As the gold market continues its strong performance, dancing around the $1,000-per-ounce mark, more collectors are turning to vintage jewelry to add a unique touch to their wardrobes. Vintage jewelry expert Jill Burgum of Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas, gives advice on how to make sure your money is well spent.
Q: What’s your best advice for beginning jewelry buyers and collectors?
A: My most common advice is don’t be afraid to ask questions, whether you are buying from reputable dealers or from shops. There is also a lot of information you can find online. The Internet is a great way to educate yourself. Also, don’t expect that a modern jewelry seller or store will know much about vintage or estate jewelry. They often don’t because it’s simply not their market.
Q: Does “antique, vintage or estate” jewelry mean lesser quality?
A: Not at all! The common thread among those terms is that the item is previously owned, and there is a lot of value in purchasing estate or previously owned jewelry. First, you can get great deals. The premium paid when purchasing a brand new piece at full retail price will not be transferred once that same item is resold. It’s an excellent way to purchase designer names at a fraction of the original price. Also, purchasing estate jewelry is a fantastic way to acquire pieces with “Old World” craftsmanship. This is a lost art. Production costs are prohibitive in today’s market, making it unrealistic from a cost perspective to do a lot of the precision handwork you can find in older pieces of jewelry. Purchasing estate jewelry is also a wonderful way to acquire platinum-set jewelry. Traditionally, platinum jewelry holds its value better than gold jewelry. And don’t forget that you can find diamonds at a fraction of what you would pay at a new jewelry retailer. The savings can be amazing, up to 75 percent.
Q: What’s the one thing you have to look for when buying vintage jewelry?
A: Condition, condition, condition! Don’t overlook damage such as missing prongs, bends and dents.
Q: Anything buyers should be especially wary of?
A: I’m always careful when selecting items that appear as Art Deco. Ask if they really are Art Deco or “Art Deco style” or “Art Deco reproduction.” There will be a significant difference in value and potential resale. You should also ask if the piece is original. Was it always a pendant-brooch or was it originally a brooch that someone altered to make it wearable as a pendant, too? Was the bangle watch originally an Art Deco watch that was later centered in a gold bangle? This is referred to as a “marriage,” meaning a combining of elements, and it affects the piece’s originality and value.
Q: Anything else?
A: Make sure what you are buying is what it is purported to be. Gold vs. gold-filled. Real vs. synthetic. Gemstones vs. glass. You don’t want to purchase a gold jewelry item without gemstones and think that it will go up in value. The gold market fluctuates on a daily basis, but typically not in big enough swings to where you can make money, especially if an item is acquired when the gold market is high.
Q: So how do you distinguish between a good piece and a not-so-good piece?
A: Make sure to check for the quality of craftsmanship, finish, gemstones and repair. Ask yourself if the item is nicely detailed with clean or crisp edges. Check closely to see if the piece displays serious wear. Are there dents or cracks? Are there any signs of repair? Sometimes, yellow gold solder has been used to repair platinum jewelry by unskilled bench jewelers. Definitely keep a keen eye out for signs of lead solder repairs on antique jewelry as this affects the piece’s value. In the case of a bracelet, is the construction stiff vs. flexible? The more flexible piece is better designed and manufactured. Is the piece scratchy? That is a sign of either a new piece or lesser quality of manufacture. If gemstones are involved, are the colors clear, bright and lively? Are they of medium color? Generally, more commercially made items have lighter gemstones of lesser quality, meaning mass production. For diamonds, check the quality. Avoid diamonds that look like snowballs or diamonds appearing like gravel due to heavy inclusions.
Q: What are some of the most collectible names in vintage jewelry and why?
A: There are too many to list, but there are a few “top of the top.” Some of the firms noted for their exquisite designs and craftsmanship include Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Mauboussin, and Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Their true vintage pieces, made prior to 1960 in Paris, command a premium. There are the rare designers, who are so exclusive that their pieces are unsigned, as in the case of JAR. Others produce limited quantities of very high-quality designs and to come across their works is the equivalent of finding treasures. These include Rene Boivin, Carven French, Pierre Sterle, and Janesich. Among contemporary names, Bvlgari, Harry Winston, Graff, and H. Stern all utilize the finest in both diamonds and colored gemstones.
Q: There seems to be controversy as to whether vintage jewelry is a good investment. What’s your take?
A: For the most part, not consider the majority of jewelry to be what most individuals would traditionally think of as a good investment. It typically isn’t high finance. Is it a money-maker on down the road? No. So why the interest or why should you purchase or care about vintage jewelry? Vintage jewelry, as with contemporary jewelry, is largely an emotional purchase. You have to ask: Does it make me feel good? Does the piece excite me? Do you get a visceral reaction or enjoyment? If the answer is yes, then that particular piece is a good investment in terms of the pleasure value. In my opinion, jewelry is meant to be worn and enjoyed. There is also the sentimental value factor that you attach to items. Was it the one-and-only engagement ring a woman wore? Was the item received for a special occasion such as the birth of a child, a birthday or a milestone? Or was the piece passed down through the generations of a family? Sentiment cannot be measured on the open market. It is entirely and uniquely personal.
Q: What if someone still wants to approach this as an investment?
A: To make a true financial investment, you may want to target designer name materials, because they have a better tendency to retain value or, in some instances, even increase in value. Or you may want to consider larger or higher quality diamonds or rare gemstones for investment purposes. Generally speaking, the items that will hold value are going to be beautifully executed and include fine diamonds or colored gemstones set in gold or platinum. As an aside, and would point out that there are far more pieces out in the marketplace that are unsigned vs. signed, but that should not be a negative factor or a reason to overlook them. Beautiful construction combined with fine materials will always be saleable and in demand.
AN EXPERT’S INSIGHTS
Noted vintage jewelry expert Jill Burgum, who received degrees in bench jewelry manufacturing from Bowman Tech and Stewart’s International and previously worked at Butterfield & Butterfield, offers these tips for today’s vintage jewelry market:
+ Trends: Jewelry follows fashion trends, even when looking at vintage and estate pieces. “Right now,” Burgum says, “1970s fashions are hot — so is yellow gold in textured forms. But be careful. The odds on nugget jewelry and rope chains coming back in style are not good.”
+ Quality: When establishing a jewelry wardrobe, look for timeless designs — a simple pair of moderately sized hoop earrings, three-stone rings, a tennis bracelet, diamond solitaire pendant, or stud earrings.
+ Care: Be aware of how you store your fine jewelry. “Don’t toss it into a jewelry box,” Burgum says. “Diamonds will scratch other gemstones as well as other diamonds.”
+ Upkeep: Keep your jewelry clean — it looks so much better, brighter and fresher. “Occasionally check to make sure stones are tight and not loose. Make sure your pearl necklaces do not have stretched silk cord — an indicator that they should be restrung before a potential loss or breakage occurs.”
+ Recycle: Keep in mind the “green factor” when looking at jewelry. If you have items that are (to you) outdated or damaged, turn it into cash that can be applied towards the purchase of something else you would like, or use the money to pay bills or take a trip. “The metal,” Burgum adds, “can also be melted and made into another item. Gemstones can be removed from one item and utilized in another. Be creative.”