It was a trip to Paris that ultimately resulted in Shelly Branch’s successful career pivot. Having been a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, and a serious one at that–she was a page one editor, Branch sort of fell into selling vintage fine jewelry. She only sells through her Instagram account, Particulieres, and she has an affinity for pieces from the 70s that she shows off to great effect with a mix of her own exquisite clothes and accessories (worn on a model). I’m a big believer in vintage fine jewelry, because it’s an investment that is unique, beautifully crafted and when you get it right (something Shelly does for you with her edit), timeless. Her jewels are the ultimate definition of my buy less buy better ethos.
You were a journalist and Page One Editor at WSJ and co-wrote the best-seller What Would Jackie Do. How did you pivot to jewelry?
I wouldn’t even call it a pivot, it really was an accidental journey. I left the paper three years ago and I had planned to join another news outlet. I didn’t feel as if I was in any rush, even though the paper had very generous vacation I hardly ever took it, so I welcomed the opportunity to sit back and travel a bit. I went to France and had the intention of buying a gold bracelet for myself and went to the Puces [flea markets] and was mesmerized by the jewelry. I was never a collector because of the cost but I admired it and was friendly with jewelers and knew about the craft and the process. I was always drawn to jewelry as an art form, even going back to the 90s and other artists/jewelers like Lisa Jenks, I just didn’t have the means to buy fine jewelry. The pieces in France really resonated because they could be worn in an everyday way.
I’ve always been a bit of a scavenger…always had the flea market bug, something I inherited from my mother–she dragged us everywhere. I hated it then but am eternally grateful now.
I never found the gold bracelet I was looking for, but came back with some costume pieces that got a lot attraction at a party. The owner at the West Village shop [where the party was held] said “I think you should sell jewelry and you should sell it at my shop.” She was very persistent. I am always one for a challenge and I ran around grabbing pieces and she said “Ok, let’s put them in the case”. Within a few months I pivoted to fine jewelry; that was where the fun and fascination and deep dive discovery was. I also knew I was going to get into a lot of trouble with it.
I bought my first batch of pieces and I remember writing a check for $16,000 and thinking it was an incredibly high sum. I started posting things on IG without any expectation of drawing any clientele. The first people to contact me on IG were dealers, some of the biggest people in the industry were following me. This made me realize that maybe, kind of, sort of, I had a business here. It was encouraging but I mainly found it unbelievable. Now I had to do this.
What kind of pieces do you gravitate towards?
My style is consistent to the degree that all the pieces I buy have to be somewhat different, when I say different not just different from what you see elsewhere, but different in terms of how people might look at a piece of jewelry. I recently had a stack of 3 Van Cleef & Arpels rings, they were different not because they were unusual, but because they had sequential serial numbers, one owner and were a size 6, usually they are tiny.
What captures my eye are pieces that have a beautiful form and yet are appealing enough to the eye that you don’t have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate them. I do carry unsigned pieces because so many are made incredibly well. Sometimes I go to great lengths to find out who made a piece. I am attracted to pieces with a story, that are mysterious, and that are fun. I love whimsy and things that are kenetic and move. I am also practical and know that people want classic pieces. My pieces and taste pivot around the 70s. Some of the pieces by Georges L’Enfant and the big chunky pieces are from that era, those pieces are an example of jewels that are beautifully made, but practical and you can wear them everyday. L’Enfant pieces were all hand-made. They are becoming very sought after and are becoming astronomically priced. The education level of my clients is relatively high. The majority of my clients are women buying for themselves.
I love that more and more, women are buying jewelry for themselves.
Occasionally I will get “let me ask my husband” but for the most part, my regular and new clients are women who have their own money and want to spend it as they please. I was also surprised that people would buy things sight unseen; most of my pieces are going to people out of NY state, sometimes out of the country. I’m glad people have that comfort level with my pieces. When I show the pieces I go to lengths to show each piece from different perspectives, so you can imagine not only how the piece will look on the body, but also look in the context of fashion and design.
Not only do I love the jewelry you feature on IG, but the clothes the model is wearing, etc—I want it all! It’s a very refined and elegant sensibility that is rare these days. What inspires you?
I have quite a few people who contact me to ask about having a fashion account. I want my posts to stand out in a way that others perhaps don’t. I realize there is a high burden for an IG seller to catch the eye of a someone and then get them over the hurdle to purchase something. The seduction part comes by really thinking about what piece or prop will make it stand out. What I sell is a luxury product so I feel very strongly that it needs to look that way. But shoppers have moved to the point they are willing to pay $40,000 for a necklace they never laid their eyes on. That’s why I feel imagery is important and why it has to be different. I also don’t post prices, so people DM me. The reason is I really want people to engage with me; the people who bother who DM are going to be serious because they made the effort. Then they realize she’s actually friendly and chatty. I do private appointments. I know my regular clients fairly well. Everyday I’m having a conversation with my followers. I love the enthusiasm, that’s what counts. It’s very humbling that this thing fashioned itself into being. I also never thought by selling jewelry I could move people. Everyone has a story, or an affinity for a particular piece for a particular reason. The client who bought the 3 Van Cleef rings also found an onyx bracelet I had and she said “I want those with that”. It made perfect sense.
If someone is new to collecting vintage fine jewelry, how would you suggest they start?
Collecting can sometimes be a bit confusing….I have private clients who are true collectors who collect within a specific period or specific names. They tend to be very knowledgable about what they want. I have to be able to mirror their aesthetic. Most people aren’t like that. There is another stripe of collector who likes to buy jewelry once a month, or occasionally, and they’re looking for pieces that fit into their lifestyle and that no one else will have. I do work with that second group pretty closely so they and we aren’t buying pieces that are redundant. It’s easy to make a hasty purchase, I don’t want them to buy something for the wrong reason. I would rather miss a sale and have a happy client who knows I’m looking out for their interest. A lot of people of means buy jewlery for the sake of buying jewelry and end up with a mish mash. We have discussions about scale, what they wear every day, and do things work together. Because I have a lot of European clients I rarely go to bed before 3am. It’s a fantastic amount of work.
How much jewelry do you wear everyday? What are some of your personal favorites?
I do wear jewelry everyday. I wear a men’s gold Rolex from the 60s, and a Georges L’Enfant link bracelet which looks like it could have been produced today, and a ring as well. Lately I’ve been wearing rings on my pinky such as a 70s Cartier ring with diamonds across the top. Also a Van Cleef & Arpels pendant that commemorated the moon landing, it’s inscribed with the date 20/7/69 and it has a ruby where Apollo module landed on the moon. I wear it most days, in remembrance of my beloved dad, who passed away in early March of complications from Alzheimer’s. He was a teacher and scientist, an earth science geek who dedicated his life to helping others. I grew up with him quizzing me about the phases of the moon. We went to view the total eclipse together in August 2017.
An elusive design you’re always on the hunt for: A split link disc bracelet by Tiffany, 1972. Tiffany was known for making really geometric pieces in the 70s. I’m always looking for Georges L’Enfant, which is getting harder and harder to buy. Always looking for good and interesting chains, they are a bit tough to find now too. Nothing has been easy because of COVID.
Three words that describe Particulieres: Well, PARTICULAR is an obvious one. I hope the name immediately suggests to people that I’m exacting, always editing. I choose each piece very carefully. The collection—and all the imagery around it—needs to look just so. I’d like to view Particulieres as being AHEAD. I never imagined that I could sell fine vintage jewelry and build a successful, recognizable brand. To sell jewels now, at a certain price point, requires that you also sell a lifestyle. No matter how wonderful the piece, it deserves an appropriate atmosphere and a specific narrative tone. ENGAGING. To me, this is probably the most important thing. I talk to my followers every single day, throughout the day. I want people to feel comfortable approaching me, I want them to know that I will take the time to send a little video if they like. I’m happy to answer questions—about how a piece might work with their existing jewelry wardrobe—as an advisor or stylist would. It’s helpful to both sides, it keeps the ball rolling.
Three words that describe you: First, DETERMINED. As a journalist, I’m hard-wired to reject ‘no’ . There must be a way, a workaround. And I’ll spend the time to find it. Connecting the dots in this industry, between dealers and various factions and cliques, is very important. Basically, I operate my business the way I would report a news beat. Second, OUTSPOKEN. I’ve always spoken my mind and I try to advance causes, like equal pay, when I feel it necessary. This business is no different. There is a lot of bad behavior, dishonesty, gossip, etc. And it seems like so many accept these norms as just another cost of conducting business. I find that absurd. I won’t tolerate certain things and I demand to be treated in a certain way. It’s not easy being a woman on this field, or a black person. So I do shock people when I jab back. But it’s necessary. Third, FUNNY. We’d all be dead without humor, and I’m the first to try to find some lightheadedness. This has been a brutal year for all of us, so we have a little more latitude in our day to day. I tell people that my dog has a supermodel girlfriend (seriously), and I’m proud of that. My bank vault gets so hot that I sometimes strip off my jacket and top to review my inventory. No shame there!
Role models: My parents. I’m incredibly blessed to have great parents, they always encouraged my to do what I love. They were so incredibly patient with me growing up. I was a violinist and at age 16 had to choose whether to pursue it; they let me know very early on that they would support whatever decision I made. At one point I entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer–when your sister is going to Harvard law you do feel pressure to be in that same circus ring, but realized it wasn’t going to be a fulfilling path for me. I always did two things well: I wrote well and I played violin well. I knew I would end up in the creative space.
What motivates you: It’s not one thing. I’m motivated by kindness and beauty and passion. I love it when people are passionate about any topic or curious about any topic, where they really feel like they have to marinate in that area. I’m really the same way. I’m motivated by artists I’ve been fortunate enough to know and work with, and I’m motivated by myself because I’m a Capricorn. I’m a goat and I have to climb. I’m really self motivated. I’m always very hard on myself and think I’m not doing enough. I’m used to it, the things I did before demanded that you be accurate and practice, practice, practice.
Life goals: To make a difference somehow. This is something that I got from my parents. As a journalist I definitely felt this, shedding light on topics that weren’t being illuminated. And in this work, the notes I get from posts and what they mean to people, I never expected that. It’s important to me to be of service to people in a small intimate way or a large scale level.
Daily goals: To get to Fedex on time! Shoot the pieces before we lose the light. To make sure my dog is happy. He is now famous in the jewelry world because I take him all over. His name is Porter. And to keep track of things.
How do you unplug: It’s harder to unplug in ways we used to, like hanging out with friends, now I unplug by listening to music and reading when I can. I do the NY Times puzzle Spelling Bee and I won’t put it down until I reach the genius level. I like to relax in bed with my dog after everything is done and speak to someone on the phone who means something to me. I have a view of the New Yorker sign from my bed; it’s the best sign in the world.
Books that inspire you: Anything from Carson McCullers, Langston Hughes’ I Wonder as I Wander. I love John Ashbery’s earlier poems, and books that interweave historical narrative, like Robert Caro’s, The Power Broker. I took a class at Columbia on New York City history, I was fascinated by the book because it’s so much more than a history book or biography, it’s a genius book about how to tell a story. I actually ran into him before COVID, when I was eating at a restaurant, and of course I had to go to his table and talk to him. He said, “You made my day, did someone pay you?”
Hidden talent: I still play the violin. I’m with it enough that I have cool colored bow hair, it’s Hermes orange.
Favorite charity: Arts and Minds, a lovely program that invites people with Alzheimers and caregivers and family and come to a creative space, and to sit and hear a curator talk about a specific piece of artwork. After a question and answer period, the participants go create their own piece of art and talk about what they created and why. It’s this idea that our brains are wired to absorb beauty even when we’re compromised. We were able to take my dad to that program. His works are the most treasured that I have.
Biggest splurge: Buying two Hermes bags at once at the Paris flagship. But I had a good excuse because they make it impossible for foreigners to buy them. I happen to have met and engaged and befriended the store manager. I chatted him up at the store–he was talking about his wife who was American. He gave me his card and I realized when I left, he was the head of leather. I went back and was basically able to get whatever I wanted. I bought a Kelly in Blue Izmir and a Constance in Rouge Vif in a smooth calf leather.
Small indulgence: Little macaroons from Laduree. It’s also very hard to throw the boxes away.
Album: My musical tastes are so varied, I don’t get pleasure out of listening to the same thing over and over again. This whole year has been so challenging and I lost my dad before COVID, so I continue to listen to Brahm’s Requiem a bit. There is something spiritual and religious to the work and I find it comforting. I sang it in my high school choir and I can hum the violin part and I find it very soothing. My father was deeply religious. On the other side I find myself listening to Bruno Mars and Pharrell. It’s the mood swing I’ve been in this year…a feeling of absolutes.
Scent: Whenever I smell Joy I of course think of my mom, who was a brilliant shopper and who believed in shopping high and low. I grew up with her dragging me to original Henri Bendel and B. Altman when luxury meant an entirely different thing.
Lucky charm: The Van Cleef & Arpels moon pendant. I have it on a chain that I had strung a cross on that my dad wore in hospice.
Favorite hour of the day: Is when I’ve checked off everything on my to do list and I don’t have to feel so stressed; it can be at noon or 1 in the morning. It’s when I know I have accomplished everything I need to get done, because then, and only then, can I relax.
Follow Particulieres: Instagram.
paula c, says
What a lovely interview:) Her passion and tasteful collection is beyond perfection. Thank you for sharing.
Rebecca Koven says
Shelly is the real deal! She is bright shining gem in our industry as well as In her day to day life. Great article!!
Dad was one stylish guy by looking at that photo! And I am equally obsessed with The NY Times Spelling Bee. I constantly screenshot “genius” and send it to my girls, just to remind them that Mom isn’t over-the-hill.
Nicole Foos says
Absolutely loved this interview and love your exquisite taste abs eye Shelly!
Wonderful interview and her taste is absolutely exquisite.
This was the best interview I’ve read here. Shelly is intellectually intimidating and funny and cool. What truly beautiful jewelry. The only L’Enfant I know was Pierre and if I can ever afford something (beyond a Metrocard taking me to the L’Enfant Plaza station in DC), I’d buy my fine jewelry from Particulaires.
Robert Caro is awesome!