5 Tips for Buying Vintage Jewelry
Amber Michelle - Chief Curator & Storyteller
Gail Brett Levine

Buying jewelry always commemorates a joyous event, or a special milestone in life and it should be an enjoyable experience. But it can also be challenging. Especially when buying vintage jewelry. To take some of the mystery out of the vintage jewelry buying process, I checked in with Gail Brett Levine, senior evaluator for Auction Market Resource, to get a few pointers on buying vintage jewelry.

Really look closely at a piece, Levine advises. When she says look at the piece, she means examine it carefully. She suggests holding the piece up to the light or using a penlight so that you can get a good look. “Check to make sure that the stones are all there, that there is no damage, that stones or clasps haven’t been replaced. Check all the prongs to make sure that nothing is damaged. Hold a penlight behind a stone so that you can see any inclusions easily,”points out Levine.

The tricky part of course is that you need to use a jeweler’s loupe while you are looking. It takes practice to use a loupe correctly; it took me a long time to really get the hang of it. But many years ago, when I was first starting out, Levine gave me some pointers for using a loupe: Hold it one inch away from your eye and one inch from the piece that you are looking at. From there, you can adjust the loupe until you can see clearly.

When you are looking at a piece that is supposed to be older, be concerned if there is no wear on the stone, or on the shank. A piece that is lovingly worn will show some signs of wear.  “You can often tell if something has been repaired,” says Levine. “It will have a big glob of solder where the repair was made. If there is a repair to the metal, make sure that the metal used is the same as the original piece. For example, if a piece is platinum, make sure that the repair is also platinum.”

Look not only at the stones, but look carefully at the mounting. Check the prongs. Make sure that they are not bent backwards and then put back in place. If you see a bent prong, it may be a clue that a stone has been replaced. Levine suggests asking yourself the following questions: Does the piece look perfectly balanced or just a little crooked? Does it look too pristine? If there are tiny stones in the setting, how matched are they? If the piece is too balanced, too pristine and very matched, it may be new. Older pieces, because they were often handmade without the technology that we have today, may appear a bit lumpy or uneven. It is part of the charm of vintage jewelry.

Check the metals carefully and know what was used in what era. If someone tells you that a piece is Art Deco and it is made of 18-karat white gold, then it is a reproduction.  Platinum was used in that period, but white gold did not come along until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Before that, either platinum, yellow gold or silver was used. The same goes for gemstones. Gems were discovered at different times and certain stones were used in specific eras.  “For example, if someone tells you that a piece is Edwardian and it has a tanzanite in it, be wary,” says Levine. “Tanzanite was not yet discovered at that time.” Levine mentioned that it is important to look at the construction of the piece. She says that you should look carefully at the finishes and stones. “Stones should not be flat, there should be some dimensionality,” she notes. “Generally, in older pieces, stones don’t match perfectly. Also, older stones have smaller tables.” Check the finish — is the engraving sharp or does it look a bit softer, which could be another clue to age. Take a look at maker’s marks. Usually they are etched or stamped into a piece as opposed to being a tiny plaque that is soldered on. In an older piece, they should show some wear, especially in a ring.

If you are in doubt, have an expert third party check out the piece for you.