While a classic piece of jewelry can be a timeless accessory, certain designs and styles (like any fashion item) go in and out of vogue. Beyond personal preferences, the worth of a fine piece of contemporary or estate jewelry is determined by specific measures of quality, craftsmanship, and current market demands.
The internet is continuing to change the way jewelry is bought and sold, taking the transaction out of the environment of retail stores and into the homes of consumers. Bidders and buyers have access to the finest, rarest, most sought-after pieces from around the world.
Types of Jewelry
Estate jewelry is always in high demand. The terms estate, vintage, and antique are often used interchangeably in the jewelry market, but their differences are important in determining the value of an item. In broad terms, estate jewelry refers to any piece that has been previously owned, regardless of its age. Antique and vintage jewelry are two types of estate jewelry.
Since estate jewelry often costs much less than its original price, it can be an excellent choice when purchasing gold or diamonds. The most valuable estate pieces are fine antiques in excellent condition, with no visible signs of wear.
According to government guidelines, to be labeled an antique, a piece must be more than 100 years old. Antique jewelry, popular with collectors, is often handmade, making it more valuable than vintage pieces. The designs and materials of antique pieces vary depending on the era in which they were made and worn.
The most popular eras include:
- Georgian (1714-1837): Crafted by hand, popular pieces during this era included short necklaces, pendants, and brooches, often featuring portraits of loved ones. Floral and scroll motifs were also common, along with the following stones and materials: garnets, topaz, coral, and diamonds set in silver.
- Victorian (1837-1900): During this time, jewelry went mainstream and often included semiprecious stones in order to keep pieces more affordable. Materials and designs varied depending on whether a piece was early, mid-, or late Victorian.
- Early Victorian (1837-1850): Also known as Romantic jewelry, Early Victorian pieces often featured images of natural elements in delicate, floral designs in gold etchings. Colored gemstones and diamonds were also popular.
- Mid-Victorian (1860-1880): The Mid-Victorian period, also known as the Grand period, popularized “mourning jewelry” characterized by subdued designs and dark stones, such as jet, onyx, and amethyst.
- Late Victorian (1885-1900): Jewelry of the Aesthetic, or Late Victorian period, was designed with diamonds and cool-colored gemstones like blue topaz and sapphires. Stars and crescents were common motifs at the time and were featured in lace pins and brooches.
- Edwardian / Belle Epoch (1900-1910): Diamonds and pearls set in platinum, along with chokers, pendants, and strings of pearls rose in popularity. Designs became much more elaborate and decorative and featured gemstones such as emeralds and rubies.
- Art Nouveau (1890-1910): Art Nouveau jewelry mimicked the period’s graceful style through plant, bird, and insect designs. Glass, semiprecious stones, and enamel were popular materials.
- Native American Jewelry: Native American pieces, which date back to the 1850s and are not to be confused with “Indian style” jewelry (which merely mimics the aesthetic), derive their value based on rarity, authenticity, and the demand of particular tribes. Sought-after jewelry includes examples from the Wampum, Haida, Navajo, and Hopi tribes.
Vintage jewelry is more than 20 years old and less than 100. Vintage pieces make great collectors’ items because they reflect the style of a recent decade or era.
One example is Art Deco jewelry, made in the 1920s to 1930s and characterized by geometric lines, sharp angles, and bright colors, featuring Egyptian, African, and Japanese motifs. Diamonds and pearls were both popular during this time.
Costume jewelry, or jewelry made out of non-precious materials, is often considered to be fake fashion jewelry. However, costume jewelry may be made with such quality craftsmanship and materials that it can be comparable in value to fine jewelry. For this reason, costume jewelry is a great place to start for someone looking to start an eclectic collection. Popular brands include Weiss, Haskell, Eisenberg, Coro, and more.
Modern and Contemporary Jewelry
Dating back to the 1980s, contemporary jewelry has evolved from gold and sleek lines that complemented power dressing, to colored diamonds in the 1990s. Consumers became concerned with the quality and origins of gemstones, and new technologies and materials of the decade drove new innovation in design and technique. Plastics, paper, and textiles transformed traditional jewelry of prior years, and avant-garde jewelry makers experimented with different types of body jewelry, such as toe and lip rings. Contemporary jewelry became a wearable art.
In addition to the materials and workmanship involved, the value (in price) of contemporary pieces depends on current market demands and trends, as well as your personal tastes.
Building Your Collection
When shopping for your next piece of jewelry, whether a diamond tennis bracelet, a gold chain necklace, or an antique watch, it’s important to educate yourself about what makes a piece both authentic and valuable, which includes its materials, age, condition, and markings.
Gemstones, also referred to as precious or semiprecious stones, appear in a wide range of sizes and quality, so prices vary greatly. It is possible to find a stone that will fit almost any budget, making gemstones perfect for jewelry makers and wearers alike. Most important to the price is the color, clarity, cut, and rarity. Generally, a smaller gemstone with superb cut, color, and clarity is more valuable than a larger stone with poor cut, color, and clarity.
As a timeless staple, diamonds are always in high demand. Contrary to popular belief, they are not the rarest gemstone. There are others that are more rare, such as grandidierite, alexandrite, and tanzinite. Price, however, also depends on quality. When buying diamond jewelry, prioritize cut over color, and understand that while jewelers may attempt to be as globally conscious as possible, it is nearly impossible to guarantee that a diamond is conflict-free.
Here are a few factors to keep in mind when determining quality:
- Natural vs. Treated: With lesser quality rubies and sapphires, it’s common practice to use heat, laser, or oil treatments to heighten color and luster. With emeralds, it is completely normal to use oil treatments, but this type of treatment is only temporary. Treated stones are less expensive than untreated stones and can be a good place for a novice collector to start. Generally speaking, you should avoid stones that have been irradiated or injected with colored glass or silicone. However, in some cases, like with black diamonds and blue topaz, irradiation is considered acceptable.
- The Four C’s: When it comes to determining the quality of diamonds and gemstones, the most important factors to remember are cut, color, clarity, and carat. The importance of each depends on if you are evaluating a colored gemstone or colorless diamond. However, the proportions of a faceted stone, or the “make,” is also important. The cut is meant to create maximum brilliance, scintillation, and symmetry. If the crown is too low, for example, the gem will lack sparkle.
Pearls are a classic addition to a jewelry collection. Pearls can be natural or cultured, though most that are sold today are cultured, or grown under controlled conditions in an oyster farm. Cultured pearls of exceptional quality can be extremely expensive because of the labor and resources required in their cultivation, but still less costly than rare, natural pearls.
A pearl’s worth is based on its color, luster, orient, texture, and shape. The most expensive cultured pearls are smooth and perfectly symmetrical.
While the market price of precious metals fluctuates on a daily basis, they generally fall along a continuum with platinum at the high end, followed by gold, then palladium, then silver, which is the most abundant precious metal. Industrial metals like steel are one of the most affordable options. Generally speaking, the more pure the metal, the more valuable it is.
Below are a few tips on precious metals:
- Karat, not to be confused with “carat,” is used to describe gold’s purity. In terms of hardness, durability, and affordability, 14k or 18k gold is best. Pure gold, or 24 karat (24k) gold, is too soft for jewelry.
- The most valuable silver used in jewelry is sterling silver, which is 92.5 percent pure silver. “Fine Silver” is 99.9 percent pure and is considered too soft for use in jewelry.
- Silver is more affordable than other options, but is less strong and will tarnish over time.
- If a platinum piece is less than 95 percent pure, it must be sold as platinum alloy.
- Industrial, or “alternative” metals, like stainless steel and titanium, have recently become popularly used in jewelry and are an affordable, high-quality option.
Hallmarks: Purity & Maker’s Marks
A hallmark, put in place by the manufacturer, is an official mark found on jewelry that helps provide insight into when a piece was made and by whom.
The two most common types of hallmarks are purity marks and maker’s marks. The purity mark indicates the percentage of precious metal used in a piece of jewelry and is one of the first marks you should look for. In the United States, purity is indicated by stamps such as 18k. However, many other countries use pictorial marks.
Maker’s marks are stamped, engraved, or laser engraved on a piece of jewelry by an individual silversmith or jeweler. It signifies who is responsible for the purity of the gold, platinum, or silver used in the jewelry, the same as who made the piece. Today, maker’s marks also serve as trademarks, and well-known names add to the piece’s worth.
Finding Your Style
When investing in luxury goods like jewelry, it’s important to spend some time reflecting on your reasons for purchasing and getting to know your personal preferences.
- Am I looking to buy for myself or someone else?
- What kinds of jewelry fit my personal style?
- How often do I plan on wearing this?
- Will the materials work with my lifestyle?
- Do I know how to take care of this kind of jewelry?
- Am I interested in becoming a collector?
If you’re looking to fill out your jewelry box, the best place to start is with the basics, which often include:
- Diamond stud earrings to add versatile elegance to any outfit.
- Gold bangle bracelet for instant personality.
- Chain necklace for everyday wear.
- Tennis bracelet for a chic touch.
- Cultured pearl necklace for a classic staple.
A great way to show off your personal style is to choose something more colorful and bolder than what you have in your basic collection. People who prefer antiques often enjoy the element of history and romance that comes with them.
Tips for Buying Jewelry Online
Buying jewelry online is a very different experience than in a retail store. The following are some tips to help you safely and confidently purchase jewelry from an online source:
1. Research the Reputation
Is the auction house or gallery trustworthy and positively reviewed? What about individual sellers? Do not buy from a seller with a history of unsatisfied customers.
2. Set a Limit
Before you bid or buy, make sure you have set a budget for yourself.
3. Know the Retail Price
Survey the landscape to determine fair market value for a similar pieces to ensure you are not overpaying. Online price databases are a great place to start.
4. Secure Documentation
When buying jewelry like diamonds and gemstones online or in person, make sure the seller has the paperwork from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to certify the authenticity and quality of the stones. Reputable sellers should have appraisal paperwork that verifies their claims.
5. Know the Terms & Conditions
Make sure you understand the auction house or gallery’s terms and conditions of sale. Is there a possibility of recourse if you learn that your purchase is in some way inauthentic?
Certificates & Authenticity
When it comes to buying gemstones, diamonds, and pearls, it’s important to consult a gemology lab to assess certified value.
A quality diamond should have GIA papers while quality colored stones like ruby, sapphire, tsavorite garnet of size, alexandrite, or natural pearls should have AGS papers.
“Be wary of accompanying certificates from laboratories other than internationally respected institutions like the GIA and the American Gemological Laboratories (AGL),” says Lucy Grogan, Vice President and Gallery Director at Grogan & Company. “While these should not stop a buyer from pursuing a piece of jewelry at auction, it is important to know how reliable the certification is.”
When buying antique jewelry, there should be a maker’s mark somewhere on the piece, and if jewelry is said to be pure precious metal it should be stamped with a hallmark. Verify the authenticity of a piece by consulting online databases of maker’s marks and hallmarks, such as Antique Jewelry University.
Jewelry, especially items you frequently wear, will need a regular cleaning. For most items this can be done quite easily. Follow these simple steps:
- Soak your piece of jewelry in lukewarm water with some mild soap, and carefully dry it with a soft (paper) towel.
- When your jewelry shows visible dirt, you might want to use a cotton swab to clean it, especially with larger stones dirt can build up in the setting.
- Take a jeweler’s cloth (available at most jewelers and department stores) and rub the jewelry with it, to bring out its luster.
To clean jewelry that consists of pearls, dip a soft cloth in lukewarm water with mild soap and gently wiping the pearls and the rest of the ring with it. Dry them carefully with a soft cloth. Pearls should never be immersed in water, or be cleaned with aggressive cleaning solutions, because they will damage them.
Ultrasonic cleaning devices have become quite popular, but should be used with extreme care. They are not safe for pearls, and when stones have been treated with an oil treatment (for example), ultrasonic cleaning can damage them.
When you are not sure how to properly clean your jewelry, bring them to a local jeweler. Most jewelry stores offer cleaning services and understand exactly how to properly clean your jewelry. They will also check the condition of the setting and ensure that the stones are still kept sturdy and in place.
Invaluable Price Database
Investing in Jewelry | Biddington’s
Jewelry Buying Tips | Galleria Fine Jewelry
Jewelry Guide | Christie’s
Auction Market Resource
Victoria and Albert Museum
Antique Jewelry University
Gemological Institute of America (GIA)
American Gem Society (AGS)
GIA Diamond Guide