Attending a CJCI Convention: A First-Timer’s Perspective

by Kathryn Drury Wagner – Exclusively for CJCI

An inside view of the year’s biggest costume jewelry event.

When I told my husband about the upcoming conference for Costume Jewelry Collectors International, I said, “This is the kind of thing I want to go to in the future.” To my surprise, he suggested, “Go this year. Let’s figure out a way to make it work.” I couldn’t believe I was going to get to leave my small children behind, and play instead with grownups at the Razzle Dazzle ‘Em Vintage Chicago-Style Weekend, also known as CJCI Convention 2014.

Kathryn Drury Wagner with Ron Uchal at the Razzle Dazzle 'Em Prohibition Party at CJCI Convention 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Kathryn Drury Wagner)

Kathryn Drury Wagner with Ron Uchal at the Razzle Dazzle ‘Em Prohibition Party at CJCI Convention 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Kathryn Drury Wagner)

Long before the conference’s first day, I was already savoring the experience. Normally when I pack for a trip, I’m thinking about weight and practicality and how many coloring books I’ll need for my girls. I don’t get to bring a faux fur wrap, a hat with netting or any of that fun stuff. And I usually don’t travel with much jewelry at all. Not this time. I opened my jewelry drawer and plucked out my most outrageous necklace (a 1970s Trifari with a disco pendant roughly the size of a CD); my most beloved piece (a Matisse copper cuff); and my sparkliest Eisenberg brooch, and then created outfits around them.

Next, I haunted the Goodwill and secondhand shops, in search of the perfect 1920s style dress for the weekend’s big dinner and award presentation, to be held the Saturday night of the convention. One purple velvet dress, the right silhouette, definitely the right price ($7.49) and one feather headband later, I was ready to go. I was living—and traveling—large.

By the time I arrived at the Hilton Chicago/Indian Lakes Resort, though, I was feeling a bit more nervous. Attending a jewelry convention seemed like such a pipe dream; what was I doing here? I couldn’t believe that a long-term passion and hobby could be turned into something more tangible. It kind of felt like Jewelry Anonymous, “Hi, I’m Kathryn and I collect costume jewelry.” I was worried, too, that I was a newbie, despite the fact that I’ve been collecting many years. Plus, there’s that social anxiety when you don’t know anyone.

But by the first lecture, “Louis XIV and His Influence on Fashion, Jewelry and General Consumerism,” by South African jewelry designer Kevin Friedman, I was entranced. Listening to him, and watching the slides, it dawned on me how much I used to love art history in high school. I hadn’t thought that jewelry might lead me back to my earlier, art-loving self, but it has. Later in the weekend, I also enjoyed Barbara Schwartz’s talk, “Fashion & Costume Jewelry in the 1920s-1930s: The Evolution of Art Deco Style from the Roaring ‘20s to Art Moderne.”

During Katerina Musetti’s “Let’s Get Stoned” lecture, I savored the crowd’s intense interaction with Musetti, a jewelry designer. I hate to say “geeked out,” but we, uh, geeked out over the intricacies of “watermelon” stones. It’s such a pleasure to be around people who take jewelry as seriously—if not way more seriously—than I do.

There was a mixer on Friday for first-time attendees, which was well-stocked with tasty appetizers, and more important, many friendly faces from the welcome committee. If you’re going to a CJCI convention for the first time, don’t miss this mixer. After chatting for an hour, the group moved on to integrate into the all-conference cocktail hour—held by a roaring fire—then dinner.

Saturday Show and Sale at CJCI Convention 2014

Saturday Show and Sale at CJCI Convention 2014 (Photo Courtesy of Kathryn Drury Wagner)

The nice thing, I discovered, is that I always had something to chat about with people. Attendees tend to wear interesting jewelry, which leads to good discussions, and I found that jewelry enthusiasts are often into tangential interests we have in common, such as art, design, history, or crafts like quilting. Many, but not all, of the attendees are also antique dealers, storeowners or online dealers, which also led to fascinating chats.

I loved everyone’s joie de vivre: So many attendees were dressed up, even for the Friday dinner. One woman wore real 1920s vintage clothing, head to toe, during the whole conference, and changed more than once a day into a new outfit—truly impressive.

Before dinner on Friday, we all viewed a beautiful exhibit of Eisenberg pieces, including a couple of dresses from when the company was a clothier, not a jewelry design house. Author Susan Klein Bagdade shared the research she’s been doing on the connection between Eisenberg and Ralph Singer Co. in Chicago. She indeed had some bombshells to reveal, and you can read about them in her article on the topic for CJCI.

After dinner, some of the hotel rooms were open for “room hopping,” where you go from room to room to browse, socialize and shop for vintage jewelry. I felt a bit weird going into someone’s private space, but quickly learned that if a door was open, it meant, “Come on in!” I’m glad I did go in, because it was a good chance to meet people one-on-one.

Saturday morning was the show and sale, which was more like the jewelry or vintage marketplaces I’d been to in the past. This time, though, I knew some of the vendors, which definitely added to the enjoyment. My favorite score of the day was a huge Razza necklace representing a bull. I’m not a Taurus, but it’s going to make quite the conversation piece, and I like that it will remind me of Chicago, since their basketball team is the Bulls. After shopping for several hours, I went to get ready for the buffet dinner and silent auction.

What fun! The costumes everyone had on for the Razzle Dazzle ‘Em Prohibition Party were amazing. My favorite was Ron Uchal dressed as “1920s Valentino.” He’d really gone all out. The silent auction was a thrill—I came home with a Trifari brooch that had been part of the original collection of Trifari’s first female commissioned salesperson. Wine flowed, a great jazz band played… it was really a nice evening. I did a little more room hopping, and called it a night around 10:30. The hotel was still humming with conventioneers.

Attendees were dragging a bit Sunday morning, after staying up so late, but most people made it down for breakfast and more workshops, including a talk by European expert Karen Zwaneveld, who spoke about Jean-Louis Scherrer’s work, and Mary Ann Docktor-Smith, who provided ways to determine the age of vintage costume jewelry. “Take advantage of my nerdiness!” she enthused.

The quality of the presentations during the whole convention was high, and I learned so much. Then, suddenly it was noon, and time to pack for my flight home. There was only one problem: I didn’t want the conference to be over.

Did I change during the weekend? Yes. I used to carry a loupe with me when I went to flea markets. Now, I always have a loupe in my purse. You never know when the opportunity to examine a piece will arise! Being with the members of the CJCI, I could feel myself moving from being a novice hobbyist into viewing myself as a true collector. I have so much to learn, but it was such a pleasure to be around people who “get” this aspect of who I am. I hope to be back next year!

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She blogs about vintage styles at The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything.