Collector stuck on antique stickpins
by Jean Barnes
The really good old stickpins are few and far between, according to collector Karl B., a native Kansan and retired engineer. Karl’s collection is small as numbers go, but each stickpin is a choice piece. These days, he considers himself fortunate to find more than one or two in a year’s time.
“I wasn’t that careful when I first started,” he said. “My first one was a gold nugget that my wife had a jeweler mount for me.” That was 15 years ago, and after receiving it, he started looking for others.
“I bought almost every one I found,” he explained. “Now I’ve weeded out the collection, and used those I didn’t want to keep as trading material. Now I have 42, but every one is special.”
He took one stickpin from a soft suede case and showed it to me. It was a small cube of ivory with a carved design on the front of it. The cube was set between pins so that it could rotate from side to side. In one side of the cube, you could see that it had been hollowed out, leaving a scene of a native man standing before a thatched hut with a tree in the background.
It was all done in nearly microscopic proportions. Seen through a magnifying glass, the carving is amazingly detailed. Karl said that several years ago, he showed it to a mining engineer friend who had spent many years in Burma and was knowledgeable about Oriental art.
“He told me that this little piece of ivory could easily represent the work of a man’s lifetime. Imagine spending years doing just that one little piece of magnificent, delicate work,” he said. Karl purchased the pin from a local dealer who had no information about it.
Other stickpins in his collection represent a wide variety of precious and semi-precious stones. One is a slender gold bar set with tiny seed pearls. Another is a cameo carved from coral. There is an amethyst surrounded by sapphires, diamonds set with garnets, a pearl framed with a square of onyx, a long narrow oval of moss agate, a star ruby, and stickpins of jade turquoise and amber.
Karl keeps most of his collection in stickpin holders. These look like small salt shakers except that the bottom of the holder is solid. He explained that holders are rare and that when you do find one, the price is likely to be high. He has two in hand-painted porcelain and one in silver.
His most simple stickpin is engraved with the initial B and is kept in a small velvet box shaped like a fiddle case. “I found that box in a junk shop and got it for a quarter,” Karl explained.
Karl likes to wear his stickpins, but since his retirement, he doesn’t have as many opportunities as he did when he went to his office every day.
“I guess I’m a purist. I’ve seen collectors use them for finger rings and charm bracelets, and it upsets me. Beautiful jewelry should be preserved as it is.”
Antique stickpin jewelry from 1889
Top photo: 1900s stick pin, courtesy San Bernardino County Museum