You never know who you’re going to run into at a trade show, especially if it’s open to the public. But between the lookie-loos and chatty Cathys, you could end up making a very fortuitous contact. Maybe it’s a stylist or a member of the press.
In Los Angeles, it very well could be someone from the costume design department of a major TV show. That’s what happened to Bay Area–based vintage jewelry dealer Lisa Kramer of Lisa Kramer Vintage when the assistant to costume designer Hala Bahmet stopped by her booth early last year at the Pickwick Vintage Show. As Kramer soon learned, Bahmet is the costume designer for NBC’s This Is Us. You may have heard of it.
If you’ve been watching season six of the hit show, you may have seen some of Kramer’s jewels in action. “On a show like This Is Us, because it’s a large cast with a storyline that happens over multiple time frames, the costume department needs a lot of stuff, but it can’t be very expensive,” says Kramer, who also explained these pros aren’t borrowing or renting jewels, they’re purchasing them. “The show more or less takes place from the 1950s through the present day, and I had a lot of very affordable costume jewelry inventory that I’ve collected over the years.”
Over the next few months, Kramer would make the drive to L.A. to meet Bahmet for a series of appointments. But not on the Paramount studio lot, which restricted visitors due to the pandemic. “We met in the garden of her house, and she was remarkably fast, choosing the pieces in under an hour,” she says. “Every time, I would bring about 15 to 16 trays, and she would buy about two trays’ worth of of jewelry.”
After six seasons, the series finale of This Is Us will air on May 24. So now seemed like the perfect time to get to know Kramer a little better. Check out our conversation below (the responses have been lightly edited for clarity).
It must have been quite something to observe Hala Bahmet curating her This Is Us selects from your piles of jewels. Did you learn anything from the experience?
One of the things I learned from Hala is they have to be very careful about high-shine metal. There’s a character who plays the wedding planner in the show, and she’s wearing a big, gorgeous silver necklace. On-screen it looks like it’s an amazing designer piece, but in person the finish was dull, which ended up being to its advantage on camera because you have to be careful of the flare from lights reflecting and also the metal’s surface catching a reflection of the cameraperson or other actors. Sometimes she would look at a necklace, and it would have too many moving, dangling parts, which are a problem because of continuity—if they’re filming a scene and doing a distance shot, and then refilming it for a close-up, you don’t want any elements of the jewel to have moved. Jewelry that moves and dangles can also be too noisy—the mic picks up everything.
Let’s talk about your career path. How did you end up in the world of vintage and estate jewelry?
I had a long career working as an architect and construction manager. I’ve loved vintage clothing and jewelry since I was a teenager, and about 20 years ago, shortly after I purchased my house, I started going to a lot of auctions and estate sales, and I started seeing and buying all this great vintage clothing and jewelry. A friend was running a little vintage clothing shop and having monthly sales out of her garage, and she asked me if I wanted to set up card table and sell my goods. I did—and I loved it! So I started buying and selling a bit more, just as a side business. And then in 2012, I got laid off and had to really decide if I wanted to look for another full-time job. My aging parents were in Florida and going back and forth to visit them takes a lot of time. Starting a new job would get me back to two weeks of vacation per year, so I decided to make the vintage jewelry enterprise my primary business. Because, by that point, I had pretty much stopped selling clothing and was focused on jewelry. And now that it’s a full-time job, I’m selling a lot more mid- to higher-end pieces.
What would you say your specialty is as a vintage jewelry dealer? What are you known for?
I think what I am known for is that I love researching the jewelry I sell. I love learning about and identifying things from different eras. In terms of aesthetics, I tend to like older pieces that have a sleek and modern feel. I spread across a large number of eras and don’t specialize in a time frame. But I like pieces that are design driven and that very much speak to their era. I tend to go for a cleaner aesthetic, although there are things that are very elaborate. For instance, I love archaeological revival jewelry, which also is part of my background. My undergraduate degree [from the University of Pennsylvania] is in anthropology, where I was focusing a good portion of my studies on archaeology. As a work-study job, I assisted one of the faculty members who was an Egyptologist and spent one summer participating in a dig.
Do you make a beeline for signed jewels? What designers are you always theoretically on the hunt for?
I’m more focused on aesthetics. I first go for the visual, and then I see what the marks are and what they tell me. I tend to go for more unusual pieces. After the design, I look to the materials. So, for instance, I love the brutalist work of the sculptor Pal Kepenyes, who worked in bronze. The material has absolutely no intrinsic value, but I love the sculptural quality of his jewelry. I probably differ from a lot of other jewelry sellers in that I actually feel that focusing on intrinsic value can detract from appreciating the artistry in jewelry. It’s nice when it’s made in gold, but I think people should buy a piece because they think it’s beautiful. And makes them feel good.
What are the most treasured pieces in your personal collection?
One is a 1960s bracelet that was my mother’s, and one is a watch bracelet that was my paternal grandmother’s. They’re treasured for sentimental reasons. In terms of what I end up wearing the most, I’m an earring person. I recently acquired an incredible pair of Victorian earrings in gold with fine lines of blue and black enamel. They’re Victorian visually, but there’s something also very modern-looking about them.
I know vintage jewelry doesn’t really lend itself to trend tracking, but have you observed any shifts in consumer tastes that might be helpful to JCK’s audience of jewelry professionals?
I think you’re probably aware that for the past few years it’s been all about gold, and it’s been charms and chains. But I do think I’m beginning to see the start of a trend toward silver jewelry. I can’t tell you any details, but there’s one piece I sold a couple of months ago that ended up on the red carpet at the 2022 Oscars. Silver. That was a real shock and not something I would have expected to see! You can get bigger, more sculptural pieces in silver. To get anything of size in gold—if it’s going to be real gold—it’s just going to be an absolute fortune. I know some people don’t consider silver fine jewelry. But silver is still a precious metal.
What’s on your show calendar this year? Where can we shop with you in person?
I’ll be in Los Angeles monthly for the Pickwick Vintage Show with the exception of June because I’m finally taking a vacation. I’m thinking about doing the Baltimore Art, Antique & Jewelry show in October, and possibly the Manhattan Vintage Show in October as well. And there’s also the Hillsborough show [in San Mateo, Calif.] in November.
Top (clockwise, from left): Former architect and construction manager Lisa Kramer started her vintage jewelry business out of a friend’s garage. “A massive modernist ring” by Juha Koskela, a Finnish jewelry designer known as a modern master of anticlastic raising, which is a “a metalworking technique in which sheet metal is shaped into complex curves that are at right angles to each other,” according to Kramer. A mid-20th-century brooch by Marsh and Co., “a pioneer in the use of blackened steel in fine jewelry,” says Kramer. Prices on request. (All photos courtesy of Lisa Kramer Vintage; This Is Us screenshots used with permission from the NBC costume department.)
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