Buying Antique Jewelry: A Very Inexpert Guide

I combine a number of characteristics that should make it illegal for me to buy antique jewelry. I’m impulsive, I simply adore art deco or too often things that look like art deco, I know practically nothing about gemstones, I’m far from wealthy, and hate being taken advantage of. These traits, taken as a whole, have taken a disastrous toll on my bank account and self-image, if not my jewelry box. I have over paid, over estimated ages, and mistaken glass for an embarrassing number of valuable stones.

Hard experience and a growing and eccentric collection has forced me to learn some methods of dealing with my antique jewelry buying compulsion and bloody minded refusal to learn anything practical about the craft and science of its manufacture and restoration. I have developed something of a routine I go into when considering a probably irresistible silver brooch sitting on the yard sell table.

This technique if applied by someone taking a sensible approach to learning about collecting antique jewelry and accompanied it with a steady diet of lapidary texts and price guides they might just become, unlike me, a qualified collector.

When you first spot a piece of jewelry you would consider buying don’t look at the price tag. It sounds crazy but right now knowing the price would just confuse the issue and set expectations about the piece that might cloud your judgment. Ask the seller to let you hold the piece to examine it, while looking it over and so making a captive audience of the seller ask lots of questions. Ask questions you are sure you know the answer to as well as the ones you don’t. Even the expertly informed make mistakes.

Ask what the piece is made of; many materials, silver and certain types of pewter for example, look much alike. Find out the pieces age, place of manufacture, and is the piece entirely original. Ask about the authenticity of gemstones, it is nearly impossible for the non-gemologist to tell real emeralds from good imitation ones.

The dealer will often understandably not know the answers and if they admit it no harm done. The answer to take the dimmest view of is when asked if a piece of jewelry is really gold and the seller says that it could be. This answer nearly always means that the gold is not real and the seller isn’t telling the truth. It is easy to test for real gold and any antique jewelry dealer knows, at least, if their inventory is real gold or not.

Now, having learned everything you can from the seller it is time to trust your own detective skills, including using a magnifying glass or a jeweler’s loupe. Examine the piece looking for signs of structural weakness, loose joints or hinges, and repair jobs. Check gemstones to be sure they are firmly set. Also make sure that supposedly real gemstones show no signs of scratches or wear. Gemstones are very, very hard and should never show a scratch. Take a long look at any hinge, clasp, or hook to be sure it hasn’t been replaced or isn’t about to give out.

Now ask yourself the most dangerous question of all. Do you like it, I mean really like it. Is this destined for the bottom of your jewelry box, resell, or is it something you will always love, even after the heat of the buying moment has passed. Having answered that question it is now time to look at the price tag.

The sensation you are experiencing right now should probably determine if you should buy the piece or not. Giddy with joy? Drooling with greed? Simply relieved? If you are any of these you should buy. If on the other hand you feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach, are tempted to bust out laughing, or begin weeping you should probably pass.

Posted on December 7th, 2006

Loretta Crawford is a free-lance writer on a variety of topics including: food, wine and antiques. She can be reached at Content and

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