Buying antique jewellery at auction is growing in popularity with a whole new generation of collectors. Current jewellery trends like “stacking” are creating huge demand for unique pieces at inexpensive price points.
But new collectors can be hesitant to part with their cash in fear of paying too much for the wrong piece.
So how do you know what you're buying is worth the asking price?
Ahead of our auction of Jewellery, Silver, Watches, Objects of Vertu, Coins and Medals on 12 August, James Nicholson, Dreweatts' Deputy Chairman and International Head of Jewellery, Silver and Watches department lists the 5 most important things to look for before buying any piece of antique or period jewellery.
A thorough inspection of the front will reveal how good the setting edges and claws around the stones are and if there are any chips, nicks or scuffs to any of the stones, or any losses to enamel.
Just as important is to inspect the back of the piece. The back shows any repairs or alterations that may have taken place.
It also tells if the piece is genuine as we can see how it was made, and whether it is correctly manufactured for the period, or if it is a reproduction.
When buying at auction, you should always ask for the jewellery specialist’s condition report from the auction house.
The specialist will have spent a good deal of time looking at the piece - appraising its good points and researching any marks or faults, such as damage to the mount, scratches to the stones, and any repairs or additions.
When one buys a piece of antique jewellery, it will have been worn, loved and may’ve undergone some repair or restoration.
Rings may’ve been resized to fit, and in some cases, the shanks may have worn very thin. Stones can get scuffed and scratched, and may’ve been unset to be re-polished by a professional polisher.
Clasps on bracelets and necklaces may have worn, and may’ve been tightened or replaced.
All of these things should not detract from the value of an antique jewel, as long as the work has been carried out by a qualified jeweller who has a deep knowledge of antique jewellery.
The back of a piece is also where you will find the hallmarks or assay marks.
Each country has a distinctive set of punches which, when struck on a piece of jewellery, help identify the country of manufacture and date the piece.
There are also manufacturers and retailers' marks, stamps and signatures which can give us the complete history of an individual jewel.
In the case of British hallmarks and Registry marks, these enable us to date the piece to a definite year.
However, placing hallmarks on jewellery was not a full legal requirement until 1973, so you often find just a standard mark on a piece of antique British jewellery, and occasionally a maker’s mark.
Likewise, it was not always a legal requirement in many countries to assay or hallmark jewellery, and the absence of any marks does not mean the piece is neither old, nor of a certain standard of gold.
As fashions and styles in jewellery come and go, the popularity of a certain style will usually make a comeback.
In the 1980s and 1990s, lots of Art Deco style diamond and gem rings appeared on the market, as did reproduction Victorian style gold earrings. Often, these were not meant to deceive, and were merely supplying the demand from buyers.
There are deliberate copies of most styles of jewellery, which are intended to deceive and can easily be passed off as period jewellery, especially Belle Epoque and Edwardian diamond style jewellery that has been produced over recent years in South America.
Again, careful inspection by a specialist will reveal some of the nuances that can identify these copies.
Copies are often not as well finished and polished as the originals and may be set with modern cut stones that did not exist when the originals were made. They will also exhibit a lack of wear that one would expect to see on an original period piece.
Social media posts, as well as magazine editorials, are a fantastic way of keeping on top of jewellery trends.
These allow us to see what styles are current; what colours and types of stone are in demand; and how jewellery is being worn around the world, both by celebrities and by some of us mere mortals.
We do hope that many new collectors will find this guide useful, and be inspired by the choice of lots in our 12 August Jewellery, Silver, Watches, Objects of Vertu, Coins and Medals auction.
AUCTION DATE & LOCATION
Wednesday 12 August | 10.30am
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Please note: There is no viewing on the morning of the sales.
With special thanks to Tilly Thorns-Hartley for modelling the jewellery in this article.
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