Guardian Of The Gilded
It’s called “Complete Set Syndrome” and aficionados of vintage jewels such as Melinda Lewis know its symptoms all too well.
Lewis is an American jewellery historian and the author of the 1,000-page The Napier Co.: Defining 20th Century American Costume Jewelry, a literal labour of love that absorbed 14 years of her waking life. Founded in 1878 and in operation for 125 years, Napier’s significance in the glimmering vestibule that is costume jewellery history is as a frontrunner in the fashion arena.
“Napier was a leader in fashion jewellery, often bringing new styles to the market before any competitors did,” explains Lewis from her northern Californian office. “Its design and manufacturing techniques have stood the test of time; most Napier jewellery is still wearable and often looks as good as it did when it was made. It’s timeless jewellery.” Currently, the most popular offerings of Napier in the market are its chunky, whimsical charm bracelets from the 1950s and 1960s that have held a steady retail value for more than a decade. A close second are the large, intricate cuffs from the same periods.
Lewis is also the co-founder of Costume Jewellery Collectors Int’l (CJCI), an organisation that hosts an online forum and US conventions, and runs The Jewellery Stylist, a vintage costume jewellery retail site.
Initially enthralled by the objets d’art, Lewis’s collecting mission has long outrun the aesthete’s impulse. “I feel an incumbent need to be the steward of Napier’s historical past because of the kinship I feel toward the brand and the people who made it [many of whom I have interviewed]. I have a never-ending aspiration during my lifetime to curate the most comprehensive Napier archive I can acquire within my means.” This also entails sharing her efforts through a public exhibition someday, she says.
The societal influences on the company’s releases are an interest and she aptly compares her approach to a scientist’s. “I collect jewellery because I never tire of the research. It’s like being in a lab; only the specimens are different. Instead of the structure of DNA, I study the findings, material, origin and historical events. New discoveries flood my body with endorphins.”
She loves Napier for its variety of styles and textures but she is even more enamoured with the passion and art of its makers: “So much hands-on craftsmanship went into Napier jewellery. The necessary skill to make a piece of jewellery always impresses me.”
Lewis considers her collection her personal exhibit and her curatorial flair is underpinned by deft organisation in her home and office.
A number of her favourite pieces adorn her office and she has a French Provincial cabinet for Napier smalls (giftware including stationery, smoking accessories and vanity items like powder compacts) and vintage Bakelite and resin finds. A lot of her jewellery is in trays in boxes; each piece stored in a non-acid plastic baggie with a desiccant inserted into a tiny pouch, so as not to touch the jewellery. Items are sorted by manufacturer, genre, or era and broken down further by collection, colour of the stones or plating. Unsigned rhinestone pieces are tidied by type and colour for ease of searching.
Lewis is pained to pick out a favourite from her collection but opts for a cuff from the 1920s with a unique design that she has never seen before or since. With such pieces so rare due to smaller production runs, it is also the most valuable possession in the collection. But it’s from the 1950s that Lewis, who changes her jewellery up to five times before going out, puts on the most. And with the mid-century influences at work in the Spring/Summer 2016 collections, she is an ideal guide for how to wear older pieces in the 21st century.
Lewis says people, especially the more socially reserved, should not underestimate the power of jewellery as an entry point. “Jewellery is always a bridge for me to enter conversations I might not otherwise partake in. Interestingly, I have more men notice my jewellery and I naturally go into education mode if I sense they are interested. I have read that some people feel wearing jewellery is a protective barrier but I look at wearing jewellery as an invitation for another person to learn something about me.”
She continues: “Our jewellery is a window into our Self. Jewellery expresses my uniqueness. It says: ‘I put time, care and thought toward the manner in which I present myself.’ It gives me confidence in sharing the more creative or perhaps less conservative side of myself in a manner that doesn’t require words.”
And what better exhortation can there be than a polite enquiry about your jewellery to bring out your best and animated self.
Read more from this series of jewellery collectors: