Six-legged creatures, blooming baskets of rubies, and dazzling fairies await collectors in the know at Paris's most exclusive vintage jewelers
Jean Marie del Moral
| Credit: Jean Marie del Moral

"This is where you would have bought your jewelry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century," Janet Mavec tells me as we sweep across the Place Vendôme on a brilliantly sunny Paris morning. A hundred-odd years later, we're searching for the same treasures our shopping forebears lusted after: old mine-cut diamond bracelets, foil-backed emerald earrings, intaglio cameos, and other sparkling survivors from the last few centuries. Janet is an antique-jewelry dealer, and I've undertaken to follow her around the French capital to uncover some of her secrets, and maybe pick up a souvenir or two of my own.

I first made Janet's acquaintance when I wandered into her exquisite jewelry shop across from the Whitney Museum on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. I fell in love with a cherub brooch dating from the turn of the (18th) century, came to my senses, and then bought it anyway. That afternoon I found out one difference between the hopelessly romantic amateur collector (me) and the professional dealer (Janet): I was wearing a pretty, if completely unreliable, Art Deco wristwatch. Janet, despite her halo of Pre-Raphaelite hair and slim hands laden with sapphires and diamonds, had opted for a foolproof Swatch.

THIS GLORIOUS DAY, WE'RE EN ROUTE TO MEET ALAIN CARTIER, scion of the renowned family, at Café Ladurée on the Rue Royale, a 150-year-old tearoom that's a bit of a jewel box itself. Monsieur Cartier deals privately in antique Cartier jewelry (the family sold its interest in the shops years ago), and he has brought along a few baubles for our delectation, items as mouthwatering as the iced cakes Ladurée specializes in. After we choose our pastries—no easy task—Alain pulls out the preferred carrying case of the serious dealer, a crumpled shopping bag, and reveals a circa-1930 Cartier cigarette case (all Cartier jewelry is precisely hallmarked, so pinpointing dates is easy) with an enameled 18-karat gold Op Art cover as dizzying as an Escher print. It is, alas, of limited use in these nonsmoking days. More tantalizing are the two watches he takes from his bag next: a classic tank from 1942 and a strikingly modern version from 1959, with subtle lines replacing numerals. They're priced at about $7,000 and $4,000, respectively—in the same ballpark as their descendants, the modern quartz-movement watches sold at Cartiers all over the world—and they're sorely tempting, especially when you notice how stylish Alain's wrist looks, sporting a 1936 tank, as he lifts cup to lip.

Alain leaves us (he's off to visit a guy who repairs rock-crystal purse clasps, the kind of service you can still find in Paris), and Janet and I begin our walk down the Rue St.-Honoré, which contains many of Paris's finest antique-jewelry shops. The stores, with their dusty, bijou-crammed windows and old-fashioned wooden signs, are just the sort of places Honoré de Balzac, himself a serious collector, would have haunted, and a lot of them look as if they've been in business since his day.

I'm mulling this over as Janet gives me a quick lesson in French antique jewelry: what the English-speaking world refers to as Victorian is called Napoleon III here; French dealers don't mind if pieces are dirty (you'll sometimes find old makeup caked behind the stones); by definition, all French antique gold is 18-karat; weight is only one of many factors to consider with old pieces—cut and setting can be equally compelling. Perhaps most important, Janet tells me, is to listen: if a dealer waffles when asked outright about quality or provenance, assume the worst.

Just up the street, at a shop called G. Linde, Janet spies two huge heart-shaped coral earrings dating from about 1860, carved with flowers and tiny bees. This find reveals our shared passion for insect jewelry—before the trip is over we'll have admired mosquitoes, beetles, ants, wasps, and a swarm of other little critters. (Nineteenth-century jewelers were great naturalists, and their bug designs are wonderfully realistic.) The ear bobs are impressive, but I adore a hanging timepiece shaped like a clipped egg and rimmed with diamonds that looks as if it might have enhanced the neck of Zelda Fitzgerald. I imagine it's from the 1920's, but in any case, its $4,500 price tag ensures that I'll be leaving the shop watchless.

Prices are also rather daunting at Lydia Courteille. "This is the most stylish shop in Paris," Janet says with a sigh, admiring a crystal-and-diamond lorgnette, a pink topaz diamond-winged fly, and a late-19th-century amethyst collaret. The necklace costs about $9,000 but, Janet says, is a very good value, considering the quality.

JUST WHEN IT SEEMS AS IF THE PRICES WILL DEFEAT US BOTH (Janet can't find anything she can afford to resell; I can't find anything I can afford, period), we discover a shop with more encouraging tariffs: Dary's, a Victorian—or, one should say, Napoleon III—treasure trove of miniature porcelain shoes, Edwardian powder boxes, enameled perfume vials, sterling picture frames, metal-mesh flapper purses, and jewelry that ranges from goofy mid-century plastic pieces to diamond extravagances. You can't just accumulate this kind of merchandise overnight, and in fact, Colette Jacob, the store's chic proprietor, tells us that her family has been here since 1932. Janet makes a beeline for a flower brooch done in paste, the same stuff that ruined lives in Guy de Maupassant's famous story "The Necklace"; I'm besotted with a 1920's Art Deco platinum ring that looks like a striped crimson (rubies) and white (guess) cushion. "Dead chic," Janet agrees.

The next day, after a night spent dreaming of diamond centipedes and ruby pillows, we head for the Louvre des Antiquaires, a three-story multi-dealer complex in the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, just across from the Louvre proper. The Louvre des Antiquaires is a must for any dealer visiting Paris, but it appeals to non-professionals as well: most shops here display their entire stock in their windows, so you can browse to your heart's content without being intimidated by a salesperson. The shops specialize in everything from militaria to Scandinavian modern furniture, and there's plenty of jewelry, with most of the high-end dealers congregating on the lower level.

At a little shop in the arcade called Ar'Them, the young, hip dealer glances up from the British antiques newspaper he's reading to answer Janet's excited inquiry about an elaborate gold and white-enamel bracelet in the window. Janet wants to know if it's by one of her favorite craftsmen, a 19th-century master named Falize. It is, confirms the dealer, who looks as if he should be teaching semiotics at the Sorbonne. Just as Janet snaps it on her wrist, a fellow walks in carrying a telltale paper bag. It turns out to contain three rings he's interested in selling: two by Falize, the third by René Lalique. "Two Falizes and a Lalique all at once!" Janet rhapsodizes. "This would never happen in New York!"

On a cloud of excitement, we float down the corridor to a shop called Balian, where Janet spots what may be a fourth Falize sighting: a gold and silver flower basket whose blooms take their color from rubies, sapphires, citrines, and the rare green stones known as demantoid garnets. Once inside, Janet chats with the dealers, a glamorous brother-and-sister team, and tries on another star of their collection, a platinum and diamond Art Deco bracelet of the sort William Randolph Hearst might have given Marion Davies. "An interesting link," says Janet, suddenly a master of understatement. "Not a boring link."

While she's pondering the bracelet, I notice a small gold pocket watch with an intricately enameled cover depicting two fairies gamboling on a seesaw that's balanced on a diamond fulcrum. Though it seems useless, I steel myself and ask the price. I am so visibly stunned by the reply that the dealer, unbidden, translates francs to dollars: a mere $400. But the news is not all good—a hopeful winding brings nary a whisper of a tick or other sign of life within. Though it would make a splendid pendant, working or not, I find myself hesitating—tomorrow we're going to Paris's most famous flea market, and who knows what temptations await?

Janet's husband, Wayne Nordberg, joins us the next morning for our excursion to the massive St.-Ouen flea market at Porte de Clignancourt. After an hour or so of strolling the giant mart, Janet pronounces it best for three things: little dogs (lolling on antique chairs and otherwise decorating their owners' booths); thick, incredibly sweet hot chocolate (for sale by vendors from old-fashioned carts); and French decorative accessories (Janet and Wayne end up buying a chandelier). To this I add enamel kitchenware, vintage Hermès bags, and 19th-century editions of the Gazette du Bon Ton.

Unfortunately, none of the above is jewelry. Still, we persevere, and are eventually rewarded by the discovery of Olwen Forest, an English woman who has a booth in the swanky indoor Marché Serpette in St.-Ouen and specializes in seductive costume pieces from the golden age of Hollywood. They're not Janet's usual thing, but they're irresistible, so many miles from Tinseltown: lavender glass earrings by Schiaparelli, spectacular Gothic crosses and pearls from the house of Chanel, and an earring-and-necklace suite by Joseff of Hollywood. The latter pieces are shaped like sea monsters; Ms. Forest keeps them next to a photograph that shows Pier Angeli, the late starlet once betrothed to James Dean, wearing an identical set. To our mutual delight, Janet and I encounter creepy crawlers even here: they're circa-1930, big and bright, with six golden metal legs and Bakelite bodies.

Our luck has indeed changed—a few minutes later we find Patricia Timsit, whose stock is far older and more finely wrought than Forest's. Quickly, Janet is deep in negotiations with Timsit, their heads bent together over a calculator and a velvet tray full of diamond-winged mosquitoes and such. As for me, thoughts keep dancing back to a certain broken pocket watch. Suddenly the urge overcomes me—I bid good-bye and hop on the Métro to speed, hell-for-leather, back to the Louvre des Antiquaires, seized with the vision that a canny collector will have snatched up my fairy watch just minutes before I get there. But when I reach Balian, $400 worth of francs hot in my hand, my little sprites are ready and waiting for me to take them on what will likely be their first plane ride.


J. Marec & Co. 946 Madison Ave., New York; 212/517-7665.
Alain Cartier 33-1/45-55-71-04.
G. Linde 374 Rue St.-Honoré; 33-1/42-60-06-12.
Lydia Courteille 231 Rue St.-Honoré; 33-1/42-61-11-71.
Dary's 362 Rue St.-Honoré; 33-1/42-60-95-23.
Ar'Them Louvre des Antiquaires, 2 Place du Palais-Royal; 33-1/42-60-54-22.
Balian Louvre des Antiquaires, 2 Place du Palais-Royal; 33-1/42-60-17-05.
Olwen Forest Marché Serpette, Allée 3, Stands 5 and 7, 110 Rue des Rosiers, St.-Ouen; 33-1/40-11-96-38.
Patricia Timsit Marché Serpette, Allée 1, Stand 30 bis, 110 Rue des Rosiers, St.-Ouen; 33-1/40-10-18-94.