4 Tips For Buying Estate Jewelry: Find Your Hidden Gem

Estate Jewelry Hero

Estate jewelry offers a wealth of opportunity for collectors and enthusiasts alike. For some, estate jewelry offers the chance to find high quality pieces at a fraction of the cost of buying first-hand or new. For others, the opportunity to find rare, or even completely unique, jewelry from other eras is a powerful draw.  

But before we discuss estate jewelry, it’s useful to understand exactly what we mean by the term, as it’s often used interchangeably with terms like antique and vintage jewelry. Let’s begin with some definitions.

PLATINUM, EMERALD AND DIAMOND RING, HARRY WINSTON

A Platinum, Emerald and Diamond Ring from Harry Winston, realized $820,000 via Sotheby’s NY (April 25, 2017)

Estate Jewelry

Estate jewelry is any piece that has been pre-owned. Often, its origins will be the estate of a person who has passed away (frequently the seller will be family to whom the jewelry is unsuited). But this is not always the case, and sometimes estate jewelry will hail from living figures who simply wish to sell their collection. Some people use the term estate jewelry to refer to jewelry that is less than 100 years old, although for experts, estate jewelry actually encompasses the following two categories.

Antique Jewelry

The term antique jewelry typically refers to anything over 100 years old (today, that would be anything made before 1921).

Vintage Jewelry

The term vintage jewelry refers to jewelry that hails from a number of eras in jewelry design. For example, vintage jewelry could be from the Edwardian era (e.g. delicate ‘lace’ styles), the Victorian era (e.g. shell cameos became popular during this era), or the Art Deco period (characterized by sharp lines and geometric shapes, such as baguette-cut diamonds). Vintage jewelry most often refers to pieces made between 50-100 years ago, but many different styles and themes can be encompassed in this category.

So now you know the difference between the key terms, here are our top three tips on how to buy estate jewelry.

An Important Diamond Ring

An Important Diamond Ring from the Estate of Louise Hart, realized $250,000 via Hindman
(December 7, 2020)

 1. Examine the piece carefully.

To gather some helpful tips on buying estate jewelry, we turned to Lucy Grogan, Vice President & Jewelry Director at Grogan & Co.

“Never fear that asking questions will reveal your ignorance! On the contrary, actually. The more curious you are, the more a jewelry specialist is likely to share with you. It is through these exchanges that you will be able to get their honest opinion on a piece.”

-Lucy Grogan, Vice President & Jewelry Director, Grogan & Co.

“In terms of what to ask”, says Lucy, “think about general questions you would ask for any large purchase.”

Questions to ask when researching estate jewelry: 

  • How does this piece compare to similar examples in terms of quality? 
  • Do you consider this to be a good example of jewelry from this time period or maker? 
  • How did you determine the price of this piece? 
  • And finally, always ask if there is anything else you should know about the piece. You’ll be surprised to hear how much more you can learn by asking this open ended question.

Look at the piece in bright daylight if possible. A poorly lit environment can mean that you miss cracks in enamel, chipped stones, or scratched metal. If buying on the internet, don’t be afraid to ask for more photographs, or even a short video. The auctioneer should be able to provide further information to justify the asking price. 

Factors to look out for when gauging the condition of a piece of estate jewelry: 

  • Check the stamp. See our Collector’s Guide to Antique and Vintage Jewelry Marks to learn more. 
  • Check the setting to make sure it’s secure; old jewelry can be missing the prongs that are designed to keep valuable gemstones secure. Also check safeties and clasps in case you see any loose connections, and even try to shake your rings gently by your ear to hear if a stone is loose in its setting.
  • Emeralds, in particular, are the softest of the gemstones and can be easily scratched and chipped. 
  • Pearls can be damaged by perfume and hairspray, leading to erosion inside and out. It’s worth checking the knots on a string of pearls but keep in mind that unless seriously eroded internally, pearls can be re-strung.
  • While gold and silver may be scratched, it can also be polished to nearly new by a professional.

2. Don’t underestimate the benefit of wear and tear.

Truly old jewelry will probably have been worn plenty. As such, it should show some gentle signs of wear and tear. That’s not to say it should be damaged, since well-made high quality pieces should be made to withstand wear, and you may be wary of estate pieces that show no signs of wear. Look for signs of excessive wear in any areas where two pieces of metal might frequently rub up against each other when being worn. As with many areas of collecting, fans are divided on whether they prefer pieces with a ‘patina’, which gets better with age, and those who prefer their jewelry ‘as good as new’. 

 3. Do your research. 

There are plenty of free online resources that can help you learn about the estate jewelry market. For many collectors, this probably means starting in a niche area and building up a strong foundation of knowledge before broadening your horizons. As with anything you buy, if you think you’re getting an incredible bargain, it probably means there’s a catch. Having a knowledge base will help you to benchmark costs, identify pitfalls and put you in a strong position to identify a real treasure.  

Some great resources to begin with:

4. Buy what you love.

This is the one piece of advice on which expert collectors in all categories concur. Estate jewelry, if purchased carefully and at a fair price, should continue to hold its value over time. Nevertheless, because the diamond and gold markets do fluctuate, almost nothing is guaranteed to make a profit. For this reason, you should buy what you will love to wear. And if one day you should decide to sell it, then making a profit will be the cherry on top!


Looking for more? Buy jewelry for sale at auction now on Invaluable.