Rosie Sayyah, aka Rhinestone Rosie, has been a fixture on the “Antiques Roadshow” for more than 20 years due to her expertise in rhinestones and costume jewelry. The self-taught appraiser has a massive collection of vintage rhinestones, which she uses to repair costume jewelry that few other jewelers can fix. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her entry into the world of costume jewelry, the history of rhinestones and why costume jewelry isn’t a dirty word. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Rosie Sayyah, or as she’s better known from her appearances on the “Antiques Roadshow,” Rhinestone Rosie. She’s the founder of the vintage jewelry store by the same name in Seattle, which offers a unique inventory of appraisals and repairs of vintage jewelry unlike any other. She’ll tell us more about her store, its services and her perspective on the vintage jewelry market today. Rosie, welcome to the program.
Rosie: Hi there, thank you very much for inviting me.
Sharon: So glad to be talking with you. Please tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start liking jewelry? Did you play with it as a child or was it something that came to you later in life?
Rosie: I would have to say jewelry came later in life. My parents ran a second-hand store in Orlando, Florida, for 20 years. They sold furniture and clothing, and sometimes when my mother was reupholstering furniture, she would find an old piece of jewelry which she gave to me. I had two older sisters. We each had a cedar chest. My cedar chest was full of art glass, carved glass, pressed glass. I like shiny things and some of that was jewelry. I also was a very talented artist as a young child. I won a couple of contests, so I’m used to working with my hands. I also collected rocks, which added to my interest in things that were shiny but also organic, and I liked that.
Sharon: That’s interesting. When did you know jewelry was going to be your livelihood?
Rosie: It was after another career I had in television. I have a degree in advertising and communications, and I worked in television for about five or six years. When I left to have my child, my daughter Lucia, a friend of mine also had left previously. She opened a vintage store in Seattle. I had my baby and I took my baby to her shop, where I repaired vintage clothing. She always had a box of broken jewelry in the store and I said, “Well, who fixes this?” She said, “Nobody does.” From my background and research, I decided that somebody was going to, and that was me. I went to the local hobby shop, and the guys there taught me how to lead solder and use certain glues, certain paints. I started collecting jewelry. I went into I. Magnin downtown with some printed business cards, doing self-promotion, and I walked out with my first job. From then on, it was history. That’s how it started.
Sharon: Wow! So it wasn’t any particular kind of jewelry? You didn’t say, “I’m going to start working with costume jewelry or antique jewelry,” it was whatever came across your desk?
Sharon: Interesting. How did you get into appraising?
Rosie: I do oral appraisals. I don’t write anything down. It happened because in the beginning, I did a lot of free lectures to various senior homes in the Seattle area. I would talk to people about their jewelry, and I realized they didn’t really know what they had. So I boned up. I got a library of maybe a hundred books that I read up on, and part of my lecture would be to tell people what they had. I’d give an oral appraisal on the cost, materials, maybe a retail value, age, that type of thing. People seemed to enjoy that, and that’s what my appraising is.
Sharon: What a perfect target market.
Rosie: You bet.
Sharon: I never thought about that. People have closets and drawers full of stuff they think is junk, and who knows?
Rosie: That’s right.
Sharon: Did you take over your friend’s store? How did that happen?
Rosie: No, I did most of this out of my house from about 1982 to 1984. Then, a space opened up next to my husband’s studio—he’s a photographer—so I rented that space. I became a shop owner in 1984 and I had stuff to sell. We still have thousands of pieces to sell and we also have a website. Those pieces are not in the store. They’re off premises, but you can come in the store, as I think you have, and it’s like a museum in there.
Sharon: A lot of stuff to look at, yes. You could spend a whole day there or more. Did people start learning about you because you would repair things? How did that develop? It developed from what you were doing, but how did it develop so that you became the person to go to for this?
Rosie: I did limited advertising in the beginning, and word of mouth is the best advertising. From my background in television, I did a lot of local television appearances and people saw me. They would go to their local jeweler or a fine jeweler, and the fine jeweler would say, “Well, I can’t do this, but try Rhinestone Rosie.” It’s basically been word of mouth. Then, of course, being on the “Antiques Roadshow” as an appraiser, people all over the country, and literally the world, come into my little shop because they know not only can they get great jewelry to purchase, but they can also get professional repair done on their items.
Sharon: Yes, “Antiques Roadshow” is certainly quite available. Some people find the term costume jewelry pejorative. Like you mentioned, when somebody goes into a fine jewelry store and the fine jewelers often won’t work on costume jewelry, it can be a pejorative term. In a sense, it isn’t. Some people like to call it fashion jewelry or fantasy jewelry. What do you think about this? What do you think about the terminology?
Rosie: Oh my goodness! I believe the term “costume jewelry” was coined either by Elsa Schiaparelli or Coco Chanel. They made a custom garment, an outfit, and then the jewelry was created to go with it. Costume jewelry, to me, is not derogatory in any way, shape or form. Sometimes people, because it is what we consider used jewelry, don’t like that, but I love the history of it. I love the fact that someone wore it and treasured it and probably bought it for themselves, especially during the era of World War II. When women started working for themselves and had that extra cash, they bought it for themselves and they bought what they wanted. So many of these pieces are treasured. You’d be surprised what comes in for repair that you probably wouldn’t even consider keeping, but it means a lot to my customers.
Sharon: Oh, I bet. You’ve seen quite a bit, and I hadn’t thought about the fact that other people have worn it. People think about that with estate jewelry, but they don’t think about that so much with costume because, I don’t know, it usually is something that’s been worn before. You find it in a vintage shop as opposed to going into Nordstrom and buying it new today.
Rosie: Exactly, yes.
Sharon: Can you tell us about the history of rhinestones? Are some better than others? What do you look for in rhinestones?
Rosie: There is a quality difference. Swarovski patented the process of adhering the metallic reflective surface on the back of rhinestones at the very end of the 1800s. Rhinestone jewelry became more popular in the 1920s. The term “rhinestone,” ironically, comes from the fact that the best stones come from Eastern Europe, from the Rhine River. Legend goes that a rhinestone was first a piece of water-washed crystal that came from the Rhine River that was put into a setting. As for the quality of rhinestones, yes, a lot of the stones today are acrylic. They’re not glass. The best rhinestones are crystal and even in crystal there is a definition; there is a better quality. One step above a crystal rhinestone is one called a dentelle. It has twice as many facets as a regular rhinestone, and they really, really sparkle. Manufacturers like Weiss and Eisenberg and some of the other major names use these dentelles. That’s why the jewelry, if you put a dentelle side by side with a regular glass or crystal rhinestone, the difference is amazing.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. So, the dentelle is the cut?
Rosie: It’s got more facets. Also, a rhinestone can be any size, shape or color. Most people come into the store and say, “Oh, I want rhinestones,” and they just are going for the ones that look like crystal or diamonds. That color is called crystal, but it can be any color: red, green, blue. Then, in the late 50s, they put a coating on it called aurora borealis or iridescence. They put it on beads and rhinestones. It reflects and it adds an excitement, too. It’s actually a metallic salt, I believe, that was applied to the surface. This helps us date it, because we know that wasn’t used before 1950. There are little clues in each piece of jewelry that help us date it.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. For your repairs, I can’t believe that anybody else in the world has as many costume jewelry stones to repair things with. They’re so hard to find. How did you amass all these stones?
Rosie: Well, Sharon, 35 years and I’m a saver. I knew not to throw stuff away in the beginning. I thought, “I might use this later.” I buy broken pieces. I buy new stones if I need to. I try very hard to make the piece look like it hasn’t been repaired, which is difficult because sometimes the stone required is not a perfect stone. I have to find one that the foil—because the rhinestone is simply a piece of glass or crystal with foil on the back. Sometimes that foil becomes compromised, and the stone turns dark or yellow. I have to find a stone in my reservoir of stones and believe me, they are sorted. If I didn’t have them sorted by size, shape, color, type, it would take me forever, but that’s the key to our quick turnaround. We turn things around in two-and-a-half to three weeks. We are able to go right to a drawer and if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, I have to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t have the stone.” There’s a uniformity to the sizes and shapes, except for pieces made in the late 1800s. A lot of those are custom cut. It’s hard to get the really old stones, but it’s amazing to me what I can come up with.
Sharon: So people send in pieces as old as that? I was thinking there’d be more 40s or 50s.
Rosie: Oh, no, our inventory and repair goes from 1870 to 1970 and contemporary jewelry. We do a lot of Victorian pieces.
Sharon: Wow, that’s interesting! I certainly wouldn’t know where to go if I needed something repaired like that. You would take it to your jeweler down the street and they would look at you like, “Are you kidding?”
Rosie: Exactly. A lot of the jewelry won’t take the heat they use for silver and gold. I use a lead temperature pencil soldering iron and the temperature is about 750 to 800. Through the years, I’ve learned what will solder and what will not. It can’t be too thick. I know certain things are going to melt. I have to take them apart sometimes. We do a lot of earring changeovers. Because most of our earrings are vintage, they have clip backs or screw backs, so we leave those as is. There are a lot of people that don’t have pierced ears, so when we do change it to pierced, we have to consider whether the stone will take the heat, if we need to take it apart. I neglected to mention that my daughter, Lucia Sayyah, is my business partner. She’s in the shop on Saturdays and she has two small, wonderful grandchildren. She supports me and is as good in repair, maybe even better, because she is a trained goldsmith; I am not.
Sharon: What a powerful combination. What trends are you seeing in costume and rhinestone jewelry today? On the street it seems like there’s more interest, but what are you seeing, since you’re on the front lines?
Rosie: I’m seeing people wanting to stand out. I’m seeing large, chunky necklaces. A big chain is popular. A lot of people say, “Oh, I never wear a brooch,” but then they see me wearing one—I wear a lot of brooches; I wear a lot of blazers—and they go, “Oh, I like that.” I think brooches are going to have a comeback. Earrings are very fickle because it depends on who’s wearing what at the Oscars, that kind of thing. Someone’s wearing big bangles. Everybody wants that emerald that Demi Moore was wearing at the last show. Bridal pearls are not a big seller. Certain colors sell better than others. I think what’s happening as people are aging, they are inheriting this jewelry and a lot of times, they’ll come in—I give them free oral appraisals for up to five items—and they realize they have something that might be interesting to wear and might be unique. I think people want to stand out. Then you’ve got people that do Renaissance fairs; they do interesting jewelry. The bridal market is very big in costume jewelry. I’ve seen bouquets made of clusters of brooches, which is an interesting thing.
I think the future is good, but unfortunately, the older pieces are better made than most of the contemporary pieces. It’s dismaying for people when they do buy something brand new and it falls apart right away, and it’s even harder to fix because the quality of the materials is not there. The people that made jewelry in the 40s and 50s, a lot of them came over from Europe prior to World War II and had the skills of expert craftsmen with fine jewelry. They made jewelry that lasted. It’s amazing the beauty of some of this jewelry, especially from the 40s, and that quality is not quite there in most of the costume jewelry today. There are a few people that are doing really good pieces, but most of it, it’s even hard to repair. It falls apart if I work on it, and it’s very frustrating.
Sharon: They don’t make them like they used to, as they say.
Rosie: That’s right.
Sharon: What colors do you find sell better than others?
Rosie: Red, by all means.
Sharon: It sells much better.
Rosie: The primary gem colors: red, sapphire, blue, amethyst, purples. Topaz is not a big seller. I would say red, green, blue and purple are probably the best colors. As I said, the metals are picking up, especially the dull, burnished brassy-looking pieces people seem to like, not real shiny.
Sharon: I can see that in my mind’s eye. Rosie, thank you so much for being here. I’m thinking of several pieces I’ve been meaning to send myself because after I went into your store and took a closer look, I realized there were stones missing. To everybody listening, we’ll have Rosie’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. If you’re in the Seattle area, please make sure to stop by the store. It’s definitely worth the visit to look at the beautiful things.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
END OF AUDIO