When Lisa Kramer, a former architect and owner of antique and estate jewelry business Lisa Kramer Vintage, looks at a piece of jewelry, she looks at it with the same critical eye she uses when looking at a building. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk with host Sharon Berman about how buyers can protect themselves from dishonest dealers, how to tell when jewelry has been “married” and why there is so much fake Georgian jewelry on the market. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I am pleased to be talking with Lisa Kramer, founder and owner of the antique and estate jewelry business Lisa Kramer Vintage. Her business offers antique and vintage jewelry selected with an eye toward design and history, informed by her former career as an architect and her undergraduate degree in anthropology. She works at providing pieces at many different price points, believing that good design isn’t limited to expensive items. Lisa, thanks so much for being here.
Lisa: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Sharon.
Sharon: Great that we could catch up with each other. You have a really interesting career path. You’ve had a career as a professional architect and then you segued into becoming an antique jewelry dealer. Can you tell us about the whole journey?
Lisa: I’ve loved jewelry since I was a child. I know it’s pretty much what everybody says, but I actually made jewelry when I was in junior and high school. I took some classes, mostly beading. I did do some metalwork, although I would never present myself as a bench jeweler. I never mastered soldering and I don’t think you can really call yourself a bench jeweler if you can’t solder. I probably have melted at least as many pieces as I’ve soldered, but I am able to do some minor repairs myself.
But the love of jewelry was there, as was the love of vintage clothing. I grew up in New York. I loved going down to Greenwich Village, combing the vintage shops that were around there. As I got older and was in college and after college, buying vintage was—not only did I love the clothing, but it was also very affordable. It fit my budget. It fit my image of myself. When I went to college, I studied anthropology, starting off studying archaeology and then segueing into cultural anthropology as I went through the university. Then I worked for a few years and then went on to architect school. So, I’ve had a pretty extensive background in studying the history of design, the history of decorative arts through my studies in archaeology and art history, when I was studying architecture, and then when I was working in the field. Then, I started a side business selling vintage jewelry and some clothing, although the emphasis was mostly on jewelry, which I did for about a dozen years while I was still working full-time as an architect and construction project manager. A little over six years ago now, I made the switch. I decided to reverse the ratio, so now I’m a full-time vintage and antique jewelry dealer, although I do a little bit of consulting a few days a month on construction project management.
Sharon: When I’ve looked at what you have for sale, you have a very well-curated collection. What do you look for when you’re buying a piece and how does the fact that you are an architect influence your choices?
Lisa: I think the first thing that attracts me to a piece is the design. I look at that first before I look at whether it’s even a piece of fine jewelry, or I should say regardless of whether it’s a piece of costume or fine jewelry or all the other categories that are a bit ambiguous, in between silver and art jewelry, but I’m really attracted to design. I’d say my architecture informs me in terms of the way I look at design, but I think it also informs me a lot when I go into the next phase of looking at a piece, which is vetting it for authenticity. There are a lot of fakes out in the market, so I look at how a piece has been constructed. I look for signs of it being modified, and I liken it a lot to when I’m walking into an older building and looking for little shadows and things on the walls that say, “There might have been something else here before,” or when I see design elements or construction techniques that seem incongruous, and there’s something about a piece of jewelry or a building where a part of it isn’t consistent with the whole. It could be there’s a material that wasn’t around when a piece is purported to be from, or just a sign that a piece is what we would call a “marriage,” where two different things have been glommed together. Some can be done very nicely. For instance, a marriage can be somebody who’s converted an old brooch to a ring, so you’ve married a new ring shank to an old piece. But sometimes things are kind of funky, so I think being an architect helps me look at construction techniques.
Sharon: I know that fake jewelry has always been a problem, whether today with the fake Georgian lover’s eyes or the art deco diamond bracelets from Thailand. How can people protect themselves from purchasing something that isn’t what it seems?
Lisa: So many sales now are done on the internet and I think it’s important that when people are buying, especially sight unseen, that they have a guarantee they can return a piece. They should have the ability—especially on a piece where people may be investing thousands of dollars into it—and the right to purchase it and return it. They should get that in writing, either writing on the person’s website or correspondence saying that they have a certain period of time to return it. Of course, some of that is almost moot, because if you purchase things using certain online purchasing tools, like PayPal or a credit card—with PayPal, you have six months to return something. As a dealer, I probably shouldn’t be broadcasting that too loudly, but I don’t worry about it in terms of authenticity. I just don’t want people buying things, wearing them and then returning them after essentially renting them for free, and thankfully, I’ve never actually had that as a problem.
On the other hand, there has been a recent controversy on Instagram, because there are some very unscrupulous dealers who have been selling things that have been misrepresented. There have been instances where, several months after making a purchase, because they may have brought the item to have an insurance appraisal done, people have found out that the materials, stones, age or condition of the piece wasn’t accurately represented, and they’ve had problems returning it. In my case, if I ever sold something that I inaccurately represented, I’d be mortified and I would take it back at any time.
Sharon: I know that you really devote a lot of time to researching each piece. What are some of the sources that you like and is that part of what you like about the whole process?
Lisa: It’s a big part of what I like, and I probably like it too much. I probably invest too much time in doing the research and not quite enough on doing marketing, but I truly love doing the research. I have quite an extensive library, so there are certain things that are fairly straightforward. I have a very good library of books on hallmarks from around the world. So, if a piece is hallmarked, there’s a good chance when I get it, I can find out quite a lot of information. I also have other books that have information about maker’s marks, but sometimes things are a lot more ambiguous and I’ll find myself going down a rabbit hole, and I usually enjoy going down that rabbit hole. For instance, a couple of years ago, I bought a piece of modernist silver jewelry and it had weird marks on it, and I couldn’t quite make sense of it. It said, “SS Lassen in Sausalito.” I thought SS was for sterling silver, but I couldn’t figure it out; Mt. Lassen is hundreds of miles from Sausalito. So, I just started Googling and I found this fascinating story about a mid-century studio jeweler named Loyola Fortaine, who was one of the pioneers of living on house boats in Sausalito. There was loads of information about her and her houseboats, and then little by little I found information about her jewelry, but she had been kind of lost to history. She was quite well known in her day, because she was working in Sausalito from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Since that time, she hadn’t made it into the canon of modernist jewelers who are very well known now, so I just loved it. I felt like I landed in this world of Bohemian Bay Area in the pre- and post-war era. I love doing things like that, and as you can tell probably by how enthusiastically I talk about it, I spend quite a lot of my time doing that sort of thing.
Sharon: I always enjoy it on Instagram because you really give a history and share what you found. I think it’s very interesting. I also think it’s one of the most important ways for somebody like me, who doesn’t want to do all the research themselves, to know that you’re buying from somebody who knows what they’re talking about. I always appreciate it when a dealer says, “I don’t know when it’s from. I don’t know the stone.” I’d much rather hear that than have what’s happened at other times. People tell me something that I later found out isn’t true.
Lisa: And a lot of times I don’t know. There are just some times where there’s nothing I can find out about it, so it is kind of what you see. I can acid test the metal and tell you what it’s made of, but there are limits. Sometimes I find out about things after I’ve sold a piece in the course of doing research about something else. There have been a few times where I’ve followed up with customers and said, “Hey, I found out something.” The other thing I would like to say is that there are other resources that I use. I’m part of several groups of people, most of whom I’ve met through Instagram or other online sources, and some of whom are dealers that I’ve met in person at shows and have known for years, and we often talk on the phone or send each other e-mails or text each other photos and utilize each other as resources, so a lot of times, if I’m not sure what something is or I’m on the fence whether something is authentic or modified, I’ll contact colleagues of mine, and that’s a huge resource.
Sharon: That sounds like shared brain power. So, what is it that you enjoy about being a dealer?
Lisa: I think like most dealers, I love the hunt. It’s always fun to be out at antique markets and antique shows and estate sales, basically digging for treasure. As I mentioned, I also love the research aspect and I also really like a lot of the people I’ve met. In the past six years, and even before then, I’ve met a whole bunch of friends who all share this passion for antiques and jewelry, and it’s a really interesting and mostly welcoming community.
Sharon: That makes a tremendous difference. What kind of trends are you seeing in the marketplace right now? Sometimes I hear there’s a resurgence and interest in antique jewelry, and sometimes I hear the opposite. What are you seeing?
Lisa: When I’m in my most cynical mood, I say, “Well, the biggest trend is fake Georgian jewelry,” which I’m only being a little bit facetious about. It’s flooded Instagram, which is where a lot of the younger collectors are finding things. It’s so pervasive that it’s really quite disturbing. It’s a huge trend and it’s not a good one, but I’m not sure. What I carry is a little bit different than what a lot of other dealers carry, because I have things from a very wide range of eras. As I’ve been building customer bases, I get people who are coming because they like my aesthetic, so I’m not 100 percent sure what the trends are. Periodically, I’ll see in fashion magazines that the brooch is back and I think a lot of brooches are selling, but they’re selling these days to be converted into necklaces, pendants and rings, so I’m not sure I have a really broad picture of the overall market in that way.
Sharon: Fair enough and thank you for reminding us about the fact that we all have to be careful. There are fakes and people who will tell you what you want to hear, although there is still a lot of fabulous jewelry out there.
Lisa: There’s great jewelry and there’s genuine Georgian jewelry out there. It’s just the ratio of genuine to fake is skewed toward the fake right now because it is so popular. There have been fakes really being churned out in India, South America and Turkey for a good 20 years or so. On top of that, there was a Georgian revival in the late 19th century and early 20th century, so there are a lot of pieces that are antique or near antique that are sort of in the Georgian style that actually do have genuine age.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. It’s still an antique, but it wasn’t done in Georgian times, and it’s just another reason for knowing who you’re buying from. If you don’t know exactly what you’re buying yourself, know who you’re buying from. Lisa, thank you so much. That was very interesting. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We will have Lisa’s contact information in our show notes. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon, it’s been a pleasure.
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