Beth Bernstein’s modern guide to antique jewellery

Author Beth Bernstein's new book The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery explores the ever-evolving trend towards symbolic jewels, one-of-a-kind pieces and those with a storied past and here she talks us through it

22 April 2022

By Jessica Bumpus

Beth Bernstein had wanted to write her new book, The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery, for a really long time. “But I hadn’t wanted to write it like the other jewellery books I had read, and I had read a lot of them,” says the author, for whom this is her fourth book.

It was circa 2016 that Bernstein, whose career spans being a jewellery designer, fashion writing and styling for both magazines and television, was asked to give tours for the likes of the Original Miami Beach Antique and Watch Show and the New York Watch Antique Show, taking the audience through the various time periods of jewellery, speaking with the dealers to share their stories.

Beth Bernstein jewellery book
Diamond starburst tiara in silver on gold, with three removable starbursts that transform into
brooches, circa 1870. Courtesy of Pat Saling Jewelry Collection

“At at the end of the last show I did before the pandemic, I had the ‘Aha!’ moment,” she says. The book would show pieces not just in museums but those out on the market but with museum quality. It would offer insider tips and be conversational rather than scholarly.

“I also wanted to discuss how to define your collecting style and that you don’t have to know it right away to mix all the different time periods of jewellery.” Which is why it’s the “modern” guide.

Beth Bernstein jewellery book
Micromosaic brooch depicting the Forum in Rome, circa 1850. Courtesy The Spare Room Antiques

What Bernstein found so surprising writing the book, which took 10 months in total, was that she still had so much to learn about the subject. “Even after 22 years of covering and collecting and that even the most knowledgeable dealers and high end shops feel that there is always something new we will learn as we continue to be involved in antique jewellery.”

Beth Bernstein jewellery book
Hinged gold and polychrome enamel bracelet, designed as a studded horseshoe, inscribed with
“Porte Bonheur”, in 14-carat gold and platinum, circa 1880. Courtesy of Kentshire. Photograph: Kevin
Kish for Kentshire, NYC

Describing the book as part travelogue and part educational, influential shops in the UK, US, Paris and Amsterdam are featured alongside anecdotes from top dealers, store owners and experts.

Readers buckle in for a tour from the 1700s through to the 1920s; find out how to identify the most popular and collectible jewels from different periods, as well as how to pick jewellery from the past that still works for today.

Beth Bernstein jewellery book
Georgian rose-cut diamond ring, circa 1820. Courtesy of Keyamour. Photograph: Rockstone Studios,
Brian Moghadam

Bernstein selected the shops featured having been introduced to them via her various articles or her own purchasing habits. “I chose dealers and shops that I thought were the most honest, knowledgeable, specialised and those that had museum-quality, rare, authentic pieces.”

Beth Bernstein jewellery book
Three-tiered necklace comprised of three rows of alternating pink and orange garnets set in
elaborately textured gold collets with delicate looping design elements, circa 1900-1910. From each
tier of the necklace hang tear-shaped boulder opal beads. Courtesy of Macklowe Gallery.
Photograph: Anthony Virardi at Macklowe Gallery

Which wasn’t necessarily all that easy given that she wrote the book during lockdown and the logistics of speaking with dealers and getting photos during an upturned time wasn’t so straight forward.

Bernstein is also the author of two other jewellery-themed books: Jewellery’s Shining Stars and If These Jewels Could Talk: The Legends Behind Celebrity Gems.

It’s perhaps no wonder: she details a creative upbringing. Her mother was a model/actress and her father ran a textile mill. She recalls her mother’s trips to London to the iconic spots Mary Quant and Biba. And with her grandmother she remembers watching old movies “and all the old Hollywood glamorous actresses who often wore their own jewellery in film”.

When she’s not writing about jewellery, she is building her own collection, which she shares “runs the gamut from Georgian rings to Georgian and Victorian sentimental jewellery to some Edwardian and Art Deco pieces”.

The Modern Guide to Antique Jewellery by Beth Bernstein is out now

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