Monday, October 29, 2012

How Do You Know...

I've been using a lot of vintage components in creating my new Premium Mixes and have received a few curious emails asking how I know that they're actually "vintage".

Firstly, there's a lot of debate on what qualifies as "vintage".  Some say that it's seven years or older, but not over 100 years.  Then it becomes an antique.  Some say that it's 15 years or older, but generally most people agree that it's 20 years old or older.  I have even heard a definition that related not so much with the age of a material, but with the ownership.  For the purposes of this post, I'll go with the definition that it's 20 years old or older.

I also must preface this post by saying that I'm no expert, but a lover of beads who likes learning and have picked up a few things along the way.  There are others out there who are way more knowledgable than me.

One of the biggest clues in the quest for authenticity is from the vendor you purchase from.  Part of the fun is tracking down reputable sellers and talking with them.  Some of them bought the items directly from the factories when they were made and know firsthand.  These dealers are usually full of interesting stories.  Other vendors have bought from warehouses and distributors that deal with buying up and liquidating (literally) tons of beads.  Ask your vendor what they know about the beads and where they come from (and take it with a grain of salt).  Sometimes they know and sometimes they don't.  And sometimes folks will say that it's something that it's not to increase the perceived value by increasing the age.  There are a lot of reproductions out there these days and fakes can be deceptively convincing.
Look at the packaging.  Sometimes when I find vintage beads, the packaging is not always in the best condition.  In some cases, things have been sitting in a warehouse for over 50 years!  A lot of dirt and dust can accumulate, and sometimes things disintegrate and fall apart.  If everything is pristine, ask if the boxes have been cleaned or replaced.  For instance, if someone is trying to sell you antique Victorian beads in their original packaging that didn't go into distribution... chances are, they won't be in vacuum-sealed plastic.  Not unless that particular Victorian manufacturer had access to a time machine.  Things will be wrapped in paper or fabric.  I have even found things that were packed in sawdust.

Also look for identifying maker's marks or origins.  This is extremely helpful in narrowing down when something has made.

It might be tempting to peel off those paper labels, but they tell a lot.  For instance, this hank of yellow plastic beads could have been made last week.  The fact that the original paper tag remains is highly educational.  From a time perspective, it says that they were made before 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.  It also indicates condition. Even if something is old, doesn't necessarily make it valuable.  If the condition isn't good, it could mean that finishes can flake off, disintegrate, rub off, or with certain types of plastic... weep.  An authentic tag in good condition is highly suggestive that the beads were stored in optimal conditions and the chances of them having problems is lower.

So what do you do if you don't have a helpful tag or the original packaging?  It gets trickier, but it is possible.  With beads in vintage jewelry pieces, sometimes depending on the signature design of the piece, an origin can be deciphered.  Also, look at what the beads are made of.  Some materials were only used at certain times... a lot to do with what was popular and in vogue and what materials were available at the time.  Take for example Victorian Mourning Jewelry; with the English Queen Victoria in mourning over her Albert, a lot of the symbolic, carved jet components became extremely stylish and highly desirable.

Sometimes the shape or coloring give clues to when it was made as well.  Just as the materials give hints, so do the way that the beads look.  The beads were designed to be used in contemporary pieces, and therefore reflect that time period.

It's a lot of fun finding out the stories behind the beads and tracking down their provenance.  Using them add so much to designs – they give history and deep roots to any piece.


SueBeads said...

Interesting, thank you!

Toltec Jewels for Jewel School Friends said...

Cool article, Andrew! And thanks for jumping in there to help Sherri with her vintage beads yesterday. You're the best :)


Rebecca said...

Really interesting. Thanks for taking us through it.