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Going for the Gold

At a time like this, when being public about your Jewishness seems more scary—and more important—than ever, Judaica jewelry makes a powerful statement

Jamie Betesh Carter
April 15, 2024
‘For as long as I can remember, if I see vintage Jewish jewelry, I buy it, because if I don’t, I’m very scared it’s gonna get melted,’ says jeweler Mara Bernstein, owner of Pennyweight Prizefighter

Alex SK Brown

‘For as long as I can remember, if I see vintage Jewish jewelry, I buy it, because if I don’t, I’m very scared it’s gonna get melted,’ says jeweler Mara Bernstein, owner of Pennyweight Prizefighter

Alex SK Brown

I’ve always been fascinated with the old. Items that have had multiple lives, with stories to tell, appeal to me more than bright, new shiny things. I prefer a consignment shop to a department store, and get great satisfaction when I find a new home for items I no longer need.

Over the last few years, I reconnected with an old friend from high school. Mara Bernstein went from selling vintage jewelry as a side hustle to launching a full-time business called Pennyweight Prizefighter. Through her, I began to fall in love with vintage jewelry, and found some unique pieces to complement the jewelry I’d inherited from my grandmother.

Although I had some pieces of Judaica jewelry in my collection, I hardly ever wore it. Honestly, I always felt wearing a Jewish star wasn’t for me. My sense of Judaism was so strong, so concrete, and so built into my identity. It wasn’t something that existed in a temple, or in a once-in-a-lifetime bat mitzvah. It was in me. So, why would I ever have to wear a Star of David to show people I was Jewish?

After Oct. 7, something in me shifted. I found myself wanting to buy Judaica jewelry. I wasn’t even sure if I would wear it, but I wanted it. And even though my kids are too young to wear it, I wanted to buy it for them as well. Although there were many jewelers creating new variations of Judaica jewelry, I found myself again, looking to the old. I reached out to Bernstein to see if she sold vintage Judaica jewelry. She said she had a bunch, and apparently many other customers felt the same way I did.

She said we should meet up.

I met Bernstein in high school, and remember her having a distinctive, eclectic style. When I heard that she transitioned from working in publishing to launching her own vintage jewelry business, it made total sense to me. After reconnecting and buying jewelry from her (Judaica and other), I sat down with her in her home office to learn more about her business, and how Judaica jewelry fits in.

It’s important to be a proud, public Jew, even when it’s hard, even when it feels scary. Especially when it feels scary.

“I’ve always been obsessively into vintage and antique jewelry,” said Bernstein. “Since I was a little kid, the way my mom and I would bond was us playing jewelry. We would sit on her bed and take out all of her family jewelry from her great-aunt, her grandparents, and her dad who passed away, and play.” Bernstein’s mother collected antique jewelry as a hobby, and Bernstein’s dad was focused on the idea of gold and silver as commodities, buying and selling coins. “I got both sides of it,” said Bernstein. “I was able to look at jewelry as the pure value of the metals, which continues to increase. And then from my mom’s side, I was able to understand different time periods, and different styles of antique jewelry.”

After college, Bernstein worked in publishing. And then after having two children, she began buying and selling vintage jewelry—first as a hobby, and eventually curating selections for local shops in New Jersey. After the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape for retailers, Bernstein began selling vintage jewelry on her own, mainly via Instagram. “After the stores closed, I had around 50 pieces of jewelry,” said Bernstein. “I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so I sold them on Instagram. And even with a tiny following, I sold everything in a few days.”

Bernstein knew she was onto something, so she kept pursuing her vintage jewelry business during nights and weekends, while continuing to work her day job in publishing. After a couple of years, Bernstein felt she had enough confidence and proof of concept to launch Pennyweight Prizefighter full time.

“Pennyweight is the measure that jewelers use to weigh gold,” she explained. “There are 20 pennyweights in a troy ounce of gold. There are around 31.1 grams in a troy ounce, so it’s very hard to do the math. People use grams, but jewelers use pennyweights.”

As a person, Bernstein always prioritized individuality, thriving in environments that promote diversity over conformity. “For me, vintage is the goal of ultimately getting the thing that no one else has. Style is so personal, and I provide people with something that only they’re going to have,” she said. “If you bought it from me, you’re not gonna run into someone on the subway in the same necklace. It’s not happening.”

With the rise of new jewelers creating trendy pieces, Pennyweight Prizefighter is the countertrend. “Vintage jewelry was made really differently,” she said. “You can’t really remake some of this stuff because of how the stones were cut by hand versus by machine because of the metals that they alloyed the gold with that we don’t use any more.”

By working with and getting to know her jewelry dealers, Bernstein has learned about the history and craft of jewelry making. “It’s about craftsmanship versus mass production,” she said. “It’s not to say there aren’t modern pieces of jewelry that are incredible, because there are, but there are things about antique and vintage jewelry that you just can’t recreate.”

Bernstein buys and sells all different types of vintage jewelry: gold, silver, enamel, personalized, and religious. And if she stumbles on Judaica jewelry, she feels it’s her duty to save it. “For as long as I can remember, if I see vintage Jewish jewelry, I buy it, because if I don’t, I’m very scared it’s gonna get melted,” she said. “Because jewelry is worth a lot of money, it often gets melted if it doesn’t sell. It’s just part of the business. I know that if I don’t grab it, and no one else does, it’s gone. So I tell all of my jewelry dealers, ‘If you have Jewish jewelry, don’t melt it—I’ll take it.’” Her love and dedication to saving Judaica doesn’t end with jewelry. As Bernstein showed me her collection of Jewish-related homeware, and random religious artifacts, she explained, “If I go to an estate sale and they have a menorah, or a kiddush cup, I just buy it.”

Right now, being Jewish feels much scarier than it did a year ago. So the people that are buying and wearing Jewish jewelry are being very brave.

Bernstein sells pieces for all religions, for all different types of people. “I genuinely see all religious jewelry as the ultimate sentimental jewelry,” she said.” It can symbolize your culture, your religious practice, or your family history.” She is Jewish, and credits Judaism for shaping her values that guide her life today, so she is most drawn to Judaica: “I look at Judaica as a way it can help someone express their Jewishness. And with vintage, I love knowing that somebody at some point used it as an expression of their identity. I’m saving the jewelry that’s most genuine.”

Even though Bernstein was saving, and selling, Judaica jewelry, she didn’t actually own or wear much of her own. She bought herself a diamond chai in the last couple of years, and wore it on rare occasions. And then came Oct. 7. “I felt very compelled to start wearing a Star of David once Oct. 7 happened,” she said. “Not just a chai, but a Star of David.” She began incorporating the vintage Judaica jewelry she was buying and selling into her daily repertoire. She found a gold Star of David from the 1980s with the words “Shema Yisrael” inscribed on it, and immediately put it on. And a chunky gold ring made in the 1970s with the word “Ahava” (meaning “Love” in Hebrew) made its way right onto her hand. “Judaism has always been a big part of my identity, and I think it’s important to be a proud, public Jew, even when it’s hard, even when it feels scary,” she said. “Especially when it feels scary.”

She continued: “Oct. 7 and everything heartbreaking that has happened since that day has affected me deeply. And when I feel deep pain, I look to my faith. When I feel deep joy, I look to my faith. When something major happens, whatever it may be, I look to Judaism. So having a symbol of that identity and guiding faith, on my body, whether in precious sentimental jewelry, or in a tattoo, is important now and always.”

It affected Bernstein so much that her connection with Judaism made its way into her collection of body tattoos. She got a double chai tattoo on each forearm. They’re purposely not hidden, and they serve as a reminder of her faith: She’s literally wearing her Judaism on her sleeve.

Bernstein had promoted some of the small lots of Judaica jewelry she amassed in the past, but after Oct. 7, she couldn’t hold onto them. “I posted on Instagram, and said, ‘If, like me, you are feeling compelled to wear a Jewish star right now, let me know.’ And the messages came pouring in.” All the vintage Judaica jewelry she put up for sale was purchased within hours. Many of her existing customers bought Judaica jewelry, as well as new customers who were coming to her for the first time.

Traditionally, Judaica jewelry is purchased as a gift for milestones such as bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, births, and more. For many in our generation, these items were gifted to us and often not purchased ourselves. For a lot of people, Oct. 7 changed that. “When I saw the Judaica Mara was selling, I just thought it was beautiful,” said Michelle, a customer of Pennyweight Prizefighter. “Recently I’ve been figuring out what my own style of jewelry is, as opposed to what’s been given to me. I saw this Star of David and thought, ‘I don’t need someone else to buy it for me, I can buy it for myself.’ And since Oct. 7, I’ve been a lot more aware of the need to wear it, and not hide who I am.”

“I always had a strong identity with Judaism, but after Oct. 7, I said, ‘I’m going to make sure my grandkids have that as well,’” said Pearl, another customer of Pennyweight Prizefighter. “Both of my parents are from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, so they didn’t come here with jewelry, everything was taken from them. When Mara started selling Judaica, I started recognizing things from my family that looked very similar to what they had. I said, ‘I have to have this, and I have to hand this over to my kids and grandchildren.’”

Bernstein feels proud that she’s able to help her customers, new and old, use jewelry to define their sense of Jewish identity. “My Judaism is mine, and your Judaism is yours,” she said. “You get to define it for yourself and display it how you wish and I want to be able to help you treasure it with pieces of precious metal that have been with us for generations.”

She very much acknowledges the fear and confusion people have right now about how they feel, and what they share, and what they withhold. “Right now, being Jewish feels much scarier than it did a year ago,” said Bernstein. “So the people that are buying and wearing Jewish jewelry are being very brave. Jewelry is very personal. It connects us to our community, but you get to decide what you wear and how you display it, and whether you tuck it into your shirt or wear it outside or shirt. Because every single Jew is different. We’re not a monolith, and Judaism is different for every single one of us.”

My own collection of vintage Judaica jewelry has grown over the past six months through my purchases from Pennyweight Prizefighter. I bought some for myself, some for my kids, and some as gifts for friends and other family members. In fact, I find myself looking for excuses to buy vintage Judaica jewelry for just about any occasion for any close person to me.

But to be honest, I still don’t wear it much. Most of it sits inside my jewelry box. And on the rare occasion I do wear it, I make sure it’s in an environment where I wouldn’t be fearful. Maybe that’s not brave enough of me, and maybe it is. But my thinking about why it was created in the first place, and what it means to be able to wear our identity beautifully and proudly has completely shifted. The Jewish stars I received as gifts for my daughter’s birth or my bat mitzvah no longer make no sense to me. They completely make sense now. Wearing them doesn’t make me nebbish, as I used to think it would. They’re special, and unique, and are filled with faith, meaning, and strength. And for the first time, I understand the intention behind why each purchase was made, and handed down, and the privilege it is to be able to have it, and wear it—under my shirt, or not.

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.