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The colour of money: Vintage jewellery

Sales of vintage jewellery are booming, and no one understands it better than Susan Caplan. Rebecca Gonsalves meets her

The measured, quiet tones of Susan Caplan defy the expectations one may have of a buyer of vintage jewellery.

There is nothing ostentatious or self-aggrandising here. Instead, Caplan, 55, allows her credentials to do the talking – along with a discreet dose of statement jewellery and a magpie eye.

"I got into jewellery because as a teenager I was a collector," she says over coffee in Selfridges in London, where her collection of vintage Versace costume jewellery has just been unveiled.

"I was brought up in a family that absolutely adored antiques. At the dinner table we would talk about whether a piece was silver or silver plate. They were all affordable pieces, but very collectable, and were a fascinating reflection of social history. It became a real hobby of mine."

Working on the QE2 in her youth, Caplan was afforded remarkable opportunities at a time when international travel was a much more expensive undertaking. "I loved collecting anything old," she says. "It could have been absolutely anything. From glass to a piece of furniture or a piece of jewellery. I became such a hoarder that by the time I was 25 I started a little boutique business, buying and selling antiques."

Five years ago, Caplan began to sell the vintage jewellery she sourced under her own name, focusing on contemporary vintage – original pieces, generally from the Fifties onwards, but fitting a modern-day aesthetic.

Take, for example, the vintage Versace pieces – the crowning glory of which is a 20-year-old body piece from the house's couture line. Priced at £4,295 and hardly justifiable as a low-cost-per-wear investment, this will be snapped up by a collector, a connoisseur. "I curated the Versace collection over a few months, knowing that Versace was going to be very big again. Obviously because of the H&M collaboration and Lady Gaga wearing the brand, but also because the Atelier Versace collection will be shown [later this week at the haute couture shows in Paris] for the first time in about eight years."

There are, however, other Versace pieces which Caplan brought together with the knowledge that this would be a big time for the Italian brand.

"I have this knack of seeing what's going to come ahead, Versace has made this fantastic comeback. I think we're at such a time of doom and gloom and restraint that to have this obvious luxury is a wonderful thing."

While some could try to dismiss what Caplan does as shopping for a living, there is not only a great amount of skill to it, there must also be an instinct for how it can be profitable. "If I see anything I like, that's it. I have to have it, whatever the price," she says, expressing a hidden steeliness that must come in handy when the delicate subject of price is raised.

"I go everywhere, all around the world to auctions and antiques fairs. I go from Paris to the United States to Japan as well as having lots of suppliers hunting for me. I've been in the business for nearly 30 years, so they're on the lookout. I'll get a phone call about a wonderful piece and I have to go and see it or see an image of it, and I know instantly if it is for me. I only buy if the condition is fantastic. I'm always out to buy and I can spot something good from a distance."

Caplan won't reveal where she found the Versace body piece, saying only it was "far away, in one of the many corners I go to".

"It's no longer in Portobello Road. It's actually terribly hard to get vintage pieces when something is so special; it becomes highly admired because it is so unique.

"Take for instance Elizabeth Taylor: when she died, her collection increased [in value] enormously. I'm not talking about fine jewellery that sells at auction; I'm talking about the costume jewellery. We've had some of her pieces – we actually had some in Selfridges, and they just sell out because of the name."

As the market leader for vintage costume jewellery in the UK Caplan can identify a variety of customers and their varying demands. "We're a luxury. Most people will come to Selfridges to get something fantastic, not to get something they need.

"We have young professionals who want a statement piece and people who might have worn Versace or Givenchy or Chanel in the Eighties who want to have a piece 30 years later. We have a lot of Middle Eastern customers as well – anyone who recognises something is unique, a piece of history. People will buy it not just because it is vintage but they see something that is so different that they don't care that it's vintage.

"I'm always thinking about the past while looking to the future. I love my buying trips, the past is just there but you can see something else. I think the future is the past, because all the trends today evoke the past. There is always in every trend a period or an era mixed in with it. That's why vintage works."

Caplan's collection is also available in Selfridges Manchester, and will be proudly on sale in the new accessories hall due to open next week.

"Selfridges London has been the best stockist for us so this expansion is very exciting."

One of the perks of Caplan's role is to "test-drive" the pieces. Today she is wearing 30-year-old Alexis Kirk jewellery that looks brand new. But surely it's tempting to become a hoarder of beautiful trinkets.

"I keep pieces for a while for myself. But I so enjoy someone else wearing it and enjoying it, when it goes into the collection and is so loved. You want everyone to love the collection, so it's no good if you don't show it. I absolutely love every piece – there's always some history behind it, the social history, the quality, the fantastic design.

"I don't buy anything that's not an investment. I think that's why I went into it years ago as a pocket-money investor. I don't think at the time I realised that pieces were getting rarer and going up and up in value."

Susan Caplan Vintage is available at Selfridges London and Manchester; for enquiries, call 0800 123400