Talkin’ JEWELS: Erie Basin’s Russell Whitmore

On Jewelry: Erie Basin’s Russell Whitmore

Erie Basin is a small antique store in Red Hook, Brooklyn (with an online shop, too), and I recently emailed proprietor Russell Whitmore to see if he’d be game to answer a few questions over email AND send me his entire stock for free, which he did, and did not.

Edith Zimmerman: I love Erie Basin. Not just the jewelry but also the way you use Tumblr and Instagram and the general tone you maintain throughout. Plus the store itself, which is so cool and welcoming.

Russell Whitmore: Thanks, that’s nice to hear. When I opened back in 2006, I wanted to make antiques more approachable, and also more relevant. I think lots of people, especially in my generation, didn’t realize how cool, and surprisingly modern, old stuff could be. Even though a lot of contemporary designers were borrowing from vintage designs, back in 2006 words like Victorian and Deco suggested stuffiness. And venues for antique jewelry in New York were mostly very high end, so I wanted to do something more accessible.

Do you have a favorite piece that’s for sale right now?

I really like this Russian aquamarine necklace. It’s a favorite period of design, around the turn of the century, when things looked both ancient and futuristic at once.

Are there any [sold] pieces you still think about?

Yes, lots actually. Feeling nostalgic comes with the territory in this business. There were things I didn’t fully appreciate until they were gone.

How did you get into old jewelry? (Also, if you don’t mind, how old are you, and where are you from?)

I sort of grew up around antiques, but not jewelry specifically. My parents really like antiques. I also went to college in a part of rural Ohio where there’s nothing to do but go to antique shops (and farm supply stores). I originally wanted to deal in antique furniture, but quickly learned how inconvenient it is to lug big stuff around. So I gradually turned to smaller and smaller things, and then mostly to jewelry. I’m 33 and grew up in Waukegan, Illinois.

Do you remember the first item you found to later sell?

Yes, I kept it as a souvenir actually — a little bronze figurine of a man reading from a book.

I’ve loved the mourning jewelry you’ve featured. In ways mourning and memento mori jewelry seem more important and meaningful than wedding/engagement jewelry, sometimes. Or at least more “permanent,” or something. Not that it’s a contest. Although that would be kind of an interesting contest. I also love the amethyst mourning ring you’ve mentioned elsewhere.

Yeah, I know what you mean about mourning jewelry — it’s very romantic. In late Georgian jewelry there’s a lot of overlap in symbolism for romantic love and for mourning, which seems appropriate. We are lucky to live in a time and place where death is rare, but it’s changed the culture around it. Now it’s hard to imagine death being an occasion to get some fancy jewelry made.

Do you wear much jewelry yourself?

Just a gold wedding band. When I opened the store I thought maybe I should wear some jewelry, but that never happened. My wife wears lots of nice things I’ve found though.

Does it feel particularly satisfying to witness/facilitate pairing someone with a particular item?

Absolutely. We sell a lot of engagement rings and wedding bands, which is very rewarding. But it’s satisfying to find an owner for everything actually. I feel so grateful for the customers we have — they’re the best. I’ve made lots of friends over the years.

Are there any crazy jewelry stories or secrets that you’ve heard or learned?

Well I keep thinking about the Cheapside Hoard lately, and how amazing it would be to find a big wooden box full of 16th and 17th century jewels myself. Twice people have come in with big stashes of jewelry that had been locked in boxes for a very long time. It’s incredible to see things that have been stopped in time like that, without wear or any tinkering by some meddlesome 20th-century jeweler. Once someone brought in the contents of a chest that hadn’t been opened since the 1890s. There was tons of jewelry, and all really really nice stuff. It wasn’t for sale, but it was great to see.

Are there types of jewelry you think are currently underappreciated? (I would love it if crowns made a comeback, personally.)

Funny you mention crowns, because I was thinking tiaras. There are some super amazing tiaras out there, but there aren’t many buyers for them. I think maybe people see them as a little silly — like dressing up as a princess or something. Maybe we can bring them back.

But a whole era that I think is under appreciated is the 1940s. I love ’40s jewelry — it treads a nice line between Art Deco and mid-century. But it also marks a significant transition in how jewelry is made. After the war, labor became much more expensive, and intricate hand-made jewelry became unaffordable. So jewelers swapped labor intensive practices for pieces that were cast, but heavier in metal. I think that’s where the modern conception of equating quality with weight comes from.

What does a typical day of jewelry-hunting look like? I know you find stuff both in and outside NYC — and that lots of it now comes directly to you. Do you go looking for new stuff solo, mostly?

When I started out, I sort of wandered aimlessly, looking for good sources. I did a lot of traveling, and often came back empty-handed. Over time, I’ve developed relationships with a handful of people that consistently find nice things, so now I can buy much more efficiently. I travel to the midwest every month or two to buy from certain people. One of my best sources is a jeweler in Milwaukee, who like most any jeweler these days, buys gold. It’s not very glamorous, but I sit in his back room for four or five hours and sort through big messy containers piled with gold and platinum jewelry. Some really incredible stuff turns up there.

Buying right in New York is great, too. So much nice jewelry was made here and in Newark around the turn of the century. A lot of it is still here.

I mostly shop alone these days, but before we had a little baby, my wife Sara came along a lot. Her taste was incredibly helpful when I started out — steering me away from things that weren’t wearable, or that were just plain ugly.

[Congratulations!] Anything coming up for Erie Basin?

Like everyone and their mother, I’m thinking of starting a jewelry line of my own. It’s partly out of necessity — I have so many antique stones, and I need to do something with them. So far I’ve made one thing.