Though collecting vintage jewellery might sound like a hobby for the ultra-rich, many jewellery lovers today turn to the past to find fascinating pieces with a story to tell.
There are many reasons why such heirlooms attract serious collectors and mere enthusiasts alike. Aside from the uniqueness of handcrafted jewels created before the times of mass-production, vintage and antique jewellery carry a mystical, romantic beauty reminiscent of a bygone era.
And if that doesn’t entice you, then the sheer thrill of the treasure hunt will!
That said, purchasing vintage pieces or jewellery antiques can be quite intimidating, especially for first-time buyers. The vintage jewellery market is huge and full of pitfalls, both for beginner enthusiasts and experienced collectors.
How can you guarantee a jewel’s authenticity, and how do you know you’re not overpaying, or worse, being scammed?
Here’s some advice from my own practice to help you start your vintage journey and guide you through the dos and don’ts of collecting jewellery from the past.
DO: EDUCATE YOURSELF
Start by building a broad understanding of jewellery periods by reading related books, articles, and magazines. Discover the one that speaks to your heart and can be easily incorporated into your style and blended with your existing collection.
Then drill down deeper into its aesthetics, design elements, famous makers, and design houses. It’s also a good idea to visit vintage jewellery exhibitions or shops, where you can see the actual pieces and feel the different characteristics of each period.
Developing expertise will help you understand the context of each era, recognise old styles and techniques, and build an educated eye.
TIP: My favourite go-to resource is Danielle Miele’s of Gem Gossip reading list, but you can also head to my blog for posts covering jewellery periods from the early 1800s to the 1980s. To know the history of vintage costume jewellery makers, I’d recommend Trufaux Jewels and CJCI.
DON’T: BE AFRAID TO ASK MANY QUESTIONS
What year/period was the piece made?
Is it signed?
What metal and gemstones is it made of?
What’s the provenance, and where was the item sourced?
Don’t feel awkward about requesting detailed information, and always be curious about the story of the piece you’re intending to buy. As a new collector, it’s important that you play detective! Speak to experts and handle as much jewellery as you can, to build confidence in what you are possibly acquiring.
Antique and vintage sellers at markets, fairs, or trade shows have a wealth of knowledge, which they’ll be happy to share if you just ask the right questions. This way, you’ll also be adding to the savvy you’re building on the side and putting it to use.
TIP: You can sign up at ResearchJewel to access a weekly updated, vast database of jewellery marks and photos from antique ads and magazines to find any available information on names, periods, and details about a jewel.
DO: START SMALL
If collecting vintage jewellery is a new hobby to you, start with small, informed purchases until you’re fully versed in the ins and outs of the market. A costume piece that resonates with you or an everyday fine jewellery item that won’t break the bank is a safe place to start. Once you’ve built more expertise and feel confident enough, you can venture into higher-ticket items.
TIP: Remember that reputable sellers will provide gemstone certificates from credible institutes such as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or The International Gemological Institute (IGI).
DON’T: TAKE THE CHEAPEST OFFER ON THE TABLE
Vintage doesn’t mean cheap. And if it seems too good to be true, then it’s likely a fake.
There are many reproductions out there or vintage-inspired jewellery created in the style of a certain period. But these are simply modern-day pieces created to mimic old designs and can’t beat an original’s value or level of craftsmanship. It’s a bit like comparing a Van Gogh replica print with the real thing.
Some clear signs give away a fake when you know where to look. For example, a century-old piece in mint condition with zero scratches or abrasions to the stones would raise a red flag. Or a Georgian or Edwardian jewel with round brilliant cut diamonds, a cut that wasn’t popular in those periods.
Also, check to make sure the gemstone itself is authentic and always ask if it’s treated, synthetic, or an imitation. Specifically for diamonds, you can try the ‘fog test’. Hold the piece between two fingers and breathe on it with a puff of air, forming a light fog on the diamond’s surface. If the mist doesn’t clear almost straight away, then you know it’s likely to be a fake.
If a piece looks slightly “off” or has been altered somehow, it may have been removed from its original setting, which may devalue it.
And of course, if possible, check the hallmarking on any piece to see if it’s genuine.
DID YOU KNOW: “They don’t make them like they used to anymore”, you might have heard your grandparents complain. And they’re right. You see, the extraordinary beauty and refined elegance that distinguishes old jewellery is a result of high-quality work by skilled artisans, who usually took a long time creating bespoke pieces by hand for members of the upper class. The same level of quality, detail, and workmanship is almost impossible to find even in the best jewellery made today, meaning that its value will only keep growing!
DO: PRICE CHECK
Not all vintage jewellery is rare. A good way to check if a price is reasonable is to research similar pieces on the internet or in auction results. Remember that the price should match the quality of the jewel’s metal and stones. For instance, a 9K and paste ring should not match a contemporary 18K and diamond ring just because it’s vintage.
Vintage sellers and antique dealers may incorporate varying margins depending on the size of their business but also based on their customers’ “willingness to pay”.
Rare and sought after pieces are usually signed, were made in limited quantities, have a known provenance, and hence don’t show up in the market often. If you want to think about it in pure economic terms, these demand hefty price tags and are driven by the rule of price elasticity for luxury goods.
Such jewellery is also considered a great investment and usually surpasses its auction estimates. For example, in December, a Bulgari Gold and Antique Coin ‘Monete’ Necklace surprised bidders in Sotheby’s New York by selling for $52,920 when the estimate had been a lowly $5 to $7 thousand!
But even higher prices have been achieved for really rare jewels, with two of Marie-Antoinette’s diamond bracelets selling for $9.35 million in November 2021, far more than their initial $2 to $4 million estimate.
TIP: Use RapNet to stay updated on auction news, jewellery markets and diamond prices.
DO: MAKE FRIENDS AND JOIN THE COMMUNITY
The best way to start a collection is to get involved. Join blogs focused on vintage jewellery, follow experts in the field, and don’t be shy to ask questions. Start going to viewings and auctions, where you can witness market trends first-hand and see what sells and what doesn’t.
You can even seek professional appraisal services for pieces you already own to appreciate what you have and learn a thing or two that’ll help your future acquisitions. Build a trusted community that you can consult with and pick the brains of those with more experience.
TIP: Don’t forget that building relationships extends to sellers and dealers, as the industry is very trust-based and making good connections will benefit the growth and quality of your collection.
DON’T: FORGET YOU’RE COLLECTING OLD JEWELLERY
Now that you have started on your journey of collecting jewellery antiques, it is essential to remember that vintage pieces are precious and delicate, and some have seen almost a century’s worth of winters. Therefore, properly storing and caring for your vintage jewels is essential for preserving their condition and ensuring their collectable value remains intact.
If you have the honour of owning a 100-year-old piece, treat it with care and know that this isn’t your day-to-night, gym-to-party jewellery. For best practice, store in velvet boxes or pouches in a way that’s separated from other jewellery to avoid scratches.
DID YOU KNOW: Antique and vintage jewellery is also more sustainable since it doesn’t require any manufacturing resources and was created using the materials, techniques, and craftsmanship of the day. And in the original form of recycling, they have been changing owners ever since.
I hope these tips help guide you in the bewildering world of collecting vintage jewellery and give you the confidence to start your own collection of old treasures!
Let me know in the comments if any of the above advice helped you in your journey, and don’t forget to check out my shop for stunning jewellery from the past.