When Shopping Meets Collecting: All About Vintage Costume Jewelry


Malena's Vintage Boutique in West Chester, PA

Malena’s Vintage Boutique in West Chester, PA

Most women have a soft spot for vintage jewelry. Whether it’s memories of a parent or grandparent’s jewelry or just that magpie drive for all things pretty, shiny and sparkly, vintage costume jewelry holds a certain extra glamour often without a prohibitive price point. With statement jewelry holding strong in editorials and street fashion, it’s an excellent time to explore the art of collecting vintage.

“We specifically try to buy trend conscious vintage so it reflects what’s going on, it’s not just a random ‘I think it’s pretty’ motivation here,” says Malena Martinez of Malena’s Vintage Boutique in West Chester, PA. “Sometimes you even have to educate the customers and say, ‘look, this is what’s going on, this is big out in the mall world,’ —  they know that it’s not just great but it’s also on-trend.”

You’re often also getting higher quality for your money than when you buy new costume jewelry. “The older jewelry, even when it’s costume and plated, I find that it’s a much better composition than the newer stuff that people will buy. Jewelry now new will start to wear and chip and discolor and this stuff is 30-plus years old and it’s never done that,” Martinez points out.

Shopping vs. Collecting

“We have a lot of shoppers that may not want to admit that they’re collectors,” Martinez said. “But then you realize that they’re always coming in and looking for the same thing.”

“I have one woman who is clearly a collector and she comes in very frequently and always buys a specific kind of jewelry and she has decided to call herself an archivalist rather than a collector, which I find adorable.”

1940s Trifari dress clip

This 1940s Trifari dress clip with molded cat eye glass, enamel, and rhinestones was designed by Alfred Philippe.

Hot Vintage Sellers

“We get people that come in for sterling a lot, whether it is from Scandinavia, Mexico or the Victorian era varies,” Martinez said. “Victorian hair jewelry, which is really hard to find, especially in good condition, is another collectible.”

“Then there are people that collect different kind of glass, whether it’s Czech, wedding cake jewelry, Venetian, Murano … usually I try to steer people towards the things that they like and the things that they would wear and not necessarily a high value item or just something that is harder to find, and if you’re going to pay top dollar for a piece, it is really important that the condition is good.”

1880s Victorian mourning hair jewelry

Left: The piece shown is an example of Nielloware, made in Siam, now Thailand, and a popular souvenir in the 1940s; Right: 1880s Victorian mourning hair jewelry, it is a watch fob chain with gold filled ends.

Fun Finds on a Budget

“Enamel flower pins are very collectible, very fun, you can usually get those in the $12 to $20 range so it’s not a high price point,” Martinez said. “They’re very wearable, you don’t have to put them on your clothing, you can put them on a scarf, a vintage hat, a handbag.”

Research Before Buying

“Another big collectible would be the vintage plastics: Bakelite, Celluloid and Lucite. The price point on those has really changed over the years, because it was originally seen as very rare and now because everybody knows what it is and can easily identify it, it’s not as rare as we thought that it was.”

You can check out a video on identifying Bakelite jewelry on Martinez’s YouTube channel: What Is Bakelite? YouTube is a great resource for videos on how to identify authentic vintage, be it fashion or jewelry.

Chanel earrings from the 80s.

Chanel earrings from the 80s.

Shopping Online vs. In Store

“I tend to tell people to look at what things have sold for and not what they are priced at, and also to take acution sites with a grain of salt. That is a reflection of what two people want to fight over one day and not a fair representation of the value,” Martinez said.

“People that are looking for a specific item tend to go online because there are more pieces to choose from. But we have some people who come in, collectors, for specific items because they’ve gotten one or two items from here before and they feel more comfortable holding it, touching it, trying it on. In our listings, we always put a penny next to it even if I’m measuring it because it’s still difficult to visualize 3/4,” so my advice for buying online is to always make sure that you have the ability to make a return.”

You can shop Malena’s Vintage Boutique online here.