Guide to Buying Estate Jewelry

August 2013

The overall jewelry market has been sluggish over the past few years mainly due to the depressed economy. But surprisingly, the vintage jewelry sector continues to show impressive growth and increased popularity among enthusiastic shoppers. Record numbers of devoted fans of antique jewelry are flocking to auction houses and jewelers specializing in estate pieces in the hopes of finding rare, original pieces to add to their collections or give as gifts.

There are many reasons to love estate jewelry. Whether it's a locket, or a brooch, or perhaps a ring, each piece of antique jewelry comes with a unique story. In some cases, the actual ownership and history of a piece are as compelling and interesting as the article of jewelry itself. However, the term caveat emptor truly applies here. In Latin, it means "let the buyer beware".

If you love vintage jewelry, it is important to know what to look for when you are contemplating a purchase. Unfortunately, what often appears to be a genuine antique piece is actually a clever reproduction of the original.

How to Shop for Estate Jewelry

  1. Stay Calm and Unemotional. It can be difficult to keep emotion out of the shopping equation. However, it's better to remain calm and unattached to an estate piece as much as possible. If you are going to an auction house to make a purchase, it can be very tempting to be swayed by cheaper prices. While getting a good deal on a vintage piece can happen, it is also very important to be circumspect when bidding. Many people become fixated on a certain jewelry item and end up paying much more than it is actually worth.
  2. Investigate the Seller. Information on nearly all reputable auction houses can be found online. Do some research and make sure you know whom you are dealing with. If you are looking at websites such as eBay or Craigslist, check the seller. Usually there are ratings given for each specific seller and previous customer comments are available to view. Remember that estate jewelry pieces are typically one-of-a-kind so if someone is offering 10 pieces of the same antique necklace, the chances are fairly good that these are knock-offs of the original.
  3. Learn to Recognize Fakes. Some period jewelry pieces are known to have imitation stones. The Art Deco period is a good example of this. Always check with a respected jeweler or auction house to determine that the stones in a specific piece are original and that the settings have not been tampered with. Antique jewelry makers were known to leave some type of mark on their pieces so that their works would be readily identifiable as authentic. If you are looking at a piece which is purported to have been made before 1950, be sure to look for some type of "signature" from the maker such as initials or other distinctive icon. There are websites that post pictures of well-known vintage jewelers' marks. These sites also offer explanations and information about the various craftsmen and their pieces.
  4. Be Alert to Gem Treatments. Diamonds have to undergo different processes before they can be used in jewelry. These can include cutting and polishing. These enhancements bring out the natural beauty of the gem. They never hide any flaws or harm the stone. Treatments are a totally different matter. These are done to lesser quality stones to make them appear more valuable than they really are and to drive up the prices of the jewelry pieces that contain the treated gems. Information about treatments should be fully disclosed on sales receipts and any appraisals.
  5. Always Make a Close Inspection. Dealers often use the word patina when describing a vintage piece of jewelry. This is simply the sheen that occurs to the metal (gold, silver, etc.) after years of use. While some dealers do restore older pieces of jewelry, for the most part estate jewelry is sold in as-is condition. This eliminates the chance that the individual piece may be damaged in any way during a restoration attempt.
  6. Know the Estate Jewelry Market. Before making a purchase, research the prices of items you are interested in and determine what the fair value of each piece is. Have a reasonable number in mind (ahead of time) that you are willing to spend so that you don't risk overpaying for an item.
  7. Classics Hold Their Value. Much like the Hermes Kelly bag or a vintage Dior gown, timeless jewelry pieces also increase in value over time and are the easiest to resell. There is always a great demand for Victorian Era estate pieces and therefore they command a higher price. Trendy pieces seldom make good investments.
  8. Be Wary of Serious Flaws. There is a huge difference between a worn piece and a damaged piece. A vintage piece should show signs of age and wear. These are what make antique jewelry items unique and fascinating. Missing stones, worn plating, and scratched enamel are not necessarily signs of age, only of misuse and neglect. Be very cautious before buying an estate piece of jewelry that requires repair as this will lower the value of the piece considerably.
  9. Consider the Personality of the Jewelry. Are you purchasing an item for yourself? Is it a gift? Think about the piece and make sure it is something you will enjoy wearing or suits the person for whom it is being bought. Buy pieces that you love and whose histories intrigue you. That's the beauty of estate jewelry... each is a little piece of the past you can enjoy in the present (and hopefully well into the future).