You’ve spent the COVID-19 lockdown sorting through all the nooks, crannies, closets, and drawers of your abode, and now you’ve got boxes and boxes of items that you plan on donating or selling. What’s the first thing you should do?
Most of the items you’ve amassed are definitely just thrift shop or yard-sale worthy, but there are probably a few pieces – some old jewelry, a tarnished salt-and-pepper set, books – that might be worth selling in the secondary collectors’ markets. But first you have to know exactly what it is that you’ve got, and plunking the words “silver bracelet” into an auction site’s search engine is not going to cut it. Hopefully, you will be able to spot one or more identifying marks or attributes and go from there:
All jewelry can be divided into two categories: Fine and Fashion (also called Costume).
Fine jewelry is made of precious metals such as gold, silver, or platinum, while fashion jewelry refers to pieces made from base materials such as copper, brass, pewter, bronze, wood, and even plastic.
Fine jewelry may incorporate specimens of the four precious gemstones – diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires – or of semi-precious stones such as jade, garnet, amethyst, and topaz.
Note: The tradition of designating various gemstones as “precious” and “semi-precious” dates back centuries, but has little actual meaning in light of today’s grading standards. Some “semi-precious” stones are actually rarer and can be much more valuable than, for example, most diamonds.
Fashion pieces sometimes also use real stones, but they more often rely upon imitation gems such as cubic zirconia or on rhinestones/Swarovski crystals or even plain glass to provide their bling.
These categorizations may lead some to assume that fine jewelry is always worth more than fashion pieces in the secondary markets, but that conclusion is erroneous. While it is true that a fine piece – no matter how unattractive – remains an asset in the gem or bullion markets, there are factors that can elevate costume jewelry far beyond thrift-store or yard-sale valuations.
Assuming you have one or more pieces of jewelry that you would like to sell, check for any maker’s marks or hallmarks – names, numbers, symbols – that may be stamped on the back of each piece. This is where a good magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe comes in handy.
A number such as 925 or .925 usually indicates the piece is made of sterling silver (92.5% silver and 7.5% alloy), while a number and the letter K indicates the amount of gold in karats. 24K is pure gold, 18K is 18 parts gold and 6 parts alloy, and so forth. In the U.S. anything less than 10K is not legally considered gold. You might also see marks such as GP for gold plated – indicating a very thin coating of gold – or GF for gold filled indicating a thicker layer of gold over a base metal. Vermeil jewelry consists of a layer of at least 10K gold over silver, and usually bears a mark for silver, not gold, purity.
Neither the lack of a number nor its inclusion bear an absolute correlation to metal content as marking standards have varied over time and from country to country, and, of course, there are the ever-present attempts to fool the public with fakes and forgeries, but a few simple tests can weed out some of the more problematic pieces.
One of the easiest is simple observation – search for obvious changes of color where pieces might be scratched or worn, revealing a base metal underneath.
Another is the use of a good magnet: gold and silver will not be attracted, while metals such as iron, nickel, and steel will. You should be aware, though, that base-metal findings (all the bit and bobs holding the piece together) can impart a slight magnetic field, creating doubt about purity.
Now that you’ve sorted the fine jewelry pieces, check them for company and maker’s marks. If you have something stamped Tiffany & Co., Cartier, or Bvlgari (Bulgari) for example, congratulations.
Chances are, though, the majority of your pieces have taken up residence in the costume-jewelry pile, but this is where things can get interesting. Though most such items have miniscule value, there will always be a market for big, bold, contemporary pieces that make a “statement”, and online sites regularly offer such items in the $10 to $30+ range.
Today’s collectors, though, are especially interested in fashion jewelry from the 1920s through the 1970s, so you should check for any marks that could aid in determining a date or period of manufacture.
Many popular companies like Trifari and Napier altered their marks over the years, so referring to a site such as CJCI (see below) could help to narrow the window when a particular piece was made. A patent number can pinpoint the first year of manufacture. And, of course, collectors have favorite designers, such as Miriam Haskell, Marcel Boucher, and Coco Chanel. (Yes, Chanel made costume!)
How important are the marks to collectors of fashion jewelry? Vintage pieces that are relatively common generally sell for $50 or more, but those bearing certain designer and company names can demand prices in the hundreds. And a few exceedingly rare items have fetched thousands!
If you’d like to conduct more research into this extensive area of collecting, start with the resources listed below, and
Field Guide to Costume Jewelry, by Maureen Brodsky
Warman’s Costume Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide, by Pamela Wiggins
CJCI – Costume Jewelry Collectors International (CostumeJewelryCollectors.com) – Considered the “go to” site for information for collectors. Has a searchable database listing hundreds of jewelry makers and their marks (go to the tab labeled RCJ). Hosts the Costume Jewelry Collectors Int’l Bazaar on Facebook and a yearly national convention.
Jewelry (LoveToKnow.com) – Dozens of articles covering topics from Is My Tiffany Bracelet Real? to Understanding Markings on Jewelry.
Learning Center: International Gem Society (GemSociety.org) – Everything you could want to know about gems from identification to price guide.
MJSA Guide to Stamping and Marking Regulations (MJSA.org) – Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America. Explains the legal standards re marks and metal content.
Heritage Auctions: Vintage Estate and Antique Jewelry Value Guide (HA.com) – Free to sign up for access to extensive database of past sales. Deals mostly in fine and designer. Offers free appraisals.