Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Small Guide to Vintage Costume Jewelry

I have been collecting vintage costume jewelry for a while now, and there are a couple of things I have learned (mostly from my jewelry-expert-friend Lynn), about how to successfully buy vintage costume jewelry. Many of us buy vintage jewelry because it is beautiful and a little different. It also tends to be cheap, depending on where you find it: antique and vintage stores will naturally charge more than thrift stores or garage sales, but a reputable seller will also often know what they are selling. A great place to buy vintage jewelry is online (EBay, Ruby Lane, Etsy) but I like to inspect a piece of jewelry in person before buying it.

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.

While hunting for vintage jewelry, you'll soon find that there is an awful lot of jewelry out there, and that it might be difficult to know what is worth while. There are faux-vintage pieces out there (pieces that are just made to look old) and all sorts of cheap crap. Something I learned early on was to look for markings, any markings - names, letters, stamps. Names such as Trifari, Lisner, Coro or Kramer come up quite often, and there are tons more out there. Some names are more collectible than others: Lisner and Kramer, for example, would be more exclusive than, say, Avon or Coro.

Kramer brooch

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.

Unmarked 1950s or early 60s Aurora borealis crystal
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.

Here we have a pair of vintage-inspired earrings and a necklace. On the left, note that the "stones" are actually plastic and they are glued on, the metal looks flimsy. On the right, the beads are a mix of plastic and glass, and the style and the combination of colours reveals that the necklace is probably mass-manufactured in the late-1990s.

If you like 1960s pop-styles, there is a difference between old and new plastic: see these two pieces in comparison. The orange two-strand necklace is vintage: you can tell by the pretty clasp, the heavier material and the vibrant feel.

Vintage earrings can often be spotted on the basis of style (elaborate designs, relatively large size) as well as fastening systems (clip-ons or screw-backs)

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.

This peacock brooch is missing a rhinestone just under the beak

- 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.

Here the gold foiling is just starting to chip under the crystal on the right. Speaking from experience: store pieces with foiling in cushioned boxes, and don't allow them to mingle freely with other jewelry.

- 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.

The metalwork in the earring on the left is not intact

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.

If you find a vintage piece with, say, great beads but poor wiring, broken clasp or ugly spacers, you might want to consider re-fashioning it. You'll need a ton of patience, a good deal of vision and the right tools to do it, or like in my case, a talented friend who works in jewelry. Lynn recently reworked a vintage necklace in poor condition into this gorgeous set of necklace, earrings and bracelet by using the original clasp, cleaning the crystals that were in good condition, and adding new spacers and some new crystals to the mix.

Other times, when the price is right, you might not care about imperfections if a broken piece of jewelry speaks to you. I bought this mid-1970s or early 80s Miriam Haskell shell necklace even though the clasp was faulty and the shell pendant chipped - I just fell in love with it. Interesting Miriam Haskell pieces can go on EBay for $150 or way more (her old pearl pieces are extremely collectible and expensive), but the poor condition of this piece was reflected in the price: I paid $13 for it at an antique store. Since I didn't buy it for collection purposes but for wearing, I figured it was a reasonable price to pay for such a unique piece.

And there you have it! There are lots of things I haven't covered, but I confess that there are lots of things I don't know yet; like how to recognise real ivory, bone or jade, and I don't know a thing about fine jewelry. There is one more thing I'd like to share, and that is to have fun with costume jewelry. Don't take it too seriously, only buy what you love, and wear it!


Anonymous said...

Lots of great info. A couple things to stress-foil backed rhinestones and pieces that have rhinestones, pearls or whatever with no prongs as part of the design(they are glued in) should never be put in water. Moisture is the enemy of vintage costume jewelry. I can't tell you how many pieces of vintage jewelry I have broken by trying to clean them. I have learned that sometimes all I can do is to wipe the piece with a cloth. Loosing a couple favorite pieces of vintage jewelry is hard breaking. It is a hard lesson to learn for a German with a habit of cleaning too much.

Shey said...

Waves this is the perfect post for me, I had just asked a blogger for tips on buying vintage jewelry since I'm not savvy on that issue, this post is very informative and will definitely be helpful when I go on my next flea market trip. =)

JRose said...

That peacock, seahorse, and shell necklace are all to die for.

Anonymous said...

Great post, sweetie! I'm very impressed with what you have learned...I didn't know most of this. AND, I ddin't recognize some of the jewelry here! (Which says a lot about my sad, sad powers of observation!) Now that I see you have so much lovely jewelry, perhaps...a toaster for Christmas next year??? :) Great stuff hon, oxox, CR

Charlotte said...

Great information here, Waves--thank you for all the good tips.

Moeno said...

What a helpful post, thanks! I've always been quite afraid of buying costume jewelry but now I have a bit of an idea what to look for (and what to avoid).

CrankyOtter said...

Read this entry after a link from Already Pretty because I got some costume jewelry when my grandma died. I mounted the pins and earrings on colored foamcore edged with colored electrical tape and hung it up in the hall.

You can tell I selected items in a flower theme, but I couldn't resist the two piece telephone brooch. After checking for similar pieces on etsy they're worth about $15 a piece if that, so I'm happy to just have it on display. I thought you might get a kick out of them.

where diseased folk go to disco?

Anonymous said...

You are full of information.I love your blog! Im very new to collecting vintage costume jewelry and recently found a very unique looking bracelet marked Leo Glass. I would love to know if you are familiar with Leo Glass and if you own any of his pieces. I know nothing about him.

jewelry dazzle said...

Amazing how simple it can be to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic, you made my day.

Fashion jewelry

Anonymous said...

so once you have your vintage jewlery , how can you work out how old it is ? and how much it is worth ?

The Waves said...

Hi Anonymous!

You pretty much have to rely on small details. The overall style of the piece can give you some indication - large, rhinestone/crystal pieces were big in the 50s ad 60s, for example. Really simple and a little rougher looking brooch closures (just the pin and a simple hook) usually mean the piece is older, pre-1950s. Necklace clasps and clip earring closures are typically patented, so if there is a patent number on the clasp, you can google the number and you'll find when it was patented. The more complicated the necklace clasp, the more likely it is that the piece is old and of some value. Screw back earrings are always older than typical clip earrings.

Value is tough to estimate. When I find something interesting, I try to look for similar pieces on eBay, Etsy or Ruby Lane, and go with what they typically sell for. There are also a lot of costume jewelry books out there, but sometimes the value estimates are dated in those. Basically you need to do a lot of research! :)

Indi & The Wolf said...

You really know your stuff when it comes to vintage jewellery. I really did enjoy reading this post as well as you tips to "Anon".