A few weeks ago I got an invite from an acquaintance, Jeanne, to join her for party viewing vintage jewelry of a friend of hers. It sounded a little strange, going to see someone’s collection with a bunch of strangers. I thoughts of my grandmothers laying out their collection and having people “look” at them. One, my maternal grandmother would never do this. My paternal grandmother might, but it would be with the intention of unloading stuff no one in their right mind want. Huge necklaces with turtle pendants like this one…
I didn’t make plans to attend. I’ve been busy, working, tired, all that. Jeanne wasn’t going to let me not come. She knows I love vintage, and she sent me a private message asking me to come. This jewelry collection is so great her friend would never bear to part with it, but wants to share it. Plus, the woman is in her 80s and has a lovely home full of antiques. Ok. Twisting my arm works. I asked if I could bring my camera, and went searching my closet for what to wear.
If I’m going to go see someone’s vintage jewelry, I’m dressing up. I picked a dress I made from a 1940s pattern, a wool hat I bought this summer, and a pin. I didn’t want to wear much jewelry since this woman might let us try things on, and I’m really good at misplacing things. I looked cute, no?
I had my appetizer, my camera with an empty SD card and a smile. How could I not smile with all this vintage goodness?
I found the house, just across town from my neighborhood of houses that were thrown up from 2000-2009 to this woman’s house, in a neighborhood of I know are late 1800s houses. Good sign! I got my things and made my way up the porch stairs and into a lovely foyer where my friend Jeanne took my cape. (yes, I wore a wool cape, but that’s for a later post.)
This is a good sign. This woman has taste and knows the value of old wood doors and floors. I put my food in the kitchen where I was introduced to the host, Shirley. She was wearing the most amazing topaz yellow necklace and earrings that glittered against her black sweater. It contrasted her silver hair (I hope my hair is that silver color one day, just not yet.), and her smile was wonderfully friendly. I didn’t take her picture, but I’ll explain why later.
Next I was ushered, with the other new guests who followed me in, to the living room. Shirley had a fire going, and cozy seating. She had put out some books on vintage jewelry for us to peruse, and there was a bar that was better stocked than many business bars I have been in. She even had decanters with scotch! Ooh la la!
I would have taken a picture of the bar, but you can see liquor anywhere, and there was a dazzling array of jewels displayed on the dining table. Remember that little carved celluloid brooch I put on my dress, seen above? Remember that turtle brooch up there that I didn’t keep because I thought it was tacky? That brooch I wore is worth about $20, and about average for the value of my vintage brooches. That turtle, which I now know is worth about $75 that I gave away? Peanuts. Look at this…
I started peppering poor Shirley with questions. Where did she get them? Who made them? How old are they? I didn’t even ask what they were worth. I knew I could not afford them.
Shirley started collecting these only about 30 years ago, when she was in her 50s. This, darlings, gives us all something to ponder. You DO NOT have to buy all the things you love now. We can wait until we have the money and time to enjoy them.
She got these by collecting the way we all do. She found them at shops, bazaars, and she traded for some. One piece she traded from a former Illinois governor whose wife was collecting something else that Shirley had.
These jewels are all Eisenbergs. You can read about them here. Shirley explained a lot of what is in that link, an interview with the son of the man who started the company. Eisenberg made clothing in the 1930s. He decorated his clothes with rhinestone jewels to make them more appealing, different from his competitors. Unfortunately, people would steal the jewels off the dresses. Being a smart business man, he figured if the sparkly bits were that popular, he could make them into brooches, earrings and necklaces and put them in cases where they wouldn’t be so available for shoplifting.
The pieces Shirley has are all from the 1930s to the 1940s.
This one speaks well to that time. Women were wearing red lipstick, carrying little mirrors in their purses to check their lips whenever they needed to. Wouldn’t this be lovely to pull out after a drink and check your pucker? The other side, which didn’t photograph well, is dark metal like you see holding the rhinestones, but it’s all filigree flowers and swirls. Back then, making both sides look nice was a given. Someone would see the “wrong” side while the lady held it up, and it had to look good too!
This brooch shows a peek back at Art Deco and shows Eisenberg’s trademark ribbon embellishments. Some pieces were bows or swirls of ribbon crusted in Swarovski crystals.
Eisenberg also liked to use colors in his jewelry, which you can see in the samples above, and in this stunning bracelet and ring set.
Most of what Shirley had to show, about 25 pieces in total, were huge dress and fur clips and necklaces. The smallest on average were the size of my palm, and the largest were the size of my whole hand. Someone else asked Shirley about value, saving me having to do so. Eisenberg pieces range from $50 into the thousands. Most of what she has is valued from $400 to $800. Wow.
I asked if she didn’t like earrings, since she didn’t have any except the pair she was wearing. This leads to why I didn’t take a picture of Shirley. She used to have over 100 pieces. Earrings, pins, figural pieces like this one
until she was robbed and lost most of her collection. She said that she’s shown her collection at museums or at universities when she lectures and brings them to show students in a classroom. Having strangers in her home to see them was just a little unnerving, she said, but Jeanne had promised to vouch for everyone she invited. Shirley asked that I not post her address. I didn’t ask to take her photograph since that might tie her to her house.
Maybe even worse than having her collection so devastated, was this last bit of information that Shirley told me as she was showing me a set of dress pins that matched exactly a pair worn in an advertisement. A woman designed all these pieces. A woman who came to work to draw her visions of sparkling jewels and pass them on to Mr. Eisenberg and his son. This is what I was looking at as Shirley went on…
The woman’s name was Ruth. She made about $12 a week. Most of the jewelry she designed cost a week’s worth of her pay. She’s still alive, and Shirley has contacted her to ask to talk to her. Ruth declined. Imagine making beautiful pieces like this, to be worn on fur coats, to cocktail parties, in movies and on red carpets, and never having anywhere to wear them, any furs to wear them on. It’s a little bittersweet, looking at these amazing designs, the huge sparkling Swarovski crystals, feeling the weight of the metal and glass in my hand.
If you’re interested in collecting Eisenberg jewelry yourself, or you’re running off to check your jewelry box for some, keep in mind that the Eisenberg name went on into the 1990s on rhinestone jewelry. Some of the pieces you’ll find on the secondary market are newer. If you want old pieces, look for large rhinestones, bright colors. Learn about the stamps on the jewelry and how to identify them.
If you like that blue stone ring with the matching bracelet, there’s one like it on Ebay now but with a different color stone. I won’t link since it’ll be gone in a few days, but search for Eisenberg, and scroll through what you find. Be careful if you’re on a budget! Freeze that credit card!
Kristin LaTour is getting through modern life by dressing in eras past and making a mean-ass meatloaf. She writes poetry and takes photographs. Find out more at her website.