Published November 26. 2012 4:00AM Updated November 28. 2012 3:49PM
Yes, it is the time of year to go select the Christmas tree. Gay Sherman Weintz, however, doesn't have to make a decision between Norwegian spruce and Douglas fir. She has to decide between Trifari and Coro, between Belperon and Lea Stein of Paris. That's because the trees Gay is selecting don't rest in stands on living room floors; they decorate sweaters, blouses, and jackets.
Gay, who lives in Chester, collects and sells costume jewelry, including a large assortment of Christmas tree pins. She is one of the merchants participating in Chester's Holiday Night from
5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7. First Selectman Ed Meehan will turn on the lights on the Christmas tree at the bottom of Maple Street at 6 o'clock to the accompaniment of holiday songs from students at Chester Elementary School.
Shops along Main Street will be open and some 27 vendors will be selling a variety of goods, including handmade items and food at the Chester Meeting House from 5 to 9 p.m. The Chester Hose Company will sell wreaths outside the building. Gay will be at the Century 21 Heritage real estate office in the center of town.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gay is her own best advertisement. She wears a different Christmas tree pin every day, and on the holiday itself, she pins on a favorite that she describes as a chandelier tree with matching earrings.
"I think it's the prettiest," she says.
Christmas trees are only part of her costume jewelry collection: among her other collection passions are large hanging earrings known as chandelier earrings, and big cocktail rings.
"The rings are larger than life-bling, bling, bling," she says.
She likes to find pieces that have appeared in jewelry advertisements, or for which there are patent drawings.
The difference between costume jewelry and fine jewelry, Gay says, goes beyond the bling factor. Fine jewelry would be made of a precious metal-gold, silver or platinum. Costume jewelry is base metal that is gold- or silver-plated-but costume jewelry can be designed with the attention to detail that characterizes the more expensive pieces. Even names like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves St. Laurent have designed costume pieces.
The 1940s to 1960s, according to Gay, marked the high point of costume jewelry design in the United States, and Providence, Rhode Island, was the center of the jewelry industry. European jewelry designers immigrated to this country and brought their skills with them.
"There will never be another time like it," Gays says. "The pieces were incredibly creative, individually designed, and hand crafted. Now everything is stamped out in China."
Vintage costume jewelry, Gay says, is now experiencing something of a vogue, spurred in part by high-profile clients like actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Jessica Alba, who has been photographed wearing jewelry from Gay's collection.
But costume jewelry isn't just for the stars. Gay says recently she saw a clerk in a convenience store with a nice piece of costume jewelry. Gay asked about the maker and instructed the clerk to turn the piece over to see if it had a signature. It did, and all of a sudden it wasn't just a shiny piece of metal, but a pin worth some $125.
"It paid to turn that pin over," she says.
Gay says, in fact, that many people, remembering their grandmother's clunky costume pieces, assume, incorrectly, that the jewelry has scant worth.
"People give it to their children to play with and in the end it all gets dumped in a thrift shop," she says.
"That's where I come in," says Gay, who finds jewelry at thrift shops and estate sales, as well as on the Internet.
Gay herself first became fascinated by costume jewelry as a child by looking at pieces her mother had. She traces her fascination with Christmas tree pins to a gift of just such a pin that she gave her next-door neighbor, Reverend Tim Haut of the Deep River Congregational Church, when she was in 4th grade. Haut wore the pin on his lapel at the church's Christmas pageant.
"Seeing him in the spotlight with the Christmas tree pin, I was just incredibly touched," she recalls.
For Gay, who grew up in Deep River and graduated from Valley Regional High School, the annual church Christmas pageant remains a special experience. She progressed from playing a shepherd as a young child to playing Mary when she was a senior in high school.
"It's just a huge Christmas Eve tradition in Deep River, something very special," she says.
She also met her husband, Sean Weintz, in Deep River; they were best friends growing up, and she confesses he was the first boy she kissed. He moved away in junior high school and the couple reconnected through Facebook. Gay has an eight-year-old son, Chauncey Smith, who lives in Florida.
"I travel back and forth to see him," she says.
Chauncey has already picked up one thing from his mom: he is collecting Christmas tree pins.
Gay is not only a vintage jewelry collection; she is a teacher and a writer. She has a master's degree in education and is a specialist in curriculum development. She worked at the Pensacola New Journal, at which she developed education curriculum supplements to accompany news stories. She has continued to work freelance as a curriculum specialist after downsizing eliminated her newspaper position. Currently, she is involved as a curriculum writer with the Looking For Angola Project in Florida, an archeological venture seeking to find a settlement once populated by escaped slaves and Seminole Indians.
Gay says that the beauty of the rings, pins, and earrings she collects is not simply in the pieces themselves, but what they did for their wearers, too. It was a democratization of the jewelry process. Advanced techniques of cutting and polishing meant that pieces of glass could convincingly simulate precious stones.
"With the techniques, people were able to create pieces that looked like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds," she says. "Every woman could look like a queen."
Chester Holiday Night
Friday, Dec. 7 starting at 5 p.m.
Tree lighting at 6 p.m. at the bottom of Maple Street
To learn more about Gay Sherman Weintz's jewelry collections, visit her online shop at www.rubylane.com/shops/under-on-by-the-sea.