Sooner or later every woman has the experience: breathlessly unwrapping a gift of jewelry that’s well intentioned…and hopelessly wrong. Generations of convention (and economic reality) once dictated that women couldn’t buy their own baubles. A mix of hoping and artfully hinting was the only way to get what they really wanted. The tide has finally turned, and it’s probably not wise to tell a woman that she shouldn’t buy her own jewelry. Whether they want to take the next step beyond costume jewelry, build a collection of heirlooms or accessorize without limits, women are buying for themselves instead of waiting for someone else to deliver.
When experimenting with fine jewelry for the first time, designer Sarah Swell suggests starting with silver. “It’s finer than costume jewelry and it won’t be outrageously expensive,” says the Northern California-based jeweler. Silver jewelry from her collection, even when studded with diamonds, starts at just over $100. And for those who crave subtlety, the metal has a quieter luster than gold. “Silver is perceived as less flashy,” says Swell. The material is “something that’s handmade but doesn’t scream that it’s fine jewelry; it can be casual and luxurious.”
Sterling silver jewelry from Sophie Buhai expertly combines both qualities. Her sculptural designs, which draw influence from a roster of fine artists including Isamu Noguchi and Robert Mapplethorpe, look worthy of their own gallery exhibition. That doesn’t prevent the assortment of sumptuous cuffs, pendants and earrings from being fitting accessories for an a.m. school run or a black tie evening. The high-low ease of silver is apparent in the collection of downtown darling Pamela Love, too; her signature designs take on an extra degree of versatility when they’re produced in solid sterling silver.
Of course, gold has its own allure for budding jewelry collectors, especially on an easy-to-acquire scale.
Jennie Kwon was perfectly attuned to self-purchasing shoppers when she introduced her eponymous collection just under four years ago. “We’re a gateway to fine jewelry,” says Kwon of her designs, nearly all of which cost less than $1,000. Crafted in 14K gold and precious gemstones, her creations—open cuff bracelets, sparkling mini studs and necklaces with geometric motifs—are easily worn nonstop and in multiples to create one-of-a-kind combinations.
Piling on delicate precious jewelry has become standard fare. In the boho precincts of Brooklyn, a handful of slim gold rings from indie label Catbird is a uniform among certain style tribes, and the artfully layered gold and gemstone necklaces from haute boho brand Jacquie Aiche epitomize cool West Coast adornment.
Candice Pool Neistat, founder of whimsical labels Finn and Minor Obsessions, says her clients often opt to make creative tweaks when buying for themselves. “They’ll change chains, stone colors or add a little engraving.” There’s no need to play it safe. Women choosing their own pieces “know what they want. If they’re spending the time (and money) to purchase a piece of fine jewelry, they want it to resonate and hold meaning.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the brands attracting female customers have women at the helm. Who could be better at anticipating the desires of an independent woman than one who’s running her own business? For Jennie Kwon, it’s important that her collection is accessible. “You don’t have to wait for your husband to buy it for you. It’s not a pipe dream,” she says.
Grace Lavarro is well acquainted with buying jewelry for herself. She is a self-described “hoarder of antique and vintage jewelry” who converted her preoccupation into a career. Her online jewelry boutique Jewels by Grace, a centuries-spanning emporium of rarities like Georgian diamond pendants and Art Deco engagement rings, is the product of her fascination. She estimates that up to 70% of her clients are self-purchasers and recommends vintage jewelry for women seeking one-of-kind design. “The vast majority of antique and vintage jewelry was made by hand, and not in the quantities we see today, so it’s very rare to find identical pieces,” says Lavarro. She advises shoppers who want vintage jewelry that will hold (or appreciate in) value to buy the highest quality examples they can afford. “That does not necessarily mean buying the biggest diamonds, or the biggest piece; it means buying something beautiful, unique and beautifully crafted.”
Jewelry curator and dealer Dana Kraus feels the same way. Her private salon DK Farnum Estate Jewelry specializes in signed pieces from some of the most respected makers of the 20th century: Verdura, Boivin and Angela Cummings, for starters. When buying estate jewelry a combination of “provenance, signature and condition” are important keys to finding pieces of lasting value. To understand those factors, “one should read and research and establish a rapport with reputable dealer,” says Kraus. But figures, facts and names don’t get to the essential pleasure of collecting.
Kraus’ parting advice? “Think of jewelry like art. The most important thing is to love it and wear it. When you do, it’s a worthwhile investment.”