The story of how Marcia “Sparkles” Brown of Medford became an authority on antique costume jewelry is a story of turning adversity into opportunity.
When Brown was laid off by Harry & David during the last recession, she was devastated. “I guess I was traumatized, after 29 years considering myself a valuable employee, then I was no longer valuable.” It was her husband who suggested she take the opportunity to think about what she might really like to do with her life.
Coming from a family with 10 brothers and sisters, there had been little money for extras like jewelry. But working as a professional, Marcia had started buying costume jewelry, particularly pins and brooches to wear to work. She had always been intrigued by the pieces, wondering who the designers were and how they had come to their jobs.
“I now thank Harry & David for downsizing me,” she says, “because I would never have been brave enough to quit my job to write books. Now I pride myself as a preserver of an American art form.”
Brown found many pieces going mostly unappreciated in thrift and antique stores. She began a career of collecting, repairing and researching, which eventually led to the publication of five books on the history of American costume jewelry, as well as a series of seven videotapes. Along the way she acquired the nickname “Sparkles.” Brown is now considered one of the preeminent authorities on the subject, and has been invited to speak all over the country.
She discovered that most of the designers were Europeans, fleeing the turmoil in Europe prior to the two World Wars. They were mainly artisans who had worked with precious stones for the aristocracy, but with less money and fewer moneyed clients available, they translated their talents into the costume-jewelry field, substituting rhinestones, crystals and semiprecious stones for the diamonds and precious stones they had formerly used.
“The jewelers were mostly refugees,” Brown says. “They brought nothing with them except their skills.”
At the time, Rhode Island was the center of costume-jewelry design, and eventually more than 1,000 companies in Rhode Island manufactured costume jewelry. Brown was able to track down a few of the older jewelers, most of whom had been forgotten. Even their families hadn’t been interested in their work.
“Now the families are going on eBay searching for the jewelry their fathers and grandfathers made,” Brown says. Many of the best pieces were signed, though finding the signature often requires a hunt with a magnifying glass.
Brown was able to assemble a representative collection of the best of their work. Her books feature photos of the best pieces. When Brown started collecting, many pieces could be bought for a few dollars. They command much higher prices today as more and more people have recognized their artistry.
Brown’s most expensive piece, which she bought for between $8,000 and $10,000, is actually French hand-blown glass designed by Coco Chanel.
Many of the jewelers designed themed sets, and Brown tries to reassemble all the pieces to a set. One of her best is a set of pins, necklace, bracelets, earrings and ring — all designed on a Taj Mahal-like palace theme. She also has an extensive collection of “tremblers,” bugs and butterflies with wings designed to flutter as if moving or flying. Animal and flower designs were also very popular. Despite the commonness of the stones, the intricate designs are beautiful.
Costume jewelry was once dismissed as “junk jewelry.” Thanks in part to “Sparkles” Brown, it is recognized today as a true art form well worth collecting and preserving.
The 38th annual Spring Antique Show is scheduled for March 13 and 14 in the Medford Armory. Sponsored by the Southern Oregon Antiques and Collectibles Club (SOACC), the show features 65 vendors, as well as a “Hall of Restoration,” appraisers and the “Skills of Yesteryear” exhibits, where the public can see demonstrations of quilting, lace-making, weaving, embroidery and wool spinning. Admission is a $4 donation, which allows return on both days. Parking is free.
The “Hall of Restoration” will feature a doll hospital and jewelry and glass repairers. The Rogue Valley Genealogy Society will also be available for advice for those wishing to trace their family history.
For $3 the public may bring an item into the identification room for an instant verbal appraisal. The fee goes as a donation to the Medford city parks system for scholarships for “drown-proofing” lessons. Drown-proofing every child in Jackson County is the fundraising goal of this show, one of two SOACC holds every year. The other show raises funds for the library system.
Quality Catering will provide food, with Cub Scout Pack 110 serving as waiters. Organizers bill it as the largest all-volunteer antique show west of the Mississippi.
“This is more than a place to buy,” says show promoter Marcia “Sparkles” Brown. “It’s a place to come, look, see and learn about restoration, preservation and collecting of antiques.”