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the trend for digging up old denim jeans

Vintage Denim is Worth its Weight in Gold

In 1848 the discovery of gold deposits in California sparked the legendary Gold Rush that saw thousands of eager men travel to the state from across the continent in the hope of striking it rich. Most never did make their fortunes and many died trying. The Wild West was also rich in silver which was mined extensively in the latter half of the 19th century. The mines closed in 1896 when silver prices dropped dramatically. Now the abandoned silver mines have given up new treasures. Some enterprising individuals are excavating the entrances of old silver mines in California, Nevada and Arizona but they aren't looking for precious metals. They are digging for vintage jeans!

A Californian Silver Mine

Digging in abandoned mine shafts for some dirty old denim might seem like a strange thing to do but the dangerous work can yield impressive rewards. American Michael Harris certainly did not realise the value of what he was digging up when he uncovered some denim scraps whilst digging for antique bottles.

Harris was making money from digging up vintage whisky bottles but had started to come across pieces of denim in the debris. He did a little research and was shocked to discover just how much old denim could be worth. Silver miners would wear their Levi's when working in the mines. When they got a new pair they would either simply discard the old ones or tear them up and use them to lag pipes and so plenty of denim was left in the mines. Collectors will now pay huge sums to get their hands on vintage jeans and even scraps of denim can have a significant value. Levi's themselves purchase vintage styles for their own collection and so Harris quickly realised that he had stumbled across a new kind of gold mine.

Michael Harris has switched his focus from antique bottles to vintage denim and has kept digging. He and his father sometimes have to shift 100 tons or more of rocks to uncover a find but they have often emerged with significant treasures. They have found and then sold a pair of Neustadter Brothers jeans for $21,000 and a pair of Levi's fetched $30,000. He has in his possession a pair of Levi's from 1873 which was the first year that they were manufactured. These have yet to be sold as the family have taken such an interest in denim that they have built their own collection and consider themselves to be archivists and historians. However those 1873 Levi's are worth north of $100,000 and so they might have to go!

A Younger Vintage

Now you probably don't feel inclined to head off to the USA to spend your time scrabbling around in the precarious entrances of old silver mines. Happily you could strike denim gold a lot closer to home. It isn't only 19th century denim that has a significant value. Levi's of a much more recent vintage can be valuable too and so it is definitely a good idea to keep your eyes peeled for denim treasure that could be lurking in the loft or on offer at car boot sales.

Levi's 501 jeans were always fashioned from selvedge denim until 1980 and so any jeans made before this date could have some value and can be spotted. Unworn pairs have the highest value and dark denim is more desirable than faded denim. The size of the jeans can also affect the value as people tend to collect jeans in the size that they wear. For this reason a pair with a 32 inch waist will be worth more than a pair with a 44 inch waist.

There are certain features to look out for which will help you to date a pair of Levi's jeans and to assess their value. For instance the red tab on the right back pocket of Levi's first appeared in 1936. This featured the name LEVI'S in capital letters. By 1971 only the L was capitalised in the name on the tabs. Levi's also used concealed rivets from 1936 but these were changed in 1965 to visible rivets on the back pockets. So if you find a pair of jeans with the capital letters or the concealed rivets you are in the money. Vintage Levi's can be worth anything from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. be warned though, there are plenty of fakes about so if you are in any doubt about a pair get them checked by an expert.

You should also bear in mind that today's jeans are tomorrow's vintage styles and so it could be worth hanging on to your jeans when you have stopped wearing them. It might even be worth investing in a few pairs to put aside unworn for the future. Of course it is always difficult to know what styles will become collector's pieces in the future. Will some of the jeans in the Jean Store range be worth their weight in gold one day? Hard to say but you just never know.