Vintage Precious Jewelry: Understanding, Buying, And (Not) Selling It

Vintage jewelry seems to baffle people as much as, if not more than, vintage furs. And it has an even higher cargo of expectations about its value and emotional significance. Plus, who doesn’t like looking at shiny sparkly things? So: a post about vintage precious jewelry.

In my early 20s, I lucked out with a part-time  job at a high-end jeweler. The jeweler was a kind and artistic man, and he told me about the pieces he made, the stones he used, and what was and wasn’t worth one’s dollar. I came away with a lifelong appreciation of jewelry. A month ago, I learned that he had died, which made me sad. So, this post is for you, Vaughn.

What Is Vintage Precious Jewelry?

Vintage precious jewelry = mid-Victorian to modern jewelry made with gold, silver, platinum, and precious stones, including pearl strands.

People often assume that all vintage precious jewelry was like Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels – they visualize spectacularly valuable pieces.

Hey, I wish it was all like this too

Elizabeth Taylor and her emeralds. Brooch on right is Bulgari.

But there was a huge range of items, many of them for the mass market:

Vintage jewelry examples.

Left to right: rose gold bow/heart locket, 1940s diamond engagement ring, multi-stone bracelet, Victorian Bohemian garnet brooch, Art Nouveau amethyst and gold lavalier pendant.

These smaller pieces blend into the lives that 95% of us live without being overly formal or ostentanious. They can add vintage style to a contemporary outfit, and be the perfect finishing touch for a vintage or pin-up event.

Behind the cut: more information about jewelry economics, when you should and shouldn’t sell old jewelry, how to tell if metals and gems are precious, and what I learned working at that high-end jeweler.

Jewelry Economics

Recently I bought a secondhand piece of precious jewelry. It cost about as much as a “reproduction retro” pin-up outfit of dress-shoes-fascinator. What am I still going to be wearing 10 years from now, the precious jewelry or the pin-up outfit? How many of your clothes do you still wear 10 years after acquiring them? You catch my drift?

It is better financial policy to dress like Steve Jobs did and do other things with your money. But if you like to wear attractive items that show off human art and craft, you will have a lower cost-per-wearing with an item or ornament you wear every day, or that has a longer wear life. Jewels combine art, sentiment, and the hope that they will be a heirloom. And antique or vintage precious jewelry will stay in your wardrobe through many phases of your life.

Some Vintage Jewelry Basics

To learn about vintage precious jewelry, hit the library, do your reading, visit jewelry resources and forums – Antique Jewelry University is online for you – and look around antique stores. The Hairpin blog has a “This Week In Estate Jewelry” series that made me realize I wasn’t alone in loving the good old stuff. You’ll develop “an eye”. If you have a particular piece, and you want to learn more about it, search around for pieces like that.

Pearls were almost always present in a vintage jewelry box. Seed pearls were used to enhance other gemstones without the cost of diamonds. The pearl boom didn’t end with the introduction of cultured pearls in the 1930s. From Edwardian times to the late 1980s, a pearl necklace was nearly mandatory.

Diamond engagement rings only became popular in the 1930s. Many older diamond rings lack the larger stones and/or use of smaller diamond melee/pave that is popular now.

Many Victorian to 1940s pieces were made with rose gold, gold that is alloyed with copper. This has just come back into fashion again – witness Tiffany making a big deal out of its new trademarked RUBEDO metal, which, if you read the fine print, is really a high-copper, probably-low-K rose gold. White metals, platinum and white gold, were popular in the Edwardian and Art Deco periods. 1940s jewelry frequently combined rose gold with green or yellow gold.

Is It “Real”?

To a certain extent, if you can hold a piece of jewelry in your hand, it is real. Putting aside quantum debates on the nature of existence, when someone asks if a jewelry piece is “real”, they are asking if it is 100% precious metals and stones.

How to tell if pearls are real, i.e., produced by a pearl oyster instead of a factory? Rub them against your teeth. Pearls with pearl oyster nacre on their surface will feel a little gritty; faux pearls are smooth. How to tell if pearls are cultured or 100% natural nacre to the core? Pearls in Victorian jewelry are all natural – and they tend to be small. Pearls from the 1930s onwards tend to be cultured. In strings, smaller pearls are more likely to be 100% natural nacre. With these small strings, hold them up against the brightest light you can find – do they have a visible white core? If so, they are cultured pearls. For larger strands, ask a gemologist.

How to tell if gemstones are real? That’s a lot trickier. This is why people actually pay gemologists money. If a stone looks cloudy,  has visible scratches, or doesn’t feel distinctly cool to the touch, the chances are high that it is glass. Another indicator is that if it’s been set in gold plated/filled metal, or silver plated metal, it’s more likely to be glass or otherwise faux, too.

How to tell if metal is “real” or pure? Examine the piece for gold marks, silver marks, or plating/electroplating/gold fill marks. Grab a magnifying glass, or use a digital camera to peer closely and see the marks as follows.

Gold marks: Gold jewelry is often marked with the karat, as a karat level (9k) or a gold percent (375 = 37.5% gold, 9 karat). A full list of these marks, and additional British hallmarks, is here. Look on the inside of a ring band, or the clasp of a necklace/bracelet, for these marks. Gold pendants and older pieces are often unmarked.

Silver marks: Silver jewelry is normally marked with the % sterling. Common sterling marks include: 925S, 813H, 800, or 935. Additional hallmarks show that a piece was made by a silversmith, not a jewelry factory – view more information here.

Gold filled and silver plated: Filled/plated vintage jewelry may, or may not, be marked. Compared to the 37.5% gold of a 9k alloy, gold filled/plated jewelry is normally 5% gold over silver or brass. The following marks indicate that a piece is filled or plated. Gold: GF, RGP, GE. Silver:  EPNS, EPBN. This page is not only an excellent resource on gold filled/plated jewelry, but it has lots of examples of 1940s jewelry.

As more and more 9/14/18k gets sacrificed to the “We Buy Gold!” shills,  gold filled items are preserving the charm of older fine metalwork and vintage jewelry styles.

Gold filled "retro" 1940s ribbon brooch - historical and affordable. Click the link to see it from the seller.

Vintage Gemstones

A nice "mass market" Edwardian piece.

Vintage scroll pin with rubies.

These gems are frequently used in mid-range vintage precious jewelry:

  • Rubies
  • Sapphires
  • Moonstones
  • Opals
  • Garnets (lots and lots of dark red pyrope garnets)
  • Pearls
  • Turquoise
  • Agate

What an evocative list! And lots of pieces mix up the opals with the garnets, the moonstones with the rubies, the pearls with the turquoise.

But be aware that glass and synthetic stones were prevalent in “vintage times,” too. Victorians used lots of gold plate and glass stones. In the 20s and 30s, 9-carat gold settings often had false, or “paste” stones in them. Synthetic rubies and sapphires were sold from the early 1900s on, and synthetic or “Chatham” emeralds from the 1960s on. If a piece is gold-plated or filled/rolled gold, don’t expect the shiny white stones set in it to be actual diamonds.

After writing all this about identifying synthetic stones, I took one of my own family heirlooms, a ring with a pale blue stone the size of an average six-sided dice, to a gemologist. The stone was scratched, and something about the color seemed off for an “aquamarine.”  Turned out that the stone was a synthetic spinel, but that the setting was 18k gold with diamonds.

Not Actually Vintage Stones

I’m seeing lots of items being sold online as “vintage” or “antique” or “Art Deco” that include the following stones. And these stones aren’t appropriate for the time period. Either the old setting has a new stone in it, or something ain’t right.

  • Tanzanite – Genuinely valuable, but only discovered in 1967. Unknown in the wider market till the 1970s. This means that there is no Art Deco tanzanite jewelry.
  • Blue topaz – Natural blue topaz is extremely rare, the large affordable stones we see today are produced by irradiating clear or yellow topaz. Again, synthetics/treated stones were not widely distributed until the 1970s. Mind-boggling blue topaz information here. “London blue” and mystic topaz? Also treated.
  • Green amethyst – Nigh-unknown until the 1950s. When natural, it is known as “prasiolite”, when “treated” it has been treated using radiation. 95% of what you’ll see in jewelry is treated.
  • “Fancy” sapphires have only recently begun to be appreciated outside of Asia. I like fancy sapphires a lot – they come in all the colors of the rainbow, plus pink, they are very durable, and their mining is reasonably ethical. But, apart from the pink sapphires that overlap with red rubies, they weren’t used a lot before the 1950s.

Vintage Diamonds

Plenty of people want to tell you about these, I’ll just send you to History of Diamond Cutting at Antique Jewelry University, bless ‘em. If you want to talk about diamonds until you turn blue in the face, I recommend Pricescope.

If You Own It, Keep It or Rework It

My advice on selling your vintage precious jewelry is simple.

DON’T.

I can hear you right now, going “but-but-but-but!!!” like a motorboat. You’re broke. Gold prices are through the roof. You never wear it because it’s too small, too big, too weird. It’s far too valuable for your everyday life. Or, you’re aware it’s mass-market-jewelry mediocrity that will never wind up in a museum.

The heartbreaking reality is: as an independent seller, it is difficult to get wholesale value for your jewelry, let alone retail. And once you sell a piece of jewelry, you’re never getting it back. I’ve sold two or three pieces and I profoundly regret each one, in retrospect.

So, what can you do instead?

Rework it: I have reworked three pieces of jewelry I received in my younger days. And, just as my regret at selling some pieces endures, so too my pleasure in the pieces I’ve had reworked lasts. I get the memories and warm feelings towards my generous family, while gaining items that match my taste and lifestyle. One piece went from being a clunker in my jewelry box, given to me by one of my grandmothers, to a ring I have worn every day for the past 5 years.

Keep it: If you’ve read this far, nobody needs to tell you about the benefits of into just holding onto large diamonds and heavy gold. Let’s talk about less exceptional stuff. Mass-market jewelry takes between 75 and 100 years to become, if not an investment, charming and historical. And charm and appeal are in the eye of the beholder. You may think Grandma’s ring is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. Your granddaughter might find her great-great-grandma’s ring the most graceful, retro-evocative jewel in the world. So if you don’t like Grandma’s ring, tuck it away and give the future a chance to like it.

Oh, all right, if you must sell: Sometimes even I have to admit that selling is OK. One time, a friend/acquaintance with cutting-edge, avant-garde style inherited some exceptionally lovely romantic jewelry. It was a shame to let the pieces gather dust in a safety deposit box. So, we talked selling. Do your own homework first! For the sake of those of us who love quality vintage jewelry, do NOT go to your pawnshop, to Cash Converters, or to a “gold buyer” with these items.” Midrange pieces can be sold through consigning antique stores. With high-level or historical interest pieces, talk to your local quality auction house about their jewelry sales to realize the best prices.

There are problems in selling vintage precious jewelry on eBay and TradeMe. It’s hard to get good photographs of jewelry outside of a studio – some advice is here.  Non-professional individual sellers often underprice these items. If the items are appraised, they can realize a sale price of 1/2 to 1/4 the appraisal, depending on the piece. Shocked? Poor rate of return? That’s the second-hand jewelry market for you.

What I Learned From Vaughn Roud

Here is some of the jewelry wisdom I learned in three years of working for Vaughn Roud at Bryn Mawr Jewelers.

  • Quality rubies and sapphires are more rare than fine diamonds. If you want a piece to “hold value”, go for good rubies and sapphires.

    I just want to pet it!

    Gem-eyed seal brooch made by Vaughn Roud.

  • Insure valuable pieces. One time somebody bought a $40,000 ruby ring – and it was stolen the next month. They’d insured it, so they came back to Vaughn for…another $40,000 ruby ring!
  • You don’t have to break the bank: there is fine jewelry for every budget.
  • Jewelry can and should be fun and creative.
  • It’s rewarding to build a relationship with an independent jeweler. Vaughn had devoted customers who came back again and again. I, too, with a fine jeweler I like, go to them repeatedly and send my friends to them. (Right now my two favorite jewelers in New Zealand are Unio for new work and Three Buckets Full for vintage.)
  • Shopping for, or having a piece reworked, isn’t license to be a bitch. If you’re buying something with your partner, agree on a budget in advance and share that number with your jeweler. Don’t wait until you’re in the store to argue about it!
  • Store valuable jewelry securely – not in a jewelry box on top of your dresser. Pearls, especially, need to be in their own little bags or boxes, to keep them from getting scratched.
  • Have “ring dishes” near your sinks so that your removed rings have a safe place to be put down briefly. People came into the store with an endless stream of stories about lost diamond rings and saved-from-the-plumbing rescues.
  • When you vacuum or sweep around a jeweler’s bench, go through the captured dust in case there’s gold shards or “melee” diamonds that have escaped.

I should end with some pithy statement like “The most important thing is the stories your jewels carry!” or “For maximum investment and return…” But, if you love jewelry, really, the most important thing is not losing it or having it stolen. Again, I encourage you to keep your vintage fine jewelry, so that you don’t steal from yourself.

 

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