry/molecular biology department at the University of Arkansas for medical sciences. At that point, I was on a pre-med route. I opted to go into the Ph.D. program where I was already working in the labs. I oversaw the labs. I did the ordering. I did a lot of the behind-the-scenes aspect, but I also had my own experiments which were involving cholesterol metabolism. I decided it was a natural progression to get my Ph.D. in that field, but the more I got into it, the more unhappy I became. I was a square peg in a round hole, basically, and I ended up quitting, much to the dismay of the dean of my department.
I had done a local flea market. I already, at the time, had a little booth where I sold some random things. I did a local flea market, and I did quite well over the weekend. I decided, “I’m going to leave this program.” My dean asked me, “What are you going to do now?” and I said, “Well, I’m going to start by selling off some excess things in the house,” and I have been doing that for 30 years now. I don’t think I’ve made a dent, but that’s how I started in the antiques business, and it was a much better fit. It was a hard fit, but like anything, if you want to be successful, it’s not easy; it’s a lot of work.
Sharon: It was a hard fit because all beginnings are hard.
Erik: Yes. This was a long time ago. This is about 30 years ago. Technology was different. I didn’t have a computer. Nobody had smart phones at all. Researching where to go, how to know what markets to go to, where to go set up, where to sell your wares, was a hidden art. There were some older dealers that were definitely interested in younger dealers coming into the scene that thought, “Let’s help him out.” At the time, I had people inviting me to stay with them in New York. They said, “Come here. You can stay with us,” because they saw somebody they saw potential in, I guess. But that was a totally different time period. Now, if you want to know what to do, you can just Google it and find things out that way. But back then, it was making phone calls in a phone booth in the middle of nowhere and trying to get ahold of a customer, describing things over the phone and hoping they trusted your knowledge or your opinion about an item you saw.
Sharon: Wow! That would be a challenge. You’re knowledgeable about jewelry and antiques across many periods. What is it that interests you about jewelry in particular? What attracts your attention to different eras?
Erik: I’ve always had a fascination with jewelry since I was a small child. My mother had a lot of jewelry, nothing incredibly important. My mother is from Guadalajara, Mexico, and my father was from Taiwan. There was nothing significant, but there was a lot of small pieces of family jewelry. There was the jade and the Chinese pieces from one side, and my mother had a lot of Mexican silver. My great grandfather actually had a silver mine in Mexico, and there were some pieces from the family that she had which I actually still have. It was always fascinating to see those. When she would pull them out and show them to me, I knew nothing about them at the time. I do now.
One of my hobbies very early on—I did this throughout high school, and a lot of people don’t know this. I used to make doll houses on special commission. I made several, and I made quite a lot of money doing it very early. It is a very expensive hobby. Building a small house is the same cost as building a real house. One of the first pieces I made I sold to the president of the National Doll Association. Keep in mind, I have no interest whatsoever in dolls. I was very interested in miniatures, things that were small. I still am. I love small things. So, it easily translated into jewelry because with jewelry, each item is a small sculpture of some sort, whatever it is. There’s a lot of artistry. It’s done on a microscale like the miniatures I was working in.
I’ve made a lot of things. I’m not a bench jeweler. I have made some things here and there, and I do understand the complexity of manufacturing and creating, but that all relates to me making a little bitty chair using human-size, giant power tools to make and cut things and work at a bench doing that. It translated into jewelry quite easily. I’ve toggled back and forth between the two hobbies here and there, not that the jewelry part is a hobby anymore. That was my easy understanding of the jewelry business.
Making the miniatures involved different time periods. One of the more popular styles in making houses was the Victorian style because there was a lot of gingerbread trim and all kinds of ornate things that were done to these houses. So, I was researching a lot about architecture and styles and designs of that period into the 20s. I had that knowledge base of design early on, and we’re talking very early on, like 10, 11, 12. I think my first commission I did for a house was when I was 12. So, I’ve been doing this a long time. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. The ladies that I made things for used to come and pick me up and we would go pick out chandeliers. Anyway, enough of that, but that’s the history of how I got involved and why. There was this early, core knowledge that I had of different styles and craftsmanship because of that small scale. Like I said, it translated very easily into jewelry and still does.
Sharon: As an aside, why is making a miniature doll house so expensive?
Erik: It’s a lot of work. It takes just as much time to make something on a big scale as it does on a small scale. I just went to a miniature show, and a little miniature sterling silver tea set that was done by a silversmith was about the same price as a real one. If you were to melt it, the silver value is probably $10, but it was $2,000 for the tea set. You don’t think about that, but it’s a very expensive hobby.
Sharon: It seems very difficult and intricate. Yeah, how do you use the human-size tools on something so tiny?
Sharon: I’m surprised to hear you say that you have this foundation in Victorian because you don’t have a lot of Victorian stuff.
Erik: Right, probably not. A few little objects here and there. I’m actually very eclectic, because I do appreciate different styles of different time periods. I definitely enjoy it. I love going to some of these home tours and seeing what was done. I love Victorian jewelry. Like I said, it was an easy transition. I understand the complexity of it or why it looked this way in jewelry, and when the aesthetic was this way. It’s all very cohesive, definitely.
Sharon: What’s your favorite period, would you say?
Erik: Definitely my favorite period is Art Deco. That’s where I started in the antiques business, in Art Deco objects. I still love deco. I think it’s such a sophisticated look. There’s a clean line about it. A lot of people don’t get it. It did have a big revival in the 70s and a modified version of it in the 80s. There’s American Streamline, which is very sleek. That’s what I like. Then there’s what I call Romantic Deco, which is very flowery, ornate, a little more curves. That’s more French in its aesthetic. I like it, but it’s not exactly my favorite. I like things that are that are that real stark look, which was also very popular in Germany. That’s my favorite style. You don’t see it very much. That style was popular on the West Coast and Hollywood, and New York and Miami and Chicago as well, but not too much throughout the U.S. Every city’s going to have examples of that, but that’s what I like. That’s my favorite.
Sharon: Do you find pieces that reflect that?
Erik: Yeah, when I started in the antiques business, the one thing I specialized in—which was sort of where my business name came from. My business name has a double entendre, because I started with barware, and all of the handles and a lot of the utilitarian objects had real colorful Bakelite as the components of it. So, I always had Bakelite jewelry within my vignettes of what I was selling. At that time, I had one little case of jewelry; that was it. Now, I could stock a store, basically.
So, I started with the Bakelite, which is definitely a very 30s, Art Deco era. There’s a lot of geometric stuff that was done at the time. It was a new material, and they used it in a new fashion. There was a lot of whimsy in Bakelite as well. It was something you would see on screen. It was very popular. As you mentioned, in the Cartier exhibit, a lot of the pieces were Art Deco in their design. It’s one of my favorites. I do see it, but it’s not real common in my area. Really good examples of Deco jewelry tend to be in larger cities. That’s where it’s a little more popular because it is a very sophisticated look. I think you have to be very urban.
Sharon: And you also have to have money because the price of it keeps going up.
Erik: Right, exactly.
Sharon: So, your name, The Lush Life, is a double entendre because you started selling barware.
Erik: Yeah. A lot of people don’t know that. I just kept it even though I stopped selling barware. I kept it because it alludes to luxury as well. Anyway, that’s where that came from.
Sharon: I happened to go into store in New Orleans about five or six years ago, and they had a lot of vintage barware. They explained to me that it’s a real collector’s thing, which I didn’t know at the time.
Erik: Because of prohibition in the United States, most households, if they had a cocktail shaker, it was very simple, usually something sterling silver. Liquor wasn’t available. But when prohibition ended, that’s when the heyday of American barware went nuts. Really inventive styles were coming out. You would see things, roosters and penguins, all kinds of animals and all kinds of interesting forms and shapes on bar accessories. Not all of them, but a lot of them had Bakelite as the components, like the swizzle sticks or the handles or the finials. It was quite common, actually.
Sharon: I didn’t know that until a while back. It sounds like it would be an interesting thing to collect.
I know you do a lot of digging. You go to flea markets; you keep your eyes on garage sales, on auctions and things like that. Do you think that because of things like Antiques Roadshow, people know the value of what they have? Has it gotten harder to find the jewelry you’re looking for? Do people know it?
Erik: Yes, it’s definitely harder to find. I think with the smartphone technology, I see it all the time. I used to not really go to estate sales, but lately I have been, and everybody’s looking up everything on their phone before they’re buying it. I’ve never really bought that way. I’m aware of market prices. One in a while I may not know a particular maker. It’s very uncommon for me to be at an estate sale looking up something. I go by a look. If I like it, if I think somebody might like it and there’s room for a modest markup, I’ll buy it. I don’t care what it sold for on eBay, and I don’t care what it sells for on any other platform. I just know what I think I can get for it.
So yes, it is harder because there is a lot more competition out there, and it’s easier to find out what things are. It’s at your fingertips now. I guess phones started blowing up about 15 years ago. I don’t remember when the iPhone came out or when smartphones became real popular, but everybody is using that. You can look up an item online and see the same item at 20 different prices, whether it’s $10 or someone has it for $650. Realistically, if you want to see what the market bears, if you have an account, you can go on WorthPoint and see what it sold for in different years on eBay. eBay does give you a good idea of where trends are. Over the years, certain things go high; certain things plummet, but it does give you a relative value. So, when someone’s asking $650 for something and there’s no recorded price of that ever selling, they’re not going to sell it for $650. A lot of times people will offer me something and say, “Well, this person has it online for $650,” and I say, “But it’s still there. It’s been there for five years at that price and it’s not going to sell. One just sold on eBay for $39.95.” It’s become difficult because people think their things are very precious when they’re actually very mundane or very common. Then people have items they think are mundane, then they look into it and find out it’s extremely expensive. There’s that contrast. It’s either or, so it’s become difficult.
A great example: I was at a store one time, and a gentleman brought in a little sterling silver baby cup. He said, “I saw this on the Roadshow, and it’s worth a lot of money.” Now, this was a baby cup that was made by a company like Reed and Barton, something like that. It was sterling silver. Granted, it had some silver value, but it is a dime a dozen. Yes, they’re kind of hard to find without a dent in them or engraved, but on a good day, $100. I know this for a fact because I always buy them as gifts for my friends that have children, and they don’t sell for very much.
But the fact that he saw it on the Antiques Roadshow, he thought his was worth about $25,000, something like that. I said, “Are you referring to the tankard that was brought in the other day on the Roadshow?” The one that was on the Roadshow was Paul Revere. It was a tankard made by Paul Revere. I said, “They’re not the same,” but he insisted they were the same because they looked the same. I said, “Well, they are different sizes, first of all.” But you can’t educate when they don’t want to be educated. You see that in everything. Since I focus on jewelry primarily, I see it all the time. I see variations. That story relates to everything, of every category of jewelry that I see, where they think, “Oh, I have that.” No, you don’t. Yours is a copy of a famous piece, and it’s a poor copy. Just because it looks the same doesn’t mean it is the same.