Pieces of the Past

Modern brides are taking a step back in time when choosing their jewels.


Though the memories are clouded, I can remember rummaging through my grandmother’s jewelry chest, slipping a ring intricately crafted of diamonds and sapphires over my tiny knuckle, pinning an oval cameo brooch the color of peaches to my sweater, encircling my neck with countless strands of pearls that dangled nearly to my knees. These are the pieces that I now proudly wear, the pieces that my children will someday possess — jewelry that, unlike the bell-bottom jeans and sky-high platform shoes of decades past, will always be in style.

When choosing jewels for a day that will live on in yellowed photographs, modern brides are revisiting the past, choosing pieces for their Big Day that were actually crafted generations ago … or designed to look like they could be from your grandmother’s jewelry chest.

Past Perfect

Like a well-worn strand of pearls or a simple pair of diamond studs, classic, antique-style jewelry never looks dated.

“First of all, old is new,” says Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelry, with nine locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “The classic styles were elegant one hundred years ago and they’re elegant today.”

With so many jewelry designers gaining inspiration from the past, going back in time has become a modern trend, both on and off the aisle. “Brides love that delicate look of antique jewelry,” says Susan Marcus, manager of Jack Kellmer Co.’s Haverford location. “It’s very rare that I see a bride wearing a contemporary piece.”

This is due, in part, to the timelessness of antique and antique-style jewelry. “People want the classics — they stand the test of time,” says Peter Cooke, co-owner of Cooke & Berlinger, a fine jewelry store in Ardmore.

Old-fashioned pieces prove that the classics, like fine wine, only get better with age. “[Brides] look for something so that when they look at their pictures twenty years later, they don’t say, ‘Oh, what was I doing?’” says Marcus. “The antique look is always beautiful.”

To get that vintage look, modern jewelry designers are harkening back to the Art Deco and Art Nouveau design movements that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Characterized by free-flowing, nature-inspired, asymmetrical lines, Art Nouveau-style jewelry was popular from 1890 to 1915. Shortly after the beginning of World War I, women began shelving their curvilinear pieces for the more geometric, angular jewels of the Art Deco style, a period that evolved in the 1920s and reigned throughout the 1930s. For brides who want antique style without flowery elaborate ornamentation, this style offers timelessness with a slightly sleeker, modern edge.

Using such artistic movements as stepping stones, designers are successfully and stylishly bridging the gap between the classics of yesterday and today’s fresh looks. “There are designers now that are doing what we call ‘retro.’ It’s a re-creation of the engraved, filigree look,” says Rovinsky. “A lot of the work that is done today has a lot of handwork [and] hand-engravings on the mountings.” Designers such as Tacori offer an entire collection of vintage-looking bridal accessories, including tiaras made from sterling silver, white topaz and Swarovski crystals. “They’re very intricate, very lacy,” says Rovinsky. The cutwork and embellishment of the jewelry helps to contrast and complement the cleaner lines of many modern wedding gowns. “Brides today wear simpler, strapless gowns. The antique look in jewelry is busier, and it balances it out and gives you a total look,” says Marcus. “I think when a bride has too much simplicity, it can look stark.”

A Colorful Past

Think outside the box when donning jewels from an earlier era. To liven up an heirloom brooch, try clipping it in your hair or pinning it to the skirt of your gown for unexpected sparkle. “I’m seeing a lot of things worn in untraditional manners,” says Rovinsky. “I think it’s a wonderful look.” Sandra Alton, vice president of the Philadelphia market of Tiffany & Co., notes another growing trend that has its roots in the past — colorful stacking rings. “Many have diamond bands, or a sapphire band, as well as stacking rings around their engagement rings,” she says.

The use of semiprecious stones in jewelry dates back to the Art Nouveau movement, when the aesthetic appeal of the design was viewed as more important than the materials used. Opals, moonstones, amethysts and freshwater pearls were widely featured in pieces from this period. To revisit the past, look for pieces with a touch of color — a rich, merlot-hued garnet, a grass-green emerald, a moonstone with a subtle, milky translucence — and take a stylish departure from traditional diamond wedding-day sparklers.

A Diamond in the Rough

Finding an antique piece for your Big Day look takes time, innovation and a little bit of luck. “It takes a lot of time to find the right old things out there,” says Cooke. “Some of the old estate pieces are in good shape and some are in bad shape. You have to be careful.” When opting for time-worn jewels, you should look out for chipped stones and discoloration, and check to see if the piece has ever been soldered — the process of joining together metals with an alloy.

“A lot of platinum jewelry has been soldered with white gold, and it can contaminate and ruin the platinum,” says Cooke. “Also, a lot of people have worked on these old pieces and haven’t worked on them in the right way. Prongs — the pieces that hold the stones in — can be worn out.” When looking at pieces from the past, look closely, and from all angles. If you are lucky enough to inherit a family piece, be sure to take it to a reputable jeweler to have it repaired or cleaned.

Wearing new pieces designed in the antique style has its benefits, too. “The new jewelry is nice because you can customize it; you don’t have to have the luck in finding it,” says Cooke. New jewelry may not be aged to perfection, but it also hasn’t been put through a century of everyday use. “You buy jewelry from the early 1900s and it’s been worn for one hundred years, and it wears,” Rovinsky says. “Today, much of the jewelry is heavier and more durable, so the condition is better in many cases, and it looks very similar. You get all of the benefits without any of the drawbacks.”

And you can choose a newer piece without sacrificing the character and timeless quality found in century-old jewels. Many up-and-coming designers are using the past as their inspiration, as are age-old jewelry institutions, such as Tiffany & Co. “We reach to our archives for inspiration for our new jewelry collections — they are really an inspiration library,” says Alton. “So many other jewelry designers get caught up in fads — something that is hot and edgy now. Our jewelry was appropriate then, and is appropriately relative to people’s lives now.”

Whether you root through your great-grandmother’s jewelry chest or peruse the glittering gems in a local boutique, remember that while memories last a lifetime, timeless jewelry lasts even longer.

“Clothes wear out,” says Alton. “Jewelry is forever.”

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