388 Van Brunt St., Brooklyn, N.Y.
It’s no easy feat making it to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, but it’s worth the trek for a visit to the 4-year-old Erie Basin. Named for the old waterway that leads into the Gowanus Canal, the 500-square-foot shop is a treasure trove of unusual antiques—from an amethyst Georgian-era mourning ring dated 1765 to double Albert watch fobs to an enormous folk-art chain made entirely of bottle caps. “I didn’t want to set it up like a typical jewelry store,” says owner Russell Whitmore, whose hand-picked eclectic mix keeps a bead on both contemporary taste and wallets (his prices range from $20 to $5,000). “It’s more of a curated space.” Whitmore is most interested in jewelry from the classical and Victorian eras. While he carries one 21st-century artist (Lee Hale) and is beginning to sprinkle in a few Art Deco gems, he tends to draw the line at post-1940s objects. “It’s a small stock,” he admits, “but it’s carefully chosen.”
Whitmore hits the road at least once a week for buying trips in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest and always has dealers on the lookout. “The nice thing about antiques as opposed to a regular retail store is where they might get new things every couple of months, I have new things coming in every day,” he says. As for his ample assortment of engagement rings, he finds most of those goodies right across the bridge in Manhattan. “A lot of the stuff that was made in the 1920s is still here,” he adds.
Through the Looking Glass
The cases at Erie Basin display more than just the goods—they display information about each piece and (gasp!) the price. “I’ve never liked jewelry stores where you don’t know what you’re looking at, especially antiques,” says Whitmore, who aims to have each piece go to a “good home.” The shop is surprisingly casual given its contents, and everyone from locals to serious collectors wanders in to check out the latest stock. (There’s even a neighborhood kid who drops by to play with the Egyptian screen.)
Learning the Trade
Though he studied art history at Kenyon College in Ohio, Whitmore admits he is mostly self-taught when it comes to the antique jewelry business. Fortunately, he found a solid group of mentors early on. “When I was first starting out, the older dealers showed me how to identify things,” he explains, citing markings, cuts, and constructions. But when it comes right down to it, Whitmore relies on gut instincts. “You hold something in your hands, and you can feel that it’s warm and it’s old.”
On top of its remote location (nary a subway stop in sight), Erie Basin is open only four days a week or by appointment—making it a true destination for locals and tourists alike. “It could’ve been easy to be overlooked in the city,” says Whitmore. “People like things that are out of the way and unexpected.”
Proud of your windows and display cases? Send us photos.