When a piece of jewelry “speaks,” Rene Pol Nevils listens.
“It’s sort of like a divining rod,” she said. “You pick it up and it talks to you.”
It might converse about a young woman whose locket is strung on her daddy’s watch chain or ramble on in the lingo of a bobbysoxer in the 1950s. It could speak of pomp and circumstance of high Victorian style or the fun a 1920s flapper had when she hit the dance floor.
Nevils has “heard” it all since she started studying jewelry about 35 years ago. Now she collects pieces, donates some to the LSU Textile and Costume Museum and evaluates it for her sister-in-law’s business, NL Estate Sales.
While not a professional appraiser, Nevils said she’s learned a lot over the years, picking the brains of local antique dealers and jewelers, traveling and studying on her own.
At a recent luncheon of the Friends of the LSU Textile and Costume Museum, members brought pieces for Nevils to check out.
The lovely young woman in the photograph Elise Gatz Blewster showed is her grandmother, Susanne Elise White Maillian, who was born in 1890. In the picture, she’s wearing a locket on a chain, and Blewster brought the jewelry for Nevils to see.
“I think that’s not her locket,” said Nevils, cradling the flat gold sphere in her palm. “I think somebody gave her the locket and she had the chain. And that chain is from a man’s watch. It was very expensive at the time. It was probably her daddy’s or her husband gave it to her.”
Whether that’s true is anyone’s guess, but Blewster said her grandmother’s parents and grandparents would have had the resources to buy a fine man’s watch and chain.
Nevils’ knowledge of how families gifted and bequeathed their valuables makes it plausible, and gives Blewster a tiny peek into her family’s history.
Nevils said that while the jewelry “talks” to her, she loves hearing what the owners have to say as well.
“It’s their connection to the past,” she said. “It’s their connection to emotions, to maybe what was their mother’s or grandmother’s. It’s something very special when you think about where they wore this or who gave it to them.”
She says quite often, as in the case of the locket and the watch chain, a jewelry’s original style has changed.
“That watch chain was probably from around the Civil War, and the locket was a generation later,” she said.
Blewster said she didn’t know that, but, looking at the piece, it makes sense.
“I always thought that’s how it came originally but since she told me that, you can look at it and see how the locket could have been removed,” she said.
Genevieve Maillian Gatz, Blewster’s mother, often told stories of Gatz’s grandmother, who was a young girl during the Civil War.
The locket, Blewster said, was passed down to her mother, the only child of Susanne Elise and Benjamin Price Maillian.
“I don’t think Momma ever wore it,” Blewster said. “But she kept it in a box in an old tortoiseshell suitcase and kept the picture in a leather folder in there, too. Now I have it.”
Nevils said it’s not at all unusual for pieces to be combined, as Blewster’s grandmother did.
“I like to say jewelry is like marriages and breakups,” Nevils said. “In Victorian times, women wore cuffs on each arm. If she had two daughters, they each got one and the son might have gotten the box.”
At a father’s death, she said, his watch chain might have been cut into pieces to give to each of his children.
In her own collection, Nevils has a small 18th-century silver box with an enamel portrait of a woman on the front.
“It was a beauty mark case,” she said. “But 100 years later, no one wore beauty marks anymore, so someone had a bale or a hook put on it and made it into a locket.”
Jewelry, she said, doesn’t have to be made of gold or silver to have value.
“I found this in a flea market in Winnfield,” Nevils said, showing a bright yellow necklace with “OK,” “yes,” “Ted” and other words on the plastic beads.
“It’s a bobby socker’s bebop necklace from right after World War II,” said Nevils. “It really has no intrinsic value, but it’s just darling. And it’s real American stuff.”
It’s one of the many pieces she’s given to the LSU Textile and Costume Museum over the years.
“When I see something I think they should have, I buy it and give it to them,” she said.
That’s what she did with the earring safety catches from the 1920s.
“A woman would hook these over her ears or hook them to her hair comb so that when she was dancing and shaking it up on the dance floor she wouldn’t lose her earrings,” Nevils said of the delicate chains attached to curved wires.
Some of her favorite jewelry are what she calls “orphans,” like her copper necklace with its Picassolike face she found in pieces.
“I found it in three separate boxes at the estate of a lady in Baton Rouge who had been at art school at the University of Texas during World War II,” Nevils said. “I’m sure that’s when she got it.”
With the help of a local expert, Nevils said she was able to put the two pieces of the face back together and match them with the chain. The fragmented face is the work of Frank Rebajes, a well-known jewelry artist in the 1940s.
Collecting copper jewelry is one of her latest passions, Nevils said.
“During World War II the jewelers couldn’t get silver, so they used copper. It was available and they could work with it,” she said.
She has chunky bracelets and delicate pins, swirled earrings and wide cuffs. She also has a smaller copper box handmade in Chile.
“That’s what those miners were mining during the cave-in,” she said.
Much of the jewelry is signed by the craftsman or the company that manufactured it, making it easier to document, she said, adding that she plans to leave her copper collection to the LSU Textile and Costume Museum.
“Baton Rouge was much more sophisticated than we’ve been given credit for as far as fashion and jewelry,” said Nevils, who feels like the city has often been overshadowed by New Orleans. “But we have two universities here and the port. New Orleans was very much about the high Victorian, but Baton Rouge was much more eclectic when it comes to what we wore. And we have some great things here.”