How to Shop for Antique and Vintage Jewelry Like a Pro

vintage necklaces and jewelry for sale in the antique shop
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Whether it’s a head-turning costume necklace from the 1970s or a piece of fine jewelry that predates the Victorian era, vintage and antique jewelry will always have its place in modern fashion. There’s something about researching a piece, tracking it down, and then finally wearing it that can be even more satisfying than buying it from a current-day store.

Those brand-new pieces don’t have the nostalgia that older pieces do. As antiques appraiser Dr. Lori Verderame, Ph.D. says, “Most people collect [vintage jewelry] to recall memories, like Mom wearing her best earrings for a night out or borrowing a vintage string of pearls from Grandma to wear on your wedding day.”

Then there are also the imagined backgrounds that come with vintage jewelry. “People love the stories,” says Suzanne Martinez, co-owner of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry. “The stories about the history of the time the jewelry was made, about the people who wore it, the beauty, the gemstones, and the provenance.”

“Maybe a necklace was worn by a noteworthy individual, perhaps it has traveled to faraway countries, or marked a joyous occasion,” reflects Anna Ruzhnikov, head of Fine and Important Jewels at Sotheby’s New York.

What's the Difference Between Vintage and Antique Jewelry?

Amy Roseveare, creator of The Curated Jewelry Box, a curated selection of estate jewelry available to purchase on Instagram, and founder of The Curated Shopper, explains that vintage jewelry falls under the broader category of estate jewelry, meaning previously owned jewelry.

“The rule of thumb is that vintage jewelry is 50 to 100 years old, and then antique jewelry is over 100 years old,” she says. “All of it has likely been worn and hopefully loved by its previous owners.”

Roseveare says that oftentimes, vintage and estate jewelry is often available at much better prices than newly made jewelry—unless, of course, you’re searching for high-end brand names, such as Cartier or Bulgari.

“Not only that, but the quality is typically very high,” she adds. “Think about it—if a piece has already survived, say, 75 years of wear, it must be made quite well.”

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How to Shop for Vintage and Antique Jewelry Like a Pro

There are myriad reasons to build a vintage jewelry collection, but it can help to develop a keen eye and learn to shop like an expert. These nine tips will get you started.

Educate Yourself.

Books, the Internet, talking to knowledgeable sellers—all these avenues add up to an education in vintage jewelry. As Verderame succinctly says, “Learn the major designers. Pay attention to maker’s marks.”

Maker’s marks, or hallmarks or stamps as they’re often called, denote the company who designed and crafted the jewelry piece. With big names like Kenneth Jay Lane (or KJL), Trifari, and Sarah Coventry, among many, many others, these marks will tell you if a piece is the real deal, and armed with your knowledge, if it’s rare or highly collectible.

Among our experts, they say that turning to books is still the way to go in today’s digital age, since they’re so comprehensive, with favorites including World Hallmarks, Volume 1 which covers European hallmarks from the 19th to 21st centuries and Understanding Jewellry which is a guide to all the important jewelry periods and styles from the 18th century to modern jewelry.

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But Roseveare also says to not rule out unbranded pieces of vintage jewelry, especially if you’re keeping a budget in mind.

“You may find some fabulous deals,” she says. “I’ve found everything from a 1940s tank bracelet to a 1980s snake chain with no designer hallmarks, and they have become my most loved pieces. Had they been new or branded, they easily would have cost three to five times what I paid for them.”

Essentially, shopping for vintage jewelry is a hands-on way to train your eye, as Martinez says. You can ask yourself questions like, “Does the piece look right? Or is it a marriage of unrelated parts, a new reproduction, or has it been modified?” Over time, you’ll know the answers to these questions as soon as you view a piece.

Connect with sellers.

Be picky about who you buy from, first of all. Martinez says that you’ll want to make sure that any vintage jewelry sellers you work with are ethical in their business dealings.

“See if their website communicates their vision and mission,” she says. “Are they willing to share information and educate you? Are they transparent about treatments? Do they provide gemstone and diamond reports? What is their customer service like?”

Once you’ve vetted sellers and landed upon several that you like, aim to develop relationships with them.

Roseveare says, “Whether it’s in person or online, start conversations and develop trust with one another. Once a dealer knows your style and what you’re looking for, you can often get sneak peeks at items that might be to your taste.”

Roseveare also recommends asking a lot of questions of sellers before purchasing.

“Sellers should be happy to answer and send more photos or videos when asked,” she says.

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Try buying at auction.

“Familiarize yourself with buying at auction,” Ruzhnikov says. “You’ll be amazed at the discrepancy between retail and auction prices, and at auction, you can find things you won’t be able to at retail. Start by learning the lingo and how it works before you bid, look up past sales to see what things sell for compared to their estimates, and attend a live auction as many are open to the public and don’t require registering beforehand. Call and ask lots of questions if there is something you don’t understand.”

Learn about fine materials.

Fine pieces require a bit more education and careful shopping than costume jewelry.

Firstly, Roseveare says that it can help to be aware of current gold prices. “This is especially relevant if you’re buying a non-branded vintage piece,” she says. “Though many sellers cringe at the ‘price per gram’ question, it’s worth being aware so you know if you’re paying a reasonable price,” adding that this tends to go “out the window” if you’re buying a signed piece, as those prices almost always exceed non-branded pieces.

Also, know that gold comes in a wide array of hues. Roseveare points out that just because something is 14K or 18K gold, the variations in color will differ, especially in vintage jewelry.

“Undertones in gold can range from rosy to very yellow and cooler to warmer,” she says. “Different alloys used in different decades and different makers encompass a big range.”

Then there’s the hardness of various gems. Roseveare says that “although they are all beautiful, they are not all created equal.”

She says, “All stones are rated on a hardness scale from 1 to 10 on the Mohs Hardness Scale. Diamonds, rubies, and sapphires top the list. Gems, including opals and lapis lazuli, are around the middle, and beauties like malachite and coral rank among the least hard stones. Think about if the stone is going to be in an earring or a necklace (more protected), or a ring that will deal with a lot of wear and tear.” This is when it can be helpful to ask questions of the seller.

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Closely inspect the piece.

Serious collectors know that a jewelry loupe is essential when shopping. These tiny magnifiers will allow you to inspect pieces up close. Roseveare suggests buying a loupe with at least 10x magnification.

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“Using this tool, you can inspect everything from hallmarks (gold content, maker’s marks, and marks from where it was made) to checking out stones for cracks or chips. In addition, inspect the prongs around the stones. Are they still fully intact? Are they secure? Are some broken or missing? Or do you see a space between the stone and the prong?”

Martinez also says that a loupe will give you a closer look at potential repairs that have been made, which can give you a better idea of the condition.

Apart from checking for “any missing stones before you buy,” as Verderame says, Ruzhnikov recommends looking for those areas of repair, “including the reverse where repairs are often done” and where the solder is a different color than the rest of the mounting. Was the repair done carefully or sloppily, and is it durable? She also advises looking for small cracks in the mounting that look unstable.

Try it on.

“Try things on,” Ruzhnikov says. “Jewelry comes alive when it’s worn, and often looks very different compared to when it’s sitting in the case.”

She recommends attending an auction exhibition or a jewelry trade show to get exposed to as many different styles as possible. “Discover which jewels make you feel fabulous when you’re wearing them,” she adds.

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Opt for quality over quantity.

Yes, the tried-and-true phrase most certainly applies to vintage jewelry. If you go the “quality over quantity” route, Roseveare says that you’ll get more satisfaction from buying a piece that you truly love rather than three or four “almost” right pieces.

“Save up for what truly makes your heart sing,” she says. “You won’t regret it.”

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Try shopping online.

In the era of Etsy and eBay, Roseveare says that shopping for jewelry in person is still the ideal since you’ll get to try pieces on, see every detail in the light of day, and speak with sellers directly.

But since shopping in person can eventually become limiting (you may want to expand your choices beyond your one or two favorite local shops), online can be the way to go.

You can still build those relationships with sellers online.

One of my favorite things to do is jump on FaceTime and have a virtual shopping appointment with a client,” Roseveare says as a seller. “It’s not important if they buy anything, but it’s ‘seeing’ each other in real life, talking about their tastes, and developing a sense of trust.”

Verderame believes that shopping online is the preferred way to find the best vintage costume jewelry at the best prices.

“My best tip is to shop for costume jewelry online as often as you can,” she says. “It's a treasure trove out there.” But since it is a bit of a daunting treasure trove, be sure to shop trusted sites. These can include 1stDibs, Ruby Lane, and eBay.

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Martinez provides a list of questions you can ask the seller as soon as you spot an interesting piece online:

  • When was it made?

  • How was it made?

  • Are the gemstones original to the piece?

  • Has it been modified?

  • Does it have maker’s marks or hallmarks?

  • What condition is it in?

  • Can it be returned? And what is the return period?

  • Who pays for shipping?

  • Is the piece guaranteed?

Buy what you love.

At the end of the day, something may catch your eye that isn’t necessarily collectible, but you love it with every fiber of your being. In this case, get it, even if it’s missing a maker’s mark or has some scuffs here and there.

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“It might seem obvious, but you should buy what you love,” Ruzhnikov says. “Every jewelry enthusiast has a story of the one that got away,’ a piece of jewelry that spoke to them, but for whatever reason, they did not buy it and regretted it later. Sometimes that means taking a risk and buying a piece that is completely different from everything else you own.”

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