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Shoppers Turn to the Web to Buy Their Baubles

As jewelry splurges move online, it seems a true gem is never out of reach

When Marilyn Monroe purred, “Talk to me, Harry Winston,” she was not sitting in front of a computer, waiting for a live chat to commence. It was 1953, and Monroe was simply describing the way she and other glamour pusses had been acquiring jewelry for decades, for centuries!

Back then, you went to a shop that was haughty and hushed. You sat at a table and a very proper salesperson presented dazzlers laid out on a velvet tray. Lots of times, pretty much almost all the time, there was a man with you, because buying jewelry for yourself in those antediluvian days was considered weird, and sort of sad.

But fast forward: If Monroe were alive today (she would be 88 years old!), she might well be sitting up in her bed in her pajamas, trolling sites like Latest Revival and Stone & Strand, looking for exquisite jewelry that with a click and a sigh would be in the mail before she fell asleep.   

In my case, the Internet searches that occupy far too much of my waking life involve jewelry that was old when Lady Mary and Lady Edith were hanging out in their imaginary drawing room. The Georgian and Victorian trifles I favor were made long before anyone thought of radio, radium or even railroads. 

When I started collecting, I was restricted to the sellers in my hometown, and the occasional antique show. Now every vintage dealer from Sheboygan to Singapore is at my feet, or at least my fingertips. It’s heaven—no suspicious shop owner to eye me warily when I visit an item 1,000 times. And really, if it’s perfectly acceptable to find a suitable spouse on a website, why shouldn’t I use it to locate a lavaliere? 

But this panacea has its down-side. (Don’t all panaceas?)  You unwrap that UPS box, heart bursting, only to see that the gold of the ring is not quite as rosy as you thought it would be, the stones not quite as glittery, the whole thing is, well, smaller than you thought from the photo. (Of course you should have looked at the carat chart—also readily available on the Internet!—to see how big .03 carats really is.) But let’s not dwell on the dark side: For every disappointing unboxing, there is the unalloyed joy when your little darling, arriving from some far-flung address, exceeds even your wildest imagination.

Not everyone is like me, searching websites for baubles from the long-vanished past. Lots of people who prefer brand new pieces apparently have no compunction about spending big bucks on items they’ve only seen in two dimensions.  At Cartier, which started selling online in 2010, a source tells me that up to oh, say, $40,000 or $50,000, customers don’t even bother to call the store, but are content to Add to Cart. “Fine jewelry is an important growth category for us, more than doubling year on year with 70 percent of the sales happening online,” says Natalie Kingham, the buying director for fashion e-commerce site Matchesfashion.com.

This hybrid selling arrangement apparently exists throughout the jewelry market. My friend Steve Herdenian, who sells vintage jewelry from a busy booth in New York City’s 47th Street diamond district, says that, more and more, shoppers find out about his existence when a happy customer Instagrams a purchase. Her friends see the picture and then wander over to Steve’s on their lunch hour, where they rapidly fall into a bottomless pit of platinum and diamonds, drowning in desire.

But of course all this information, this ability to traverse the world in search of the objects that will make you happy, can be slightly too much of a good thing. In Vienna on a lost afternoon a few years ago, I passed a tiny shop where two elderly
ladies sat sipping tea. In the window was a gold charm with an enameled blue rat and a message on the back dated 1909. (I mean, come on, you don’t see these everyday.) I was besotted. Were you ever haunted by a rodent? Back home, I hunted down the shop’s email address and sent off a missive without much hope. Two minutes later the tea-drinkers wrote me back, and two seconds after that, Ratatouille’s photo was filling my screen.  Those ladies may have looked like characters out of The Third Man, but they took Visa.

Pictured in main: Necklace in 18-karat gold and platinum with emerald and diamonds, price upon request, DAVID WEBB, davidwebb.com. Metropolis Dome ring with diamonds and moonstone, $3,950, IVANKA TRUMP FINE JEWELRY, ivankatrumpcollection.com. Reine de Naples Mini watch in 18-karat gold with diamond, sapphire-crystal and mother of pearl, $35,100, BREGUET, breguet.com

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