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The Crowned Jeweler

Bakelite expert Matt Burkholz shares his treasures of the vintage trade

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Vintage jewelry guru Matt Burkholz, who owns Route 66 West in Palm Springs.
Photo by Ethan Kaminsky

 

For the past six years, vintage jewelry guru Matt Burkholz’s Palm Springs store, Route 66 West, has been the “it” destination for collectors from around the world.

In the business for more than 30 years, Burkholz has exhibited on the national show circuit since 1987 and has lectured on the history of 20th-century jewelry at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, among other locations. He’s also written three books, including The Bakelite Collection, published in 1997 and considered the definitive work on Bakelite (castable fire-resistant plastic) jewelry, garnering Burkholz the nickname “The King of Bakelite.”

How did your love affair with jewelry begin?
My grandmother always had great, showy costume and fine jewelry. My grandfather, too — watches and cuff links — and my cousins had a costume jewelry shop at the Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach, where I grew up. 

What draws you to a particular piece?
Color, rarity, finesse, and sometimes humor. Bakelite jewelry is frequently quite whimsical and humorous in tone. There are dangling cherries, charms of schoolbooks, erasers, and pencils.

What’s been your biggest find?
When I moved from New York to California, I happened upon a major collection of vintage couture costume jewelry. It contained the most wonderful Chanel, Miriam Haskell, Coppola & Toppo, and Kenneth Jay Lane. I said “yes” to the hefty price, and in one fell swoop I had more top stuff than I had acquired in the prior five years.

What was your first vintage jewelry purchase?
A classic 1930s art deco Bakelite dangling cherries pin.

Who is your favorite jewelry designer?
I’m primarily known for selling the finest vintage Bakelite, celluloid, and acrylic costume jewelry anywhere. I also sell ’30s through ’70s vintage costume jewelry and ’80s through early 21st-century designer couture jewelry. Chanel from 2001 isn’t made anymore, so I sell things that are out of production and thus collectible. I love Chanel’s work, but I’m also a fan of Judith Hendler’s space-age acrylic jewelry from the ’70s and Haskell’s work in intricate baroque pearls, Venetian and Czechoslovakian glass, and Austrian rhinestones. Lacroix jewelry fascinates me too.

What draws you to the desert?
I first came to the desert when I did trade shows in Los Angeles, and then to Palm Springs for the first Modernism antiques show. I’ve done it every year since and am integrally involved with many aspects of Modernism Week. In 2014, I did the antiques show, co-produced Jet Set Style — the Modernism vintage fashion show — with Bill Miller, and directed a tour of architect Hugh Kaptur’s iconic homes. So, I’ve taken the town to heart, and I’m running with it! The draw: Glamour, weather, and a midcentury modern architecture lifestyle.

What is your favorite era for vintage jewelry?
I’m a late ’50s, early ’60s atomic-age/classic Hollywood glamour hybrid. Judy Jetson meets Lana Turner.

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