How to start your Jewelry hunt
Your first step into the world of vintage and antique jewelry should be to look around! The Internet is an obvious place to start, but I also recommend a trip to your local library, bookstore, or Amazon. Warman’s Guides and Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry are terrific resources for orienting yourself and training your eye to recognize what is out there and what it is that you like.
When browsing websites, be wary of those that mix new reproduction merchandise with genuine older pieces. Online sites like eBay and Etsy are fun to browse, but are full of dubious listings! Stick with reputable online stores that specialize in vintage jewelry, such as The Three Graces or Lang Antiques.
Offline sources that are great for rummaging include flea markets, thrift shops, antique malls, and auction houses, such as Doyle and Skinner.
What you should know before buying Jewelry
Be warned—things are not always as they seem! If the seller is not a jewelry expert or goldsmith, it is best to take jewelry descriptions with a large grain of salt. Many dealers, knowingly or not, sell reproductions, knock-offs, and mislabeled merchandise.
● Age is not always a given, as many styles have been popular off and on for long periods of time. That cameo could be a Victorian or a 1960s souvenir from Naples.
● Often the only indication that an item is a modern piece is the use of the word style in the description—e.g., “antique-style engagement ring.”
● Never assume that gemstones in older pieces are natural or that unmarked metals are precious. Imitation and synthetic gems are very common in older jewelry.
● Rarity is not guaranteed, even if an item is antique. Middle market jewelry was mass produced in staggering quantities 100 years ago.
What determines the value of Jewelry?
When it comes to jewelry, age has little to do with value. In fact, older jewelry items are often less expensive than comparable brand-new items! When it comes to value, three other factors are more important than age:
Materials that hold up over time, like precious metals and well-cared-for gemstones, tend to be more valuable than items that were cheaply made to begin with. But even a genuine gold and diamond ring can be shoddily manufactured and poorly finished.
A quality piece in good condition will always be a better buy than a quality piece that needs repair. Routine maintenance, like re-sizing or re-tipping of settings, is generally acceptable for older pieces, as long as it is done with skill and care. However, a jewelry piece with broken enamel, missing parts, and botched repairs is likely not worth your money at any price.
Tie pins and brooches are a bit out of fashion, but if these items are your passion, then you are in luck as they are better bargains than rings, earrings, and necklaces of similar quality. But be cautious about paying too much for articles that have little use in the modern world, as less desirable goods should also be less expensive. Try to spend only what is comfortable for you, and make sure you really love the items that you buy.
The thrill of the chase makes for a rewarding and enlightening hobby. You will find some wonderful pieces to wear with some terrific stories behind them. And you’ll have jewels from the whole of human history to search for and learn about.
About the Author
C. M. St. John is a graduate gemologist (GIA) and appraiser at Provident Loan Society. Gems and jewelry are a lifelong interest, and much easier to collect than architecture, which is her other great passion.