When Jess Smith, a 23-year-old artist, went thrift shopping in early June, she was on the hunt for unique accessories.
She visited a small shop in Pittsburgh and headed straight to its “giant necklace rack” to begin digging — something she says she does once a week or more if she has time for it.
“I saw this really weird necklace hanging there with this giant clear pendant on it. And when I say giant, I mean it was a big pendant, easily two by two or three by three inches,” she told Insider. “It was neon, translucent, and I thought it was made of plastic.”
Smith said as she analyzed the unique piece, it caught the eye of another shopper who pointed out that it had a ’70s vibe and was likely vintage. So Smith looked closer, and she noticed an inscription. She said while she couldn’t read it precisely, she could make out a name and date, seemingly 1973.
“It was $1.99, so I figured I might as well get it. It’s pretty funky-looking. I’ll wear it,” she said.
But before trying it on, Smith first turned to Google Lens, a feature of the Google app that allows you to upload images and search for related photos and text.
“I don’t like to sell things, but I like to keep stuff in my collection and know what it is,” she said.
She uploaded a photo of her necklace and, after a few tries, stumbled upon the work of the Pittsburgh artist Aaronel deRoy Gruber, a sculptor who was famous in the area for her 3D plexiglass pieces.
Though Smith couldn’t confirm it herself, she had a hunch she’d found an authentic piece of Gruber’s work.
“Instantly, I was like, ‘Wow, this is so cool. Now what do I do with this necklace?'” she said.
Smith said she turned to Instagram, where she found a page for the Irving and Aaronel deRoy Gruber Foundation — a group dedicated to preserving and sharing the work of the late artist — and sent them a DM.
Within 1-2 hours, Smith said, the foundation’s director, Brittany Reilly, responded and asked to give her a call.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘I don’t even have to see it in person. I know that is a real Gruber necklace,'” Smith said. “She also said it’s a really special piece because Gruber made quite a few different necklaces — they don’t know how many — but each one has a completely unique color palette and form.”
Smith said the foundation director also revealed that the necklace’s value was between $2,800 and $3,200 — probably on the higher end thanks to its high quality.
The Irving and Aaronel deRoy Gruber Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, Smith didn’t know what to do with the necklace. She knew she couldn’t wear it like costume jewelry, but she also wasn’t eager to let it go. So Reilly presented her with a few options.
“She said, ‘Of course you can keep it. It’s yours. Appreciate it, enjoy it — that’s what Aaronel would want,'” Smith said. “Another option is that she could connect me with private collectors who would pay the full $3,000+ price.”
Ultimately, Smith decided to start with a year-long loan to the gallery so that the necklace could be appreciated by as many people as possible.
She also documented her find on TikTok, where some viewers have affectionately pointed out that the jewelry resembles a Tide Pod. Her video has been viewed more than 391,000 times since it was posted on August 18.
Smith isn’t entirely sure what she’ll do with the necklace in the future. Even the thought of wearing it someday feels like a big decision, she said.
“The loan lasts about a year, so I’m probably going to keep it for a while after and then send it back,” she said. “It’ll be multiple cycles of doing that before I even think about selling it.”
But for now, Smith mostly wants to appreciate her once-in-a-lifetime thrift find — one that was seemingly overlooked by so many others.
“If you have eight or so necklaces on one hook, people are going to miss pretty cool stuff hanging there,” she told Insider.