Antique Jewelry

Victorian rings, Bakelite bracelets--Washington is full of great old gems. Antique jewelry is fun, beautiful, and can be surprisingly affordable--if you know where to shop.

By: Cathy Alter

My parents began giving me antique jewelry when I was a girl.

Our family had a friend who was an antiques dealer, and Mrs. Carlson's store had a pirate's booty of Victorian seed-pearl and garnet earrings, gold lockets engraved with curlicue initials, and my continuing weakness: rings. I once saved up $18--my allowance then was 25 cents a week--to buy an aquamarine-and-diamond filigree ring, which fell off my finger a week later and was never recovered.

Perhaps I'm still looking for that ring. Or using it to excuse my appetite for old jewelry. I've spent decades rooting through trays of junk jewelry, lining up with the early birds at estate sales, and making the rounds of antique stores. I've had more than a few coups--such as an 18-karat gold-and-diamond art deco bracelet for $5.

Breathing secondhand air has educated me in the amazing workmanship, design, and, usually, unduplicated beauty of vintage. Here are some of my favorite places.

AAA Antiques Mall, 2659 Old Annapolis Rd., Hanover; 410-551-4101. Everyone has a story about the one that got away. Mine concerns an early Victorian amethyst ring at this bordering-on-schlock antiques mall. I won't go into details--like the ring's flower-shaped prongs--because the memories are too painful. I make frequent pilgrimages to hunt through cases filled with '60s Vegas-style cocktail rings, '20s enameled perfume lockets, and sterling-silver charms.

Aunt Tink, Reston; 703-442-4597; aunttink.com. With a name like that, how can you not sell fun stuff? Owner Gail Crockett says she combs the United States and looks abroad for playful, unique, and collectible costume jewelry. Her goods include vintage costume bracelets from the 1930s and '40s, fabulously over-the-top rhinestone brooches, and understated Victorian cuff bracelets. She sells her pieces at shows and by appointment only.

Briars Antiques, 4121 Briars Rd., Olney; 301-774-3596. Diane Grimes has in her basement the most extensive collection of antique jewelry I have seen under one roof--not counting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You like stickpins? You'll find enough for an Easter parade of hats. From early paste jewelry to ancient intaglio seals to Edwardian filigree bracelets, it's impossible not to find something wonderful.

Christ Child Opportunity Shop, 1427 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-6635. I once made this consignment shop a regular Wednesday-morning stop. I became so friendly with the volunteers, they hired me to work one day a week. Stores like this are hit or miss. One day you could find--as I did--1930s tortoise-shell earrings for $15, a 1970s Gucci bracelet for $35, or a dainty Edwardian paste ring for $45. On other days, you come up empty. The women who work here are sweet and helpful--and knowledgeable, considering most of the jewelry comes from their era.

Georgetown Flea Market, Sundays on Wisconsin Ave. between S and T sts., NW; 202-775-3532; georgetownflemarket.com. A lot of jewelry-store owners I talk to say you can't find anything good at this flea market, but my 18th-century enameled posy ring--a steal for $55--begs to differ. My favorite vendors are Mercedes Bien--look for her jet-black hair--for midcentury Mexican silver and Bakelite, and Alice Gray, who is at the opposite end of the same row. Gray, who has an affinity for serpent rings, has case after case of bohemian garnets, cameos, Victorian tracery work, and an unbeatable selection of cuff links.

Granite Pail Collectibles, Laura Nagan Brown, Takoma Park; 301-608-3344; granitepail.com. Full disclosure: I've known Laura for four years, first as a customer and now as a friend. Not only do I owe my finest pieces to her--a Georgian amethyst-and-diamond ring and an 18th-century portrait miniature painted on a whisper-thin piece of ivory--I owe a great deal of my knowledge to her.

Justine Mehlman Antiques, 2824 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-337-0613; justinemehlmanantiques.com. I sound like a guest at a bridal shower when I walk through the doors of this pale-yellow shop. "Ooooh! Look at those Victorian banded agate earrings!" Melissa Mehlman, Justine's daughter, shows me Powerball-windfall buys like a late-19th-century bracelet enameled in sky-popping blues, with a central locket depicting a microscopically enameled pheasant. The altar-bound should check out the art deco platinum-and-diamond engagement rings.

Malcolm Magruder, 2038 Millwood Rd., Millwood; 540-837-2438. Viewable by appointment only, one of the most extensive collections of 18th-century jewelry resides in this sleepy village. From sepia-on-ivory memorial brooches to amazing examples of Acrostic jewelry (where the first letter of each stone spells out a word, such as ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond for "regard"), Magruder's is the equivalent of King Tut's tomb. Pricey? Yes. Would I sell my soul for one of his giardinetti (little basket of flowers) rings? Definitely.

The Sampler, 2045 Millwood Rd., Millwood Historic Village; 540-837-1830. If you make it out to Millwood on a weekend, also visit this shop, across the street from Magruder's. Proprietor Carol Weyand has big-stone retro brooches, armloads of art deco diamond-and-sapphire bracelets, delicate Georgian memorial brooches, and Liberace-meets-Vegas rings.

Sands of Time Antiquities, 3003 P St., Georgetown; 202-342-0518; sandsoftimeantiques.com. There's antique, then there's ancient. At Sue McGovern's Sands of Time, you can indulge your inner archaeologist. McGovern has amassed an amazing collection of early adornments--from a first-century Roman pendant to Egyptian-faience bead earrings to a fifth-century Sasanian necklace composed of chunky agate-and-carnelian dome seals and modern 18-karat beads. Time-traveling trinkets range in price from a few hundred dollars up to a few thousand--but no one will show up at the party wearing that same Amenhotep III royal-seal ring.

Savage Mill, 8600 Foundry St., Savage; 410-792-2820; savagemill.com. You could get lost in this 19th-century former textile mill. Wander the 175,000-square-foot complex or head straight to Dan James's booth (301-369-4650). In well-organized cases, you'll find great examples from every era of vintage: Victorian bohemian garnet rings, art deco lorgnettes, George Jensen silver, and contemporary estate pieces.

Silverman Galleries, 110 N. St. Asaph St., Alexandria; 703-836-5363; silvermangalleries.com. Maurice Silverman has roots in gold. His father, a Connecticut goldsmith, turned out art deco masterpieces for the Manhattan jewelry trade. Maurice and his wife, Angela, carry on the tradition with tray after tray of spectacular platinum-and-diamond engagement rings and eternity bands from the 1920s and '30s.

Solovey Jewelers, 1475 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean; 703-356-0138; solovey.com. "Just because it's old," says Traci Solovey, "doesn't mean it merits my purchase. Beauty is first and foremost." The store carries an extensive collection of art deco platinum-and-diamond engagement rings, but it also has Etruscan revival and Victorian.

Tiny Jewel Box, 1147 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-393-2747; tinyjewelbox.com. CEO Jim Rosenheim, who sold his first piece of vintage jewelry when he was six, is the resident expert. "I can tell you how a piece was made, where it came from, what kind of stones were used--before I even check for a maker's mark." Vintage, he says, "is the foundation of my business." Laying the groundwork are delicate pieces like an Etruscan revival locket, enameled with Grecian maidens and surrounded in rose-cut diamonds. A show-stopping platinum buckle-motif art deco necklace with diamonds is $38,000.

Trojan Antiques, 1100 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-9766. Antique malls can feel either like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory or Sanford & Son's front yard. Trojan is more candy than junk, although on a recent visit, I did find a big, Elvis-inspired gold medallion reading, I'LL NEVER STOP LOVING YOU. If you stick to dealers like Michele (a Parisian who declined to give her last name), you'll be safe. Her collection, in booth 75, runs the gamut: Victorian coral, retro cocktail rings, signed Tiffany silver. As I'm leaving, I bump into a woman whose mouth is agape: "I've never seen so much jewelry in my entire life!"