Dorothy Kenny was arranging her stand at an antiques and vintage fair when a woman asked the antiques dealer if she could try on a diamond ring. She admired the ring on her finger and sighed.
“I know exactly what my husband is going to say if I bring this home,” she said. “He’s going to ask me if it came off a dead woman’s finger.”
“Well, of course it did!” Kenny replied robustly. “That ring was made in 1889. God knows how many fingers it was dragged off. You go home and tell him that he’ll be dragging it off yours!”
Some people have qualms about second-hand jewellery, but it’s still the biggest crowd pleaser at antiques and vintage fairs up and down the country.
In fact, would you believe that diamond rings are the biggest sellers at these events?
I met up with Kenny at a fair in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire. The event was organised by Vintage Ireland, which runs regular fairs across Leinster and in Dublin, north and south. Founded as Antiques Fairs Ireland by Joan Murray in 1989, the organisation rebranded 10 years ago. Its new name – Vintage Ireland – reflects the popularity of vintage fashion and accessories.
Kenny is a regular exhibitor. “I’ve been involved in this fair for the past 15 years and rings have always been my bestseller,” she says. “Especially diamond rings. Diamonds really get people going. They want to try them on, even if they don’t want to buy.” Her prices range from €15 to €5,000.
If you see something on Kenny’s stand that looks like a miniature head massager, carefully crafted in silver or gold, it’s probably a Champagne swizzle stick. They date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were designed to shake the nasty indigestible bubbles from Champagne. “When people see them, they don’t have a clue what they are!” she says gleefully.
Kenny also sells miniature gold and silver pencils, of the kind designed and patented by Samson Mordan in 1822. “I just adore pencils,” she exclaims. “People go mad for them as jewellery now, but they were made as a practical item. Ladies would have worn them on a chain, but men liked to wear them in their top pockets. You can still buy the lead for them.” A silver pencil could cost between €40 and €95, but expect to pay €150 to €400 for gold.
Across the hall, I meet Carol McCullough, who runs Strictly Vintage with her sister, Eileen Staley. They sell – and are vastly knowledgeable about – American vintage designer costume jewellery from the film star era of the 1940s and 1950s. Many of their pieces are from known designers, including some by the costume jewellery superstar, Miriam Haskell.
These are bold statement pieces made with fine craftsmanship but in non-precious materials. It’s wonderful stuff, but I wonder who would have the occasion to wear it now? “Some of our collectors buy it for display,” says McCullough. Strictly Vintage has a specialist following that comes to the fair to seek them out, but often ends up buying from the other stands as well.
At the top of the stairs is a rack of vintage furs, where someone tries to sell me a dead ferret. Or at least that’s what it looks like. The blonde fur is in great nick but the little paws and beady eyes are creepy. I take a step back. There are plenty of more appetising vintage furs on the stand but the vendor is more interested in frightening me with the dead ferret.
I edge my way around the balcony, away from the ferret. Around the corner, I meet Nuala Reddy of Fussy Galore Vintage Store in Carlow. I am quickly enthralled by a set of cake icing tools, all in the original packaging and complete with instructions. I’ve never iced a cake in my life, but my grandmother must have had a similar set and this one takes me right back to her kitchen. The memory is so intense that I can smell the baking.
“They belonged to my mother,” Reddy says. “She made every birthday cake we ever had and wedding cakes for my sister and my brother. I’ll be sad to see them go, but you can’t keep everything.” The cake decorating tools cost €40. They’re surrounded by an interesting array of vintage stuff, none of it terribly expensive. Reddy describes her business as: “a little bit of everything for the very fussy customer. I wouldn’t know what I’m going to have on my stand from one week to the next.” Her customer-base is equally eclectic. “My youngest customer is seven. He collects hats. But you’d never know who’s going to walk in the door.”
She began by selling vintage clothes, sourced from America and all over Europe. “I would sell a lot of clothes to people going to special events – weddings and christenings – they want something that’s not in the shops.”
Many of her items are handmade. Because they’re unique you won’t see anyone else wearing the same thing but the flip side of this is that there’s no choice in terms of size. “When you have a vintage dress there might be 20 girls that want it but only one girl that fits it,” she says. “It’s a Cinderella thing.”
Vintage Ireland’s next fair is at the Marine Hotel, Sutton, Co Dublin, on Sunday, March 24, 11am-6pm. See vintageireland.eu. See also nessadorantiques.com, @strictlyvintagejewellery, and @fussygalore
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