I tend to only buy what I like and would actually wear myself, but some costume jewelry buyers buy for collecting and/or investment purposes. That world is rich and fascinating, but also confusing at times. There are often issues to do with materials, their condition, makers and overall value that can get hairy if you don't know what you are buying.
Monet clip earrings, Sarah Coventry flower earrings, Trifari brooch
Necklaces from Lisner and Trifari
Look for actual names of designers like Hattie Carnegie, Sarah Coventry, Stanley Hagler and Miriam Haskell. Here too, some designers will be high-end (Stanley Hagler), others more common (Sarah Coventry).The rule of thumb is that if an item is marked, there is a chance it is a collectible, and if you are lucky, the price tag is but a fraction of the item's value. Markings not only give you an idea whether a piece might be valuable, but they also give you good indication as to where and when the item was manufactured. There are several websites to help you with markings. I have found this one particularly useful:
There are great treasures out there that are not marked, and recognizing the work of a particular designer without markings is tricky, but certainly doable. At the end of the day, though, I don't pay a huge amount of attention to whether a piece I like is marked or not. In most cases, even if an item is marked by a famous jewelry house or designer, condition (not the name) will determine whether the piece will be valuable. Also, consider not breaking up sets. A necklace with matching earrings will retain its value better as a set than as individual pieces.
brooch and clip earrings
Say you find a piece of jewelry that looks like it is vintage, but it doesn't have any markings on it, or the markings it has don't ring a bell. How do you know if it's the real thing? My first and only recommendation: take your time before buying, and keep your eyes open - wide open. Good workmanship is visible to the naked eye: look for sophisticated and elaborate designs, interesting shapes, sizes and themes, high-quality materials and intense sparkle. Good-quality vintage pieces often have beautiful clasps. It's all in the detail.
Even if you determine that you have found a piece of real vintage, keep in mind that in vintage costume jewelry, condition is everything. Unfortunately you'll often encounter vintage jewelry sellers who either claim that wear and tear is "natural" when you are dealing with vintage jewelry, or sellers who don't fully disclose the condition issues a particular piece might have (the latter applies to many online sellers). I recently came across a stunning 1950s crystal brooch, with a price tag of $39.99. That's all fine and dandy, but at closer inspection I discovered that several of the crystals had been replaced and glued on, and the foiling at the back of several crystals had worn off. After I raised the issue of condition with the seller (small vintage store), I got the usual "oh, well it's from the 1950s, that's what you get"-claim. Yes, vintage jewelry often has condition issues, but think twice before spending any money on pieces that are far from perfect!
Condition issues to look out for include:
- missing beads, rhinestones or crystals. Consider whether you are able to find replacements.
- gold or silver foil at the back of crystals is badly chipped. As far as I know, this cannot be fixed at home. Some sellers will tell you that you should use gold or silver paint to fix the damage, but you never know whether the paint might bleed, and even if it doesn't, a fixed piece is never worth much.
- the prongs that hold beads or crystals are broken. This often leads to beads falling off.
- dull or chipped crystals.
- chipped enamel, paint or other coating.
- stained pearls (corrosion from the metal wire or spacers).
- corroded or rusty metal.
- other missing bits and pieces, broken clasp, visible glue marks.
When it comes to old pieces of jewelry, the question of patina is an interesting one. Patina is a coating that forms on the surface of copper-based like bronze, and it protects metals from corroding. In some cases, patina is a design element, added artificially. When you are dealing with serious antiques, an item's value increases when its patination is intact: the patina shows the aging process and reflects in the value of the piece. However - and this is a big however - when you are dealing with vintage costume jewelry, the word patina is used carelessly. There are times when you''ll see sellers speak of patina when it actually means tarnish, plain dirt or corrosion. If you are buying a piece of old jewelry for wearing purposes, you might want to consider whether you feel comfortable wearing a dirty piece of jewelry against your skin. Tarnished Sterling silver pieces, for example, will look like new after you have polished them, so consider whether you are buying something because it is (and looks) old, or whether you actually want to wear it. Compare the idea to buying vintage silverware for dining purposes - you'd clean it, regardless if cleaning gets rid of the evidence of aging. Just to recap, then: be wary when you see the word "patina" as a selling point. It might not be patina at all, but just the seller's way of saying that an item looks old, or that it is dirty.
When it comes to dirty vintage jewelry, there are all sorts of issues - tarnish, dust and grime would be the most common ones - that you might have to tackle. Polishing cloths work wonders on silver.
Sterling silver seahorse pin, polished
You can use warm water and mild handsoap to wash beaded necklaces or crystal pieces. It is better to be safe than sorry, though. If you not sure if an item can take a gentle bath, clean dust and grime with a q-tip instead. The aurora borealis finishing on crystals and the foiling at the back of crystals are particularly sensitive.