When China first opened up to the West, literally any foreign brand was seen as luxury and owning them was equivalent to high social status. But today, it’s a whole different story. As luxury brands become more and more ubiquitous, and every company is fighting to enter China for a piece of the action, the Chinese fashionistas turn elsewhere for exclusivity. Being expensive is no longer the only criteria. While some niche designers fit what the fashion elites want, most are turning to the vintage market for that one-of-a-kind style.
In the past, Chinese shoppers avoided buying vintage due to the negative stigma of previously owned items bringing bad karma. But, as the times progress, more customers (especially the younger generation) are open to buying vintage. Very open, in fact, as the market continues to skyrocket each year.
We caught up with Apple Jin, a London-based gemologist specializing in vintage jewelry. “China is only beginning to learn about the world of vintage jewelry. Those with more discerning style are now valuing quality over brand names,” Apple tells us.
Like many of her peers, Apple came upon the industry through her love of rare stones and art. As a licensed gemologist from GIA (Gemology Institute of America), she moved to England and began working with vintage jewelry through friends who continuously wanted to use her expertise to help identify their finds. But simply loving it wasn’t enough. She continued to study gemology at GEM-A (The Gemmological Association of Great Britain). Being a FGA-certified gemologist means that she’s one of only about 60 people each year who have successfully passed the rigorous exams and are trained to identify and appraise rare stones in just minutes, without the use of any equipment other than a jewelry loupe. We were impressed when we watched her work at Portobello Market - correctly telling us the quality and appraising the value of a gorgeous emerald pendant, after examining it for just a few moments. According to Apple you either “take it or leave it”. You only have minutes to look at the pieces. There’s no time for second thoughts or putting an item on hold. It’s a competitive market where antique pieces fly off the shelves and there’s no time for doubts. An experienced dealer needs to be able to identify and snag the best pieces before anyone else has a chance. It’s an exhausting career that’s taxing, both physically and mentally. She’s thankful for the education that she received at GEM-A and GIA. Their rigorous exams required all their graduates to correctly identify a stone by its family name, specific name, and treatment in a matter of minutes. No mistakes allowed.
But, working in the vintage jewelry market requires more than just a sharp eye and talent. As Apple tells us, you first need to love what you do. “Stumbling” upon a piece doesn’t happen by chance for professionals, they’re found after some serious searching at antique markets. To be able to successfully make a living in the industry Apple has built a strong and reputable network of dealers and clients for herself. “It’s important to maintain a respectful relationship with your dealers,” she says. “They each specialize in different types of jewelry. Just like me, they also have their sources for unique pieces and I’ve always respected that relationship. In turn, they keep certain unique pieces for me to look at first.”
Apple leaves her apartment by Tower Bridge as early as 6am, visiting different markets. Surprisingly enough, the places where she calls work are the same famous London tourist spots: Covent Garden on Mondays, Old Spitalfield Market on Tuesdays, Birmingham Market on Fridays, and Portobello Market on Saturdays. While tourists like us flock to load up on London souvenirs, the gemologists head straight for their dealers, examining their latest discoveries for the week.
We asked Apple the most obvious question for a newbie - when does a piece of jewelry go from being old to vintage? She laughed as she answered “I don’t know.” Truth be told, there are disagreements amongst experts on exactly how old something needs to be to constitute vintage. For Apple, she classifies pieces that are over 20 years old as vintage and 100 years old as antique. Though experts can’t seem to agree on what exactly is vintage, what they all can agree on, is the importance of rarity. For a piece to be valuable it needs to contain some kind of distinctive characteristic and no longer be in production. For Apple, pieces from the Victorian era are always in popular demand. They’re distinctive and contain a kind of beauty that can’t be found in pieces made today.
Though the antique market is already established in Europe, in China it’s still developing. Interest in the antiques only began to increase when Chinese returned from studying abroad. “The brass without class millionaires in China aren’t my target clients,” Apple tells us. “This is an industry for those who are educated and can see beyond simply brand names”.
For those who are just curious about the industry and aren’t experienced, her advice is to read up on it before making solo purchases. If you’re uncertain about knowledge of precious stones, always go to a trusted store or bring a professional gemologist with you.
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