Midwest Attic Treasure searches for vintage pieces so you don’t have to

Kerstin Nelson has been running her Etsy shop since 2012, but her love of antique things has an even longer history.

To many jewelry lovers, pretty things with a story will trump pretty things period any day of the week. Just ask Kerstin Nelson, the curator behind the account and Etsy shop, Midwest Attic Treasure.

Nelson’s first job happened to be at an antique store in Mount Horeb, but she didn’t fully delve into her love of vintage jewelry until her beloved grandmother died, leaving some of her pieces behind.

“One ring had a hallmark that sparked my curiosity, and I discovered that it was an Ostby and Barton ring … Ostby was a Norwegian jeweler who died on the Titanic,” says Nelson. “It dawned on me at that time, that all of these antique and vintage jewelry items all have a story to tell in some way.”

After this breakthrough, Nelson made her way to the library to gobble up every book on antiques and vintage jewelry she could find. Learning everything she could, Nelson took the leap and opened up her Etsy shop in 2012.

Since then, Nelson has been finding unique, meaningful pieces and selling them to other jewelry lovers across the country.

“When I first started, I collected anything and everything vintage,” she says, “Now, when I’m looking for inventory, I’m looking for the history and I always go with my gut. I love jewelry from the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Victorian eras, [and] I also collect midcentury Scandinavian jewelry.”

If it’s something that requires research, she’ll probably buy it. Nelson says she buys her pieces just about “everywhere,” including auctions, estate and garage sales, and antique and thrift shops. (Word of mouth in her antiquing network also helps out.) She also sells her pieces just about everywhere, and some have made their way to award-winning TV and film costume designers.

“In the beginning, it was learning the history of jewelers and jewelry companies, the styles and different eras, and the customers who were excitedly buying these jewelry pieces from me. Now, the allure or appeal is still all of those things but also who it brings me into contact with,” Nelson says. “My last claim to fame was a piece I sold to the costume designer who worked on the movie ‘The Irishman,’ and she later won an Oscar.”

While Nelson may seem like an expert, she says she is “never not learning something new.” During quarantine, she even completed the applied jewelry professional online program through the Gemological Institute of America.

“I know there is so much more I don’t know, and I’m open to learning as much as possible,” she says.

We asked Nelson for her expertise on some of the most common questions about vintage jewelry.

What is the biggest misconception, if any, that folks have about collecting/wearing/caring for vintage jewelry?
I think the biggest misconception is around value. What makes something more valuable? For me personally, something is more valuable when I know there is a story attached. I think some people get disappointed when their relative’s necklace isn’t worth what they thought. Sentimental and monetary value are two very separate things. If it means something to you, it IS highly valuable. Collect what you love and are attracted to!

How do you best take care of your pieces?
When cleaning vintage jewelry, you should be mindful of what material you are handling. Gold, silver and most costume jewelry can be cleaned using mild soap, water and a toothbrush. Polishing cloths can do wonders for all types of jewelry. For diamonds and other gemstones, I would recommend having a professional jeweler handle it, in case of a loose stone or bent prong.

If possible, tell me about a few of your favorite pieces in your personal collection.
One of my favorite pieces is my sweetheart bracelet. Sweetheart bracelets became popular during World War II. Servicemen overseas would send these back home to their “sweetheart.” I’ve found dozens of these over the years. Sometimes they are engraved with names or included photos in the locket compartment. They never fail to impress me.

Other personal pieces are items that have been passed down from family. My grandmother’s turn of the century Ostby and Barton ring, my other grandmother’s midcentury brooch from the Weiss jewelry company. The earrings my mom got in Europe in the 1960’s … I love wearing things that I know they loved.