Costume jewelry sometimes gets overlooked by jewelry aficionados, but once they begin to research the history of these pieces, many people become hooked. That’s what happened to Pamela Wiggins Siegel and Melinda Lewis, co-founders of Costume Jewelry Collectors International (CJCI). Melinda and Pam recently joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about why people should collect costume jewelry, why costume jewelry trends are cyclical and what to expect at the 2020 CJCI conference in October. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome two costume jewelry authors and experts, Pamela Wiggins Siegel and Melinda Lewis. Together they are the co-founders of Costume Jewelry Collectors International, or CJCI, whose next convention is coming up in October 2020. We’ll hear more about that today.
First, a little bit more about each of them. Pamela is an appraiser specializing in antiques and collectibles and the author of “Warman’s Costume Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide.” Melinda is a jewelry historian who has devoted 11 years to researching the history of the Napier Company and wrote a book about it. Pam and Melinda, welcome to the podcast.
Pamela: Thank you for having us.
Melinda: Thank you.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you each tell us about your jewelry journey? When did you develop an interest in costume jewelry? Is it something you started liking when you were young, or did you transition from another kind of jewelry?
Pamela: This is Pam.
Sharon: Pam, please.
Pamela: I’ve always loved jewelry from the time I was a kid. My taste has changed, obviously, over the years, but I did have a small jewelry collection when I was young, and I decided to start really getting into jewelry when I ran across some vintage pieces. I also sold fashion accessories in my twenties and bought things at the department stores where I worked at the time. Then I was doing estate sales, going with my mother to shop for other things I was interested in, because I liked all kinds of antiques and vintage back then. I discovered some vintage jewelry, some pieces that were marked Miriam Haskell. I didn’t know anything about them, but I recognized that they were nice quality, so I bought them for like a dollar each, and Melinda knows that was a really good buy even back then. I took them home and started researching them.
There was a woman I worked with who had a costume jewelry book and she was interested in glassware, so I traded her a piece of glassware for her costume jewelry book. I found that Haskell was collectible, started researching on the internet, sold those pieces and started to look for my collection, and it took off from there. I started a little business and my collection, and that was probably in the late 1980s, early 90s, when I was first getting started. It’s been a fun journey since then, but that’s how I got it going.
Sharon: Wow! It does sound like a lot of fun. Melinda, did it start when you were young? What was your jewelry journey?
Melinda: Actually, it was later in life, in my late thirties, early forties. In 1999, I stumbled across a piece of costume jewelry and essentially got bitten by the bug. I started researching to find out what this incredible piece of artwork was, and I became completely intrigued with vintage jewelry. I got sucked in right from the beginning. I went from hospital pharmacy into starting a vintage jewelry business in 2000 or 2001. I have never regretted my passion for costume jewelry. It’s been an absolute delight.
Sharon: It sounds like a lot of fun for both of you. Why should jewelry collectors or jewelry addicts care about costume jewelry? Some people look down on it because it’s not gold or precious metals. What is it about costume jewelry—and I don’t even like that term—or fashion jewelry that a collector should pay attention to? Why collect it?
Melinda: For me, there are a couple of things. One, it’s a great conversation starter. If you’re a little shy like I am and you’re wearing a great piece of jewelry, people are going to comment on it. They’re going to ask because they’re curious, even if they’re not attracted to the piece themselves, or they’re going to ask about it because they’re also intrigued by this piece of adornment. The second thing is, for me, it connects us deeply with our own history. When you begin to research a particular manufacturer or a particular design, you have to go back and learn about what was happening in history during that time, because jewelry is truly a reflection of what’s occurring in the moment.
Sharon: That’s true. It’s true with all kinds of jewelry. I know it’s hard for me to describe what I like about jewelry. People just think, “Oh, you like big diamonds,” but that’s not it. There’s so much more of a story.
Pamela: I was just going to interject that Melinda and I are going to be speaking at the Jewelry History Series in conjunction with The Original Miami Beach Antique Show in January. We’re probably going to be addressing a lot of people who are interested in buying jewelry during those talks, and we’re going to be interjecting costume jewelry into that. My talk will be about costume jewelry in broad strokes, and Melinda’s will be concentrated on Napier.
One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to costume jewelry is the opportunity to express myself a little more boldly than fine jewelry normally affords. I could never afford a huge diamond bracelet, but I could dazzle everybody in rhinestones all day long, so that’s one thing that appealed to me. I wanted a bolder look in my jewelry.
Beyond that, like Melinda was talking about, there’s such a rich history of costume jewelry. Some of it was based on fine jewelry designs, so that’s an interesting concept of one part of collecting. You can collect pieces that were based on fine jewelry. There were trends going back to the Victorian Era and beyond that still inspire designers today, so that’s interesting to learn about. There are also a lot of pop culture influences with first ladies and movie stars that get interesting when you delve into those types of backgrounds with costume jewelry, just as much as it does with fine jewelry. I think some people get stuck on that it has to be gold and diamonds to be wonderful, but we don’t see it that way.
Sharon: I’ve only recently started to appreciate the fact that well-made costume jewelry, it’s looking for the way that it’s manufactured. It doesn’t happen to use emeralds and sapphires but can be made in a highly crafted way.
Melinda: And some of the pieces don’t necessarily go for low dollars. Some costume jewelry goes for thousands of dollars, based on its rarity and provenance. It really has nothing to do with price. You can be fascinated by a two-dollar piece, or there are pieces that sell on eBay for several thousands of dollars.
Sharon: Yes, there’s definitely a spectrum there. It seems to me that there’s a renewed interest in costume jewelry. Are you seeing that, and why is that?
Pamela: I think it’s a fluid thing. There’s always going to be interest in fashion accessories and trendy jewelry, but I don’t think people always see those purchases as collections like we do. When we add a piece to a collection, we’re curating in some instances. We’re selecting special pieces to add to our collections as we refine them and mature as collectors. That’s where I am right now, but we don’t see as many younger people right now really interested in vintage jewelry, at least not as passionately as some of us who started in our twenties and thirties.
But the thing I know about the business and about collecting in general is that that can change really quickly. We saw some of that happen in the early 2000s, when people were collecting brooches and that sort of thing. That covered the spectrum of all ages. The older ladies were renewed and they were like, “Ah, I want to wear my brooches again,” and the younger women were interested in them as well. Those kinds of things are trendy and fashionable when we see them on the runways and it filters down. That happens from time to time. Within the last 30 years since I’ve been in the business, I’ve seen mainstream interest come and go, but then you have the diehards that continue to pursue the hobby. Every time we have one of those trendy moments, we have people who come on board and learn about vintage costume jewelry and stay with us. It’s not just a trend anymore. They really learn about it and become passionate. So it’s cyclical. There are certain things that are in trend anytime, but it never has died off completely. Right now, I think we’re in a little bit of a lull, but it’s coming back around.
Melinda: I want to add it’s not just for women. We have major collectors who are men who have fabulous collections and a wealth of knowledge beyond anything that I could ever have. It’s a community for both men and women, and some of our most favorite people have amazing collections. Erik Yang, who you recently interviewed, has fabulous, over-the-top jewelry and is so knowledgeable. We hit both sexes with this hobby.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I had forgotten about that. Can you tell us about Costume Jewelry Collectors International as an organization and about the convention? It sounds fabulous.
Melinda: It’s a lot of fun. In 2009, a woman, Lucille Tempesta, who had another jewelry club decided to retire after 20 years. I was talking with my husband and saying, “Gosh, what can we do about this?” and decided that morning that I wanted to start a new club, but I wouldn’t do it without Pam. Pam’s background is in journalism and she’s put on many, many costume jewelry conventions. Some of them were the best in the industry as far as I was concerned. We approached Pam and Pam said yes. Within three days in 2009, we had a website up and groups put together on Facebook, and by spring, we’d put out our magazine. We were hustling.
Costume Jewelry Collectors International is dedicated to fostering collecting and fostering the study of jewelry history and community. Community is a very big part of our organization. Long-term friendships are forged at our conventions and they are also forged online when we share information, so it’s been a wonderful experience. We have members from I believe 15 countries. Our conventions give us a great opportunity to meet in person and break bread together. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun.
Pamela: We also have a lot of resources online on our website at CostumeJewelryCollectors.com. That’s part of our mission at this point, to keep those resources and build and grow them, and our community’s been very supportive of that. We also have some exciting changes coming to our website. I can’t say too much about that right now, but we’re very excited, hopefully in the coming month or two, to be able to share the news there.
You mentioned our convention. We also have information about our convention on our website. The last convention was in 2017, so this is sort of a reunion for us. We’re expecting a great turnout since we haven’t had a convention in several years. In 2020, it’s looking like we’re going to have one of our best turnouts for the event, so we’re really excited about that. We’re still working on our speaker lineup, but we always have a great mix of experts in the field, folks who work in the jewelry industry, designers and passionate individuals from our community who educate us and entertain us. We have lots of fun together. Our goal for the convention is to always provide an opportunity to get to know other collectors, but we also want to have education so people can learn more about the jewelry they collect and have an opportunity to buy and sell jewelry from one another. You can participate as much or as little as you want in any of these aspects, but most people don’t want to miss any of it. They’re very happy and exhausted by the end of the weekend.
This year, we’re adding some sponsorships to the convention. We have RubyLane.com. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Ruby Lane, Sharon, but it’s an online selling platform that offers lots of jewelry. They’ll be sponsoring our Saturday showing and sale, and we’re really happy to have that collaboration with them. We’ll be seeking other sponsors as our planning continues, and we may draw on some of that expertise to give little lectures or have an exhibit during our show in another room, that kind of thing. We always have a lot of surprises as we move along with our planning and add things as we go along, but it’s always a packed weekend, so it’s lots of fun.
Sharon: It sounds like fun.
Melinda: A lot of people come early because we have pre-convention activities.
Sharon: Oh, you do? In Rhode Island, right?
Melinda: Right. Even though the convention is theoretically Friday through Sunday at noon, we often have activities on Thursday, and many attendees come earlier in the week so they can go to the old factory warehouses or supply warehouses to pick up rhinestones and findings and do jewelry shopping. A lot of people make a six-day trip out of the entire event.
Sharon: Wow! It sounds great.
Pamela: We usually try to have some activities the Thursday before the convention starts, where we’ll arrange for some of the warehouses to offer discounts. One of the local antique malls in the past has hosted an event for us in the evening. We haven’t gotten all that lined up yet, since we’re more than a year out, but we’re expecting to be doing those kinds of things again as well.
Sharon: It sounds fabulous. I know it’s a year out, but we all know how quickly one year goes, right?
Pamela: Right. Another thing we should probably mention, since you’re saying that, is we have people that have been asking us what our theme is going to be, because on Saturday night, we have a gala party with entertainment. People dress up and put their best jewels on. We’ve done 1960s, 1950s, 1920s, art deco, gangster, that type of thing. We’ve done different themes over the years. We’ve had Hollywood. They always look forward to dressing up and some of them wear really crazy costumes. It’s not a prerequisite to attend, but some people enjoy doing that, so we try to tell people the theme ahead of time so they have a chance to get their vintage clothing and whatever they want to wear, their hats and vintage posters and that kind of thing, so they can fit the theme.
Sharon: So not to pack away their Halloween outfit.
Pamela: If that’s your plan. Some people just wear their regular clothes and put some pretty jewelry on, and then other people go all out, so anything goes.
Sharon: It sounds like a lot of fun. Pam and Melinda, thank you so much for being here and telling us about this. October 2020 does sound like a long time away, but it’s going to come fast. To everybody listening, we’ll have Pam and Melinda’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com as well as a link to the convention.
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 review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest or guests giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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