Tips of the Trade
American Gypsy Jewelry
Appraiser Barry Weber introduces ROADSHOW host Dan Elias to Gypsy jewelry.
These gold coins are not real currency.
Is this woman a Gypsy queen?
Gypsy jewelry makers often used the flower motif.
This belt contains about a pound of gold.
Barry Weber, of Edith Weber and Associates in New York City, is an expert in American gypsy jewelry. At the New York City ANTIQUES ROADSHOW he brought in a shimmering collection of these hard-to-find baubles to share. "Gypsy jewelry is a captivating and alluring form of rare jewelry that carries the romance of the Gypsies within each piece," Barry intones.
Alluring and rare, these ornaments are often worth more than their weight in gold
Gypsies brought their jewelry-making skills to the United States as many immigrated here in the early 20th century. Most of the surviving American Gypsy jewelry dates from 1900 to 1930.
The jewelry also carries solid 14-karat yellow gold in almost every piece. Gypsies added stones to their earrings, bracelets, necklaces and belts—some of the most popular Gypsy jewelry. Gypsies almost always used synthetic stones, because of difficulties in verifying a gemstone's authenticity. The gold, however, is always real because Gypsies "knew the gold couldn't be faked easily," Barry explains.
Gypsy jewelry was meant for more than adornment. "Nomadic people carry their assets with them," Barry notes. "This type of jewelry was a decorative method of transporting their wealth." The jewelry served as a portable bank account and Gypsies often used solid gold coins in their jewelry. "Nobody likes to sell their jewelry," Barry explains. "But if you were in trouble and somebody was sick and needed to go to a doctor or had to go to the hospital, you visited the pawn shop."
The tradition of using real gold coins in jewelry was not carried over the Atlantic, because United States laws forbade the defacing of government property, including money. American Gypsies made coin necklaces with solid gold medallions, instead of any real currency, in order to steer clear of the law.
While the use of coins didn't make it across the Atlantic, the Gypsies' favorite jewelry motifs did. "Great examples still surface in odd places, but can often go unrecognized unless you are familiar with them," Barry says. "You have to know how to recognize the motifs that make the jewelry so special." The profiled face of a beautiful lady, similar to profiles seen on cameos, adorns many pieces. "I've been told she was the Gypsy queen," Barry says.
Gypsy jewelry often incorporates twisted wirework, known as filigree, dangling hearts, stars and raised flowers. Gypsies were also fond of the horseshoe shape, commonly used in the popular cuff bracelets. "I was told that the horseshoe was to be worn with the tips pointing up so the luck didn't run out the ends," Barry says.
It's difficult for buyers to find American gypsy jewelry today because so much of it was melted down in the Great Depression, and even more melted when gold values peaked in the 1980s. Superstition also might have contributed to its scarcity. "Gypsy jewelry was reputed to be very good luck to have, but bad luck to sell," Barry says. "Who would want to sell off their good fortune? That can make it hard to acquire."
More Valuable than Gold
Its rarity and beauty has pushed up the prices of Gypsy jewelry, making it much more valuable than the gold contained in each piece. "These old earrings don't weigh much and the same is true for the star pendants and the hair comb," Barry says by way of example. "But they will cost at least $1,000—if you can find them." Gypsies made cuff bracelets for men, women and children. They were sold in pairs so the owner could wear one on each wrist; they now sell for thousands of dollars.
The gold in the Gypsy-made belt that Barry displayed weighs more than a pound in total. Today, that much gold would be worth about $5,000. But as a collectible, the belt would be worth "five times that," Barry asserts, putting it in the $25,000 range. "It's amazing this belt never met the melting pot."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.