Estate jewelry always makes us picture a Miss Havisham type who wears large furs and eight rings at a time. Antique pieces have a story and a history that can’t be rivaled by a modern equivalent. If hunting unique adornments is the dream, jewelry historian Monica McLaughlin is living it. It makes us wonder why no one ever talks about these types of professions on career day.
McLaughlin’s Estate Jewelry column at The Hairpin allows us to travel back in time, making me question how have I gone 29 years without knowing about lover’s eye pendants and poison rings (both are sure to freak a loved one out).
Collectors Weekly interviewed McLaughlin and gave us an inside look on how her column came to fruition. McLaughlin worked for the trade publisher JCK Group’s magazine JCK (formally known as Jewelers’ Circular Keystone) for 13 years. She left the jewelry business in 2007 until she came across The Hairpin founder Edith Zimmerman’s ode to mourning rings in 2011. The two started conversing and now we all have a really intriguing column to read.
“What I like about The Hairpin column is that, while I can talk about the jewelry itself, I can also talk around it,” McLaughlin said to Collectors Weekly. “I love to find pieces that have a great backstory, so I can delve into the history of the time and talk about what factors came together to result in that piece being made. I’m the queen of tangents, so I think it’s probably pretty obvious when I’ve totally fallen in love with something.”
McLaughlin spends her days checking dealer websites and pouring through auction catalogs. She checks out non-jewelry auctions as well.
“Jane Austen’s ring was sold in an “English Literature” auction, not in a jewelry auction, so it’s worth keeping an eye out.”
This stories behind the jewelry are as scandalous as an episode of Game of Thrones.
“Poison rings always fire up the imagination!” she said. “They’ve been around for centuries, and they certainly could have contained poison—either destined for some unfortunate enemy, or for the wearer, should he or she find themselves captured and in a bad situation. Lucrezia Borgia, an aristocrat from Renaissance Italy, is often rumored to have owned and used a poison ring, but I don’t think anyone’s ever proved that. More often, though, the compartment within the ring was used to hold things like relics, love tokens, or perfume.”
McLaughlin admits to being “insanely nervous” when trying on valuable pieces. She said she was “haunted after witnessing a dealer drop a gorgeous jet necklace onto the countertop at a trade show.”
“Pieces of jet shot all over the booth. It was horrible.”
Collectors Weekly asked the question that is on all of our minds: Can you afford any of this stuff?
“Ha! A publishing salary does not facilitate a jewelry collection,” she answered. “I can only laugh when I see some of the estimates.”
Jewelry historians — they’re just like us! McLaughlin admits to having a small collection, and reminisced about buying her most valuable piece, a late 18th-century French signet ring that she fretted over buying in her 20s.
“I’m so glad I did, though. I still love the ring, and it taught me that it’s much better to save up for one good piece rather than fritter money away on a bunch of cheaper, lesser-quality items.”
Click here to read the interview in its entirety.