Vintage Jewelry Expert Lee Siegelson on the One Question to Ask Before You Buy

Jewelry expert Lee Siegelson talks TEFAF, trends, and his easy-to-remember collecting advice.

Ruby, rose-quartz Ruby, rose-quartz

Lee Siegelson’s perspective on today’s collectible jewelry is informed by decades of working at the New York firm founded by his grandfather, Louis, in 1920. Siegelson continues to specialize in procuring exceptional vintage gems and objets d’art from around the world and now creates its own pieces of historically informed jewelry.

In advance of TEFAF New York—the European fine-art fair which runs from October 28 to November 1—we spoke with Lee Siegelson about the most exciting items he is bringing to the event, plus tips on collecting, treasure hunting, and more.

Of the acquisitions you have made for TEFAF New York—launching October 28—which pieces are you most excited about? 

We are presenting a very important ruby, rose-quartz, and enamel “Fleur” brooch by Suzanne Belperron, Paris, circa 1936. This strongly graphic piece has perfectly executed design elements that elevate the jewel to one of the best pieces made by this important artist.

It was chosen by Diana Vreeland in 1936 to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar and is shown in a whimsical drawing in the magazine in the original box lined with pink suede, which we still have. In 1936, Vreeland came to New York and began her famed fashion magazine career at Harper’s Bazaar with a column called “Why Don’t You . . .” that ran until 1962 when she went to Vogue and became editor in chief. The column was popular and influential.

[In one “Why Don’t You . . .” article, Vreeland asked readers,] “Why don’t you . . . wear a marvelous cape of Jaeckel’s grey lemming fur and fasten it at the neck with a jeweled flower of pink quartz and rubies, like the one below?” Vreeland was famously chic and a supporter of Belperron. At the same time, Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor was photographed wearing her blue Belperron flower by Cecil Beaton. There is no better jewel to gift than this romantic flower favored by the most fashionable ladies of the 20th century.

Belperron Fleur brooch

Belperron Fleur brooch featured in the original box in Diana Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You . . . “article in Harper’s Bazaar, September 1936  Photo: Courtesy of Siegelson

How hard was it to find these treasures, and where do you get them?

 It is not easy to find these rare pieces in the marketplace. True masterpieces tend to stay with the owner for a lifetime and are often passed down. They are not easy to give up.

To find the best pieces, it is imperative to work with a trusted dealer of unquestionable reputation and taste. The jewels come to me in various, interesting ways, and I especially like to hear from descendants of the original purchasers and have the story of the family that first recognized the beauty of these jewels.

What are people looking for at fairs like PAD and TEFAF now?

The great Art Deco pieces from Suzanne Belperron and Cartier are very desirable. There is a particular interest in great pieces of late Art Deco design. These are known as Art Moderne and have a distinct Machine Age feel—you can see the influence that advances in technology played on artist-jewelers such as Després, Dunand, and Fouquet. Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels also have produced wonderful and surprising Art Moderne pieces.

Jean Dunand bracelet

Art Deco lacquer-articulated bracelet by Jean Dunand, Paris, circa 1925  Photo: Courtesy of Siegelson

bracelet Jean Després

Art Moderne silver-and-black-lacquer bracelet by Jean Després  Photo: Courtesy of Siegelson

If you could tell a jewelry collector to seek out one piece of jewelry, what would it be?

A collector needs to first look for something that speaks to them. That is a very individual choice. When they find an area or style that appeals to them, they should work with a knowledgeable expert and buy the best they can afford.

What general rule do you think a jewelry collector today should bear in mind?

 The most important question that guides all my purchases, first and foremost: “Is it beautiful?”

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