Every family has heirlooms of some sort that are passed down through generations. It could be furniture, art, or precious photographs that older generations passed on to younger ones to preserve the family's legacy and – in older times particularly – to keep wealth in the family. These days, jewellery is probably one of the most common heirlooms, passed down from mothers to daughters or given as wedding gifts and so on. Of course, for most people these items have enormous sentimental value and they would want to keep those traditions and memories alive. But what happens if you come across something in, for example, a flea market, or tucked away in the corner of an attic? There is no way of telling how old or valuable something is just by looking. Here are some basic steps you should take to get a better picture of what you've got in your hands.
Types of Antique Jewellery
The first thing to be aware of when trying to identify antique jewellery is that there are actually a few different categories of 'antique'. To be be truly antique, the piece of jewellery must be at least 100 years old, although different experts give slightly different timeframes depending on the region where the piece originated. For example, US jewellery that is 100 years old is most definitely antique, but jewellery that originated in a European country may need to be twice that, or more, to be given the title because of Europe's very long history. It is not uncommon for dealers to brand a piece as 'antique' just because it looks old or shows signs of ageing, without actually having any real basis for the definition.
If a piece is between 20 to 100 years old it is considered to be 'vintage' – again, experts and institutions have broad variations on this; there is no strictly defined timeframe for a vintage piece. Loosely defined, vintage jewellery is anything that is not new and not modern. The term often gets confused in modern usage for anything that is classical in style. However, it is impossible to make vintage jewellery; it is of course possible to design new jewellery in a 'vintage' style, but experts won't consider it to be the real deal. Using vintage pieces to create new jewellery won't fool them either!
The third category of antique jewellery is retro. This is generally considered to be anything from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that is bright, bold, and elaborately designed. Retro jewellery has colourful gemstones, unusual designs, and is often quite large in size. It also emulates past fashions and styles. Genuine retro jewellery is much sought after today and is considered to be very collectible. This is not only because retro jewellery is often featured in classic movies and on the iconic stars of showbiz, but also because it is still very wearable today.
Identifying Antique Jewellery
There are four main components to identifying antique jewellery; materials, fasteners, stone settings, and styles. While gold and silver have been used consistently in jewellery making for centuries, white gold has only been used since the 1920s. Stones that were very popular in early jewellery and not so popular now (for environmental reasons as well as stylistic ones) include pearls, coral, ivory, enamel and tortoiseshell. Painted gold and micro mosaic tiles were also very common.
Fasteners are one of the most important giveaways for identifying antique jewellery. By far the biggest hint that you've got a valuable piece in your hands is if the pin of the fastener extends past the rest of the piece, as this was almost exclusively used in jewellery from the 1700s and earlier. In the 1800s, 'c' clasps were the most popular form of fastener, while from the 1890s onwards, screw clasps were commonly used. Riveted hinges, lever backs, fold-over latches, clip backs, barrel clasps and double pin stems are all post 1900 inventions, so if you see any of these on your jewellery, it won't become an antique for a few more decades.
The cuts and settings of stones on your jewellery is another very important element that can identify its age. There are a myriad of different types of settings and cuts, so it helps to have some knowledge of what you're looking at so you can make an educated guess. As a rule, the older the piece, the rougher the cut of the stone will be – although you'll need to examine it in fine detail to be able to see this. Antique jewellery was made entirely by hand, so the surfaces of the gems are usually not as precise and smooth as modern jewellery. Without the type of technology we have today, high collars were necessary to keep stones in place. A common practice was to place a layer of foil on the back of the jewel to make it more reflective and sparkly, and to avoid the foil tarnishing the stone needed an air-tight seal. So, if you see a piece with a flat, air-tight back, you could be on to something.
Finally, the style of the piece is usually a good indicator of how old it is; however, it is just as likely that it could come from a later period and be a throwback of sorts, so be careful. Ornate enamelling was commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Georgian times (18th and 19th centuries), engraving was all the rage. In the Victorian era, animals and symbols were widespread themes in jewellery and just about any functional item of clothing was turned into jewellery; from hair clips and shoe buckles to brooches and pocket chains.
Valuing and Selling Antique Jewellery
Even if your piece of jewellery has several of the above elements and you're confident that it is a ripe old age, there is a high chance that it could still be fake. Costume jewellery and 'paste' pieces were as common a few hundred years ago as they are today. It was customary for socialites to have jewellery to match every one of their outfits, but since that would quickly become a very expensive habit, cheap knock-offs were made. When travelling on the road, higher classes of society would also take fake replicas of their jewels instead of the real thing in case a drive by robbery occurred – not wearing any jewellery instead just wasn't an option! A hallmark is always a definite sign that the piece is genuine, however, they only began to be used from the 1950s onwards.
If you want to get your jewellery accurately valued or are thinking of selling it, you will need it to be appraised by a professional. This usually involves bringing it to a reputable, qualified jeweller for cleaning and inspection. They will remove any minuscule particles of dirt or dust lodged in the facets of the piece, polish it, and then closely examine it to check if the gemstones etc. are real and to note any imperfections, as well as the general condition of the piece.
The appraiser will take several different factors into account when determining the value of the piece. These include first of all the condition of the piece and the purity of the gemstones and precious metals used. Next, they will factor in how old the piece is and any transformations it may have gone through (i.e a piece that started out as a pendant and was later made into a ring), as well as anything that may devalue it such as scratches. Other factors to consider include anything known about the lineage of the piece; who owned it, where it was made, etc., and the craftsmanship that was involved in making it.
When you have received your appraisal, you have three options for selling your antique jewellery. The first is to sell it to the jeweller who appraised it. They will have the best indication of what it's worth and the best means to sell it, and will be willing to give a very fair price for it. However, they will obviously want to make a profit, and will sell it on at a higher price.
The second option is consignment, i.e a jeweller agrees to take your piece at an agreed price with you, the seller, making a percentage of the profit (this can be anywhere from 10 – 20 per cent of the sales price). They are in effect selling it through you, so this process usually takes a lot longer than if they buy the piece from you outright.
The third option is auctioning your jewellery. This is usually only a viable option for extremely valuable items. You can choose to either auction online or use an authentic auction house. This is mostly a game of luck; there is on way of telling who, if anyone, will be interested in bidding on your piece and how much they're willing to bid. On the other hand, if a few different people are interested in bidding then you could end up with twice as much of a profit than if you go through any of the other channels.
Don't forget about the alternative however; you can always make your jewellery become a new family heirloom of your own to be passed down from generation to generation for years to come.