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The Antique and Vintage Jewelry Market, According to Schwind

Mary Ann Brown | February 16th, 2014


Bill Schwind told me this Art Deco bracelet in diamonds and platinum has a geometric centerpiece in each bar with a marquise diamond and open work on the wrist. “It’s quiet, which means it doesn’t scream at you. You’re not looking like Diamond Lil. It’s not too glitzy.” He said it’s “casually wearable and goes with the current style, where women are wearing two or more bracelets at a time.” The bracelet is for sale in his Yarmouth shop for $8500. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.


It’s worth going to the M.A.D. digital edition to see this group in color. It includes, at top left, a circa 1870 flower pin in tipped gold with silver prongs and 2.50 carats of rose-cut and old mine-cut diamonds for $3200; and top right, a 1960’s Tiffany 18k gold flower pin for $4200, “a great design, a great classic,” according to Schwind. In the second row at left is a pair of 1945-50 earrings for pierced ears with cultured pearls and little sapphires in 14k gold in a Florentine finish for $3800; center, a 1950’s Cartier flower pin with enamel petals and central diamonds mounted in 18k gold for $4200, and at right, an exquisite late 1940’s 14k polished gold flower pin with central diamonds and what could be Montana sapphires (cornflower blue color) as petals, for $3500. Schwind said we are “back to naturalism,” and these fit the criteria of his mission to offer jewelry that is wearable with today’s fashions. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.


This 1920’s Art Deco black pearl and diamond ring mounted in 14k white gold is $4800. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.


This aquamarine and platinum brooch from the ’40’s featuring a 21.50-carat aquamarine is $6500. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.


This selection displays some of the styles Schwind carries in his shop and brings to shows. Left to right, the 1955-65 jade cocktail ring in 14k gold is $850; the 1940’s jade bracelet with 14k gold frame and clasp is $2500; the 1970’s 14k shell bracelet is $1800. The 1940’s 14k gold buckle bracelet with all handmade links sold for $4200. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.


Schwind described this 1870’s rare shell cameo pin carved by Lamont with a 14k yellow gold frame as “ an interior scene of a tavern and people around a table…it’s jewelry as art.” It is available for $2200. W. M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art photo.

Antique Jewelry & Gemology

Wilmont “Bill” and Arlene Palmer Schwind sell antique and vintage jewelry as well as “an eclectic array of fine and decorative arts” at W.M. Schwind, Jr. Antiques & Fine Art in a historic house in Yarmouth, Maine. They also participate in antiques shows in Maine and around the country. Their Internet presence (www.schwind-antiques.com) gives an overview of their inventory, although there is nothing like an in-person visit. Calling ahead in winter months is advisable at (207) 846-9458.

When I spoke with Bill Schwind, he offered insights fueled by nearly half a century of experience to help us understand the complexities of the market, at the heart of which are people swayed by styles and events that shape their lives. He responded in an honest and compelling manner. For this column, he is the oft-quoted unwitting cowriter.

Schwind began with a verbal mise-en-scène of who he is. “I started my business in 1967. I’m now seventy-two; I’ve done it for forty-seven years; and I don’t think at this point there’s anybody, really, in the state of Maine that has done it longer than I have with a full-time shop. I actually own a period house, an 1810 house in Yarmouth that has been my shop since 1973. The whole house is the shop. I live in Portland and commute out to the shop.” His storekeeper previously worked year round but is away this winter.

“Fundamentally, my focus is on period antiques—eighteenth-century furniture, early glass, Chinese export porcelain, paintings, portraits, hooked rugs—the whole decorative arts thing. It’s a huge inventory and a very good inventory. I’ve chaired the Ellsworth Antiques Show for a number of years…and I’m now the longest exhibitor at the Maine Antiques Dealers Association show.”

Background

Schwind said he “always had a jewelry component in my antiques shop, and my family was in the jewelry business in the twentieth century. The business began in 1910 and ended in 1994. So I grew up in the jewelry business. I know a lot about it, and it’s been a factor in my antiques business for a number of years.

“The jewelry that I handle is real. I don’t handle anything that isn’t gold, platinum, and, more or less, a real stone. The only time I have synthetic stones is with the jewelry of the twenties and thirties and early forties, when American jewelers started getting real interested in synthetics. For example, line bracelets from the twenties and thirties—you’ll have diamonds and platinum and synthetic rubies, emeralds, and sapphires in those arrangements. Occasionally in the forties with pink gold, you’ll get a beautiful bow pin with diamonds and synthetic rubies. Well, I will buy those pieces, because they are what they are. But my point is, I don’t have any gold filled; I don’t have any pinchbeck; everything I have is real; and the only sterling jewelry I have is Georg Jensen.”

Schwind first brought jewelry to shows in his twenties. “I was at a New York show in 1968 when I had some absolutely fabulous jewelry arrayed in a wall case, and the security guards—we know it was an inside job—got into my case, and all the jewelry was taken. This soured me for a number of years on doing antique jewelry and taking it to shows, because of the security issues. I came back to it about twenty years ago when Mrs. Brooks, my shopkeeper, started working for me. She’d worked for Springer’s [jewelers] in Portland, and she said, ‘Bill, I’m tired of all your older customers telling me they’ve furnished their houses. We’ve got to do jewelry again.’”

State of the Market and a Bit of History

He’s unflinchingly honest about his current experience and walks us through historical events that have shaped the business.

“The antiques field in general—and this is true for the antique jewelry as much as for the decorative arts and the paintings, and everything else—has been in a real malaise, and I won’t call it ‘the great recession.’ We’re going to call it what it really has been, the depression. It is a depression that is from my point of view exactly what happened in the United States in the thirties, and it echoes very much what my parents told me about what they went through in the thirties...the market has narrowed down to a handful of buyers, as it did then. You still have some well-heeled people who want to buy good things and who want to buy good jewelry. But it is a very narrow market. And what isn’t in this market is nineteenth-century jewelry.”

Then, what is selling? “What is selling, and it’s selling very sporadically, is twentieth-century jewelry, basically, from 1900 to about 1980. I sort of cut it off then anyway, because when Nixon takes us off the gold standard in 1972, that’s kind of the end of beautifully made jewelry with heavy settings.

“In a matter of weeks in 1972, gold went from the pegged price that the government had pegged since 1935 at thirty-five dollars an ounce to two hundred dollars an ounce. It almost killed the jewelry business in the early seventies. Suddenly your inventory was worth more than you could possibly get for it retail. And a lot of jewelers went out of business. They could sell their inventory for so much money, but what’s the point of staying in business? That’s happened again.

“I think one of the death knells, and one of the problems we face as antique antiquarian jewelers, is the high melt prices. They’ve come down this year, but up until the beginning of 2013, they were flirting with eighteen and nineteen hundred dollars an ounce. What has happened? A lot of lovely, heavy gold jewelry made in the twentieth century, from 1920 to 1980, has been melted. There was a point at which a gold chain, a lovely heavy gold bracelet, was worth more to melt than it was to sell it retail.

“I say all of this because the public doesn’t get it. You know, they don’t understand about gold prices and platinum, which of course is comparable. You say, ‘Look, if we had to replace this bracelet, if we had to replace this ring, just to do the setting would cost twelve hundred bucks, and I have the ring marked $850.’”

Schwind echoed what others have noted in the last several years, that an enduring trend continues. “Art Deco jewelry does sell well. People do like it, because it’s simple, it’s geometric, and it goes with everybody’s clothes. That’s one of the reasons that I particularly like the jewelry of the twenties and thirties. To me it’s so very wearable, and particularly the bracelets, now that we’re back into a fashion of women wearing two or three or four bracelets at once—those twenties, thirties bracelets permit you to do that. And pins are slow, because a lot of women don’t want to wear pins anymore. They’re wearing loose clothing. I still think it’s a great accessory and can jazz up an outfit.

“The basic jewelry business really tends to be earrings, rings, and bracelets. I think those are the top sellers. And then necklaces, but again, that’s a little slower. Earrings, rings, and bracelets are really where it’s at.”

Sparse Sales at a Great Old Show

Schwind summarized the effect that the state of the market has had by describing his experience at a January 2014 show.

“All of these things have been a confluence to make the sale of antique jewelry really tough. I’m sure you are hearing this from others. I’m not alone. I just finished doing the Washington [Winter] Antiques Show, which I’ve done for twenty years. It’s one of the great old shows in America. Washington is a pretty recession-proof town. We had wonderful attendance this year at Washington. I think some of the best we’ve ever had.

“We had a smash preview party opening; six hundred people were there for the preview party. I did the bulk of my business then, mostly with old clients, whom I’ve dealt with for years, and I did sell some good jewelry. I sold a wonderful pair of earrings for $4200. They were from the fifties—mabé pearls that had been shaped as pears—which is very unusual—set in eighteen karat gold with about eighty points of diamonds spread around the edge of the setting. They were spectacular earrings…What would they cost to make today? A ton of money…You couldn’t replicate these earrings.

“But let me tell you, I had a terrible show. In my twenty years, it was the worst show I ever had, and I did not cover my cost, which in twenty years I’ve always done. And more than half my sales were jewelry, but it was modest...I had a fabulous bracelet with three carats of diamonds in platinum—a classic, for $5500. You’d think it was $55,000! They were backing off.

“Finally I sold a marvelous watch, a beautiful Lucien Piccard from 1965, a very thin, elegant eighteen karat gold watch, to one of my old customers for $900. Well, that’s pretty reasonable. He also bought a beautiful pair of Tiffany cufflinks that were eighteen karat gold for $950. Now, we know what they would cost today at Tiffany’s. Those were my jewelry sales at the preview night party.

“I thought, ‘Well, OK, this is pretty good, we’ve had a good start.’ Opening day, I had one sale of jade and carved coral beads, that I’d actually bought on the floor from another dealer…this string of carved jade and coral beads from 1890, 1910—really Chinese, quite stunning. The only sale I had opening day was to a Chinese lady. The Chinese are a big factor today in the antique jewelry market, as they are with anything Chinese. She bargained me to death…and finally I sold them for like $2000…I’m standing on my head to sell this necklace for two thousand bucks!

“There was a lot of interest in the jewelry, all the young gals, even though you know they don’t care about antiques, and they’re carrying Vuitton bags, and they’re wearing spiked Manolo Blahnik shoes that are $1800 for a strap and a heel. They’re all elegantly dressed, and I can’t get them interested in buying jewelry!

“Then we had Saturday, where nothing sold. And we had another great party—we do a lot of cocktail parties at the antique show; this is true of all antique shows today. We do one cocktail party after another to get the people back. We had a young collectors’ jazz night on Saturday. We had another six hundred people on the floor—all elegantly dressed young people, but you know, I couldn’t even engage them in jewelry.

“The last day of the show I sold two minor little things: a ring I’d had forever that was a 1950’s with two oval-shaped tourmalines, one pink, one green, for $250; and a little Edwardian pin that I’d had forever, for $600 I think, with old mine diamonds and little rose-cut diamonds in the center. That was my show! And I have in the cases $300,000 worth of jewelry.

“That’s all I sold to the society crowd of Washington. I mean, anybody who’s anybody is at our parties. I had very well-qualified buyers, people who were beautifully dressed. Preview party night, the jewelry that was on these ladies was phenomenal….

“Over the years, I’ve had great success in Washington. I have sold some fabulous jewelry there. So I am still licking my wounds and thinking ‘What went wrong?’ The committee did a fabulous job; it got the right people there. But the right people aren’t spending any money. They certainly aren’t spending it on antiques. The only thing I sold in the antique line was a couple of inexpensive pieces of glass, and I finally sold a painting. And it was agony to sell that. And many of us at the show this year are in that boat.”

What Happened?

Schwind blamed the latest downturn in sales largely on the U.S. government shutdown in fall 2013.

“I don’t want it to sound like it was a terrible year, because it wasn’t; it did pretty well until the fall and the government shutdown. I can’t put my finger on anything else. It may be that people were really nervous because the government shut down for three weeks.

“You know what it did for us in Maine. It killed Down East Maine. I’m a trustee of the Woodlawn Museum and Black House in Ellsworth. It killed us, as it did here. I’m also a trustee at Victoria Mansion here in Portland. Usually the fall season, for many Maine museums, is the best season. The late September/October season is good. In Portland we get a lot of cruise ships that come in, and then they go up to Bar Harbor. Well, a lot of them got canceled. The Victoria Mansion had the worst October in fifteen years. In Down East Maine, Acadia National Park was shut for one of its biggest weekends of the year, namely Columbus Day weekend, and it was devastating to Down East Maine and Mount Desert Island. It killed our season at Woodlawn. We had no one really to speak of in October, which is another good season for visitation at the Black House. The ramifications of all that were enormous. I think it put people on edge.”

The effect of sparse sales at the Washington Winter Show trickled down to Schwind’s goldsmith, who has been designing and creating jewelry as Designs by CC for 23 years, as well as repairing heirloom jewelry.

“I have a great gal who’s done my work now for twenty years in Portland. Her name is Cheryl Cook. Usually I come back from Washington with a raft of things for her to do. For example, last year I sold a fabulous jade bracelet; it was too big for the gal [who bought it], so we took out a link. Usually I have three or four ring sizings. I include that as part of my deal. When anyone buys anything from me, I take care of it all, because most people don’t know how to do that. If we have to enlarge a ring or make it smaller, they don’t know who to go to; they don’t know how to deal with it. I do all that. I convert earrings. Someone will say, ‘Oh, it’s a clip earring, I only wear pierced. Well, we’ll post it—whatever I have to do to make it work. So usually I come back from Washington with a raft of stuff to be done. Not this year.”

Schwind said he and Cook agree that the government shutdown was the probable cause of the downturn in business in the last quarter of 2013. He explained, “Up until then, I was doing very well with my shop in Yarmouth. She was doing well with her two shops, in Portland and Ogunquit. It was very encouraging.”

In August 2013 he “had a great show in Ellsworth. We sold a raft of jewelry. Ellsworth is a command performance from Mount Desert and the Blue Hill peninsula. But, boy, the fall season, once we got into that shutdown, all my fall shows were terrible. The Ellis show in Boston was terrible; the Main Line antique show in Philadelphia was terrible. Nobody wanted to buy. And I thought, OK, maybe it’ll turn around in early January. The stock market is roaring. People who were invested had never had so much money.”

What’s Next?

It will be interesting to see what happens when the Schwinds attend the 11th annual Charleston Antiques Show, March 21-23 (with a preview party March 20 at 7 p.m.) in Charleston, South Carolina. Schwind noted, “That has always been a terrific jewelry show for me. Those southern ladies love their jewelry. And it was a great jewelry show for me last year.”


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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