When Connie Parente says she is sitting in a sea of jewellery in her work studio in Los Angeles, it is an apt depiction. She literally has hundreds of thousands of pieces of vintage costume jewellery and it’s a spread that could overwhelm a bystander at first glance. Parente’s magpie eye and long professional experience as a costume jewellery dealer allow her to immediately narrow her concentration to her best-in-show for this hour, as her hand zooms in to cradle the last of the day’s sale pieces she is determined to photograph and post online.
It’s not only jewellery that jostles for her attention. She’s been fielding nothing but enquiries since she opened her eyes that morning, not to mention that she is rarely in bed before 3am. Whether it’s daytime or in the middle of the night, the calls and messages fly through from New York to Berlin. Rest is impeded and far less urgent than the pull of beauty and sales.
A workaholic by temperament, Parente is a known fixture at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Los Angeles, Santa Monica Airport Antique Market and Southern California’s Long Beach Antique Market. Her treasured wares range from names like Trifari, Marcel Boucher, Hobe, Eisenberg, Coro and Schiaparelli, to more modern designer fashion jewellery brands, such as Chanel, Lagerfeld, YSL, Dominique Aurientis, Vrba and Iradj Moini.
With the global pandemic banishing the promise of springtime market day browsing and forcing weeks-long closures at iconic LA flea markets, the 71-year-old has been navigating the worry of the lockdown.
She needn’t have been concerned; her Instagram (which she has been building for the last few years) exploded during this period, with particular interest from Asia-based vintage costume jewellery admirers, including fashion boutique owners in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The erudite Parente, herself a lover of chinoiserie, has also caught the eye of a younger following. Despite having been in the industry for five decades, Parente’s work enthusiasm is undeniable. The pleasure she gets from handling and selling jewellery keeps her as engaged and energised as many of the younger friends in her personal circle. Surrounded by eccentric, creative people her whole life, she continues to forge friendships with young artists like performer and model Violet Chachki. A casual mention of bringing David Bowie to a party in the early 1970s is not for effect — it’s just a fact of her colourful bohemian history.
Her customer list has always been glamorous, including such distinct names from the entertainment world as Diana Ross, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson and Dita Von Teese.
Having arrived in Los Angeles in 1969 after a year at Washington University, the St. Louis-born Parente had initially planned on becoming a fashion designer. She soon found friends in costumers and stylists who were drawn to her personal style and maximalist way of wearing jewellery — such as having rings as a permanent fixture on each long finger.
Settling into her new city via a sales job at a cult fashion boutique frequented by celebrities, it was clear her eye for adornment was determined to take priority over clothes design. She was eventually made the accessories buyer, scouring the early 1970s market scene for Bakelite and celluloid bracelets.
Relying on her keen eye for picking unusual and eye-catching vintage pieces, her stylist friends mined her inventory for their shoots. Some have featured in iconic pop videos, like Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls and Madonna’s Material Girl, as well as on cult rock album covers like Hole’s Live Through This.
In fact, Parente’s rhinestone treasures completed Madonna’s 1991 Academy Awards’ Old Hollywood look — the perfectly primed aesthetic for the year, with Dick Tracy storming the nominations. While not usually a jewellery designer, Parente has created pieces for movies like The Bodyguard, where she designed the jewellery worn by Whitney Houston’s character.
In the realm of vintage costume jewellery, admirers often confess to finding joy in whimsical and fantastical creations rather than its modest materials, but Parente doesn’t think rhinestones deserve to be overshadowed by its gem-quality counterparts.
“Diamond is my birthstone, but I find white diamonds boring. I always say, ‘I’ll take a diamond only if it’s pink, yellow or green.’”
When did your interest in jewellery begin?
I have always loved old things. I prefer things that are handed down or used because they have a life of their own. I was obsessed with estate jewellery ever since I was a little girl. Every time I visited the department store, the estate jewellery counter was my favourite place. My work as a vintage costume jewellery dealer officially began when I was in high school, where I used to frequent places like the Salvation Army stores. At 16, I traded vintage dresses from the 1920s and 1930s for celluloid bracelets from the 1920s from local antique dealers. I learnt a lot from these traders; it was also a means for me to acquire items that I wanted. Since I couldn’t afford to pay for them, I learnt to trade or find things that other people wanted. It was a constant upgrading situation for me.
Did your upbringing influence your love of jewellery?
My father and uncle were famous restaurateurs; celebrities dined at my father’s restaurant whenever they came to St. Louis. Both my parents were very stylish and glamorous rebels: my father was a very well-groomed and elegant man who had all his clothes custom-made; my mother loved her rhinestones, and as a child, I used to love watching her dress up. I remember two of my mother’s best friends — a woman who had been a debutante in the 1920s and a gorgeous Parisian model, both of whom were always wearing jewellery. As a child, I spent a lot of time around grown-ups who were dressed up.
How has the pandemic been treating you?
I am even busier now: every second of every single day. It’s usually around 12 to 16 hours non-stop. People crave for beauty more than ever right now. I think this period has made my clients shop more than usual. Perhaps it’s because everybody’s bored with no place to go shopping; it has made many hungry for jewellery.
Who are some of your main customers?
Japanese were big lovers of American vintage costume jewellery. Of late, I have Chinese clients buying like crazy as major collectors of high-end designer costume jewellery.
What pieces are your Asian clients enjoying?
I have older Chinese clients who buy antique pieces from the early 20th century and are seeking to buy back Chinese items like coral, jade and cloisonné pieces. Some of them are also interested in American designers. However, it’s the young ones who are really spending on American fashion jewellery. They are twentysomethings with great taste. I love that they are young.
What is your advice for someone who’s starting a vintage jewellery collection?
As a collector myself practically since birth, the way I feel about collecting anything is: listen to your heart. Don’t focus so much on who made it or when it’s from, than if the piece speaks to you. I didn’t know anything when I first started but my taste and eyes drew me to things that were rare without me even knowing about them.
There are collectors who research everything and get very technical. I am not one of those people. I just let my eyes choose and then my heart will follow, if that piece is meant for me. I would rather have one magnificent thing than 10 pieces of average quality that may have been a bargain but don’t really make my heart flutter.
Who do you particularly enjoy discussing jewellery with?
Dita Von Teese. She is so fabulous and very kind — to me, that’s the sexiest kind of woman. She’s the only celebrity that I’ve worked with who consistently gives me credit during interviews. We’ve known each other from way back when she was just a pretty girl who dressed cutely at my vintage clothing shows. I never even knew she was a burlesque dancer until she asked if I would put together some jewellery for her Playboy cover shoot. That was the beginning of our personal relationship. Like me, she doesn’t seek out any one designer but chooses pieces based on the appeal of the design. Her preference are pieces made from the 1930s and 1940s, and she’s chosen Trifari, Boucher, Eisenberg and DeLillo beauties, plus more contemporary pieces by Vrba. She also enjoys big sprays. We have the same maximalist interiors taste and I found her the most amazing pair of art deco floor lamps once.
Where should travellers seeking the golden age of Hollywood in Los Angeles go?
Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown LA. It’s the oldest cafeteria in Los Angeles and was founded in 1931. That’s a total trip, with several floors of very fascinating decor and lots of taxidermy; it’s frozen in time from the art deco era.
What was the last piece of jewellery that excited you?
I am easily excited. I’ve been going through my archives to keep sane during this time at home. I found a rare signed Marcel Boucher fox face and unearthed one of my rarest pieces — a carved Lucite hand holding a metal orchid from the beginning of World War II.
What do you love most about your job?
Even though I should be more concerned with eras and decades, I just love looking at jewellery. Whether an item is signed or not doesn’t make it any less or more beautiful to me. Most of my favourite pieces in my personal collection are unsigned and I couldn’t care less. It is interesting to know who designed the piece but it’s not my first priority.
This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.