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Business of the Month: Deco Jewels, 131 Thompson Street

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How do you look like a million bucks when you’re more than a few bucks short of a million? That’s the problem that our December Business of the Month, Deco Jewels at 131 Thompson Street (btw. Houston & Prince) has helped us solve for almost four decades. With its great selection of vintage costume jewelry from the 1920s to the 1980s and an unparalleled collection of lucite purses, Deco Jewels is a store where you can walk in looking like you’ve been cleaning up after your cruel stepmother and walk out appearing as if the glass slipper fit!

Deco Jewels’ owner Janice Berkson never had her ears pierced. She was afraid of needles. But earrings for pierced ears, it turns out, are a relatively recent phenomenon. The vintage variety consisted of clip-ons (which explains how Lauran Bacall could easily rip them off her ears as she stepped into her boudoir). This was a momentous discovery for Janice more than four decades ago, and a gateway into the world of vintage costume jewelry.

Janice’s early antique show explorations happened in Philly, accompanied by a seasoned vintage aficionado and her friend, Cyndi Lauper (who was in town, working with the Hooters on her new album She’s So Unusual). At the time, Janice was employed by a shoe part manufacturer, but was ready for a change. She dipped her toes into jewelry retail by hocking her Philadelphia acquisitions at a flea market on Spring and Wooster Streets on weekends. Before long, however, she realized that this kind of work required greater attention than she could give it on a part-time basis. So she looked for a small space, found one at the SoHo Emporium mini-mall, and launched Deco Jewels. The store operated there until the mall closed, in 1996. Janice wanted to remain nearby, since she felt the area drew her kind of customers, shoppers looking for unique items. She found that space she was looking for on Thompson Street, and has been there ever since.

Deco Jewels always focused on vintage costume jewelry, which consists of jewelry not made out of precious metals but designed to look as if it were. This focus required substantial learning-by-doing and complementary research, all of which Janice eagerly did, gradually refining her eye for unusual pieces. An early such item was a 1950s lucite bag that caught her attention and that sold almost as soon as she bought it. This type of hardshell bag was manufactured for only ten years, during the mid-20th century, and featured designs that were as eye-grabbing as they were functional, including dedicated compartments for assorted night-on-the-town essentials circa the 1950s: a powder compact, a pack of cigarettes, red lipstick, coat check money, and so forth.

Rialto NY, white pearl lucite with rhinestones. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.
NYC-made Llewellyn black Cinderella bag. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.

Lucite purses, as Janice discovered, were enjoying a resurgence in popularity during the 1980s. A book was published on the topic at the time. Its author, Robert Gottlieb, swung by Deco Jewels not long after Janice started purchasing them, and the two hit it off. Gottlieb invited Janice to look at his collection. The experience was revelatory. Fascinated with this unique accessory, Janice would, before long, become one of the main purveyors of lucite purses in the world (as well as a collector of them). A couple of decades later, finding that Gottlieb’s book could use an update, Janice wrote her own book on the item, Carry Me: 1950’s Lucite Purses, which displayed standouts from her own inventory. 

Glitter-shell by Shoreham. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.
Two-level Wilardy bag in iridescent blue. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.

The niche specialty of Deco Jewels and Janice’s genius for procuring interesting merchandise has helped the store develop a sizable and loyal customer base at a national and even international scale. Long-standing customers, some of whom have become personal friends of Janice, have files behind the desk that indicate past purchases and (by elimination) potential current needs. For those who live elsewhere, a stop by the shop is — along with a show and a visit to the Met — part and parcel of their New York itinerary. The store has also attracted its share of new customers. Enthusiastic write-ups in magazines and tourist oriented literature send first-time visitors through the door sometimes years after their publication. And there’s also this. Each new generation sees vintage in the contemporary paraphernalia of its predecessors and looks for a place to find it. Thus, the store’s following, well-established and recent, has allowed it to remain in operation this long, despite the pressures that have led to the closure of so many other small businesses in the neighborhood.

1970s Telephone Purse. If you have a landline, plug it in. It works!

Taking stock of her shop and of the travails she had to overcome to stay afloat during the recent pandemic, Janice can’t help but marvel at her good fortune:

[The businesses along Thompson are] a great community. We’re all friends. It’s lovely. I’m really… people ask me, “Is this the same product that you started with?” And of course it is! I love it! How can you not love it?! I bought it. I have to clean it. And I get to put it out and show it off to people!

For helping us glamorize our appearance with accessible luxuries for almost four decades, we are thrilled to name Deco Jewels our December 2023 Business of the Month.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

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