The ultimate guide to buying vintage jewellery

The ultimate guide to buying vintage jewellery

Old is gold

Text: Karishma Tulsidas

Buying vintage jewellery is akin to buying art. You wouldn't pick up the first Andy Warhol you see on auction without doing significant research about the artist first. Similarly, buying vintage jewellery requires a certain amount of knowhow so that you don't buy the first cameo you see in an antique shop in Notting Hill, believing it to be a rarity from the1800s.

We asked the expert herself, Brenda Kang, for tips on vintage jewellery shopping. Brenda is the founder of Revival Vintage Jewels, a home-grown retailer that specialises in sourcing and selling jewellery from the past. Formerly with auction house Christie's, she brings with her a wealth of experience and a discerning eye for the beautiful. These are her top tips: 

A Spaulding & Co diamond and gold pocket watch, circa 1920, available at Revival Vintage Jewels

Knowledge is key 
"Learning about the various periods, styles and trends in the history of jewellery will give you a good foundation to start collecting. The term 'antique jewellery' is used to indicate any item over 100 years old, while the term 'vintage jewellery' (in my opinion) is estate or second-hand jewellery, which is curated and more collectible. I highly recommend to start your education with a book, such as Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti."

A signed Verdura gold and diamond brooch, available at Revival Vintage Jewels

All in the details  
"Not everything antique or over 100-years-old is rare and collectible. There were many mass-produced low-karat gold, stamped or machine made pieces made in the Victorian period that may be 150 years old but don't have much resale value.  

Invest in a jeweller's loupe and look at the details, especially at the back of the piece. A finely made piece of jewellery would be as beautifully finished in the back as it would be in the front.

The way a piece of jewellery feels in your hands can make all the difference, too: it should be smooth to the touch, and with good heft, without being overly heavy or light. Check how flexible the bracelet is, the finishing at the edges, and the clasp.

Then, consider the condition of the piece. Are the prongs and mounting holding up well? If not, can they be easily touched up or repaired? Are the gemstones in good shape (not too chipped or broken)? The jewel may have been well loved or well-worn over the years, which is very acceptable up to a certain extent."

Diamonds and sapphires on a palm tree brooch by Bulgari, available at Revival Vintage Jewels


No stones unturned  
"The cut of the diamonds found in vintage jewellery can be an indicator of the jewel's age. However, bear in mind that cut isn't definitive in determining age, as sometimes old stones can be re-used in new jewellery or new stones can be cut to look like the old ones. Old-mine cut diamonds were hand cut using basic hand tools, so they were never perfect, always a little lumpy and a little asymmetrical. So you would not use the modern four C's to judge an old-cut diamond.

Gemstones used in antique or vintage jewellery would usually be untreated or unenhanced, and come from old mines, which may now be depleted. So if you see a piece that features a significant gem, it is good to have a certificate done by a reputable lab, as it can add significant value to the piece."

This Van Cleef & Arpels brooch bear the French hallmarks and maker's marks


Leaving marks 
"Maker's marks will include logos, trademarks, brand names, and designer signatures on the jewellery, usually engraved at the back. Prices of signed or brand name jewels can be valued significantly more than those that are not signed.

Hallmarks are stamps on gold, silver and platinum by the various assay offices in Europe, to certify the content of the metal. The hallmarks can give you an indication of the piece's origins and age, as different marks may have been used for different periods. French workmanship, especially during the early 20th century, is still considered to be the best in the world. So a French hallmark on a piece can sometimes add to its desirability. The depth and the visibility of these marks may also help to indicate the age of the piece. You can do your own research and find the different hallmarks of various countries on Google."

Keep learning 
"Just as you would do before start any collection, you need to get out there to see as much as you can and read as much as you can. It is only from regular exposure to jewellery (good and bad), handling them, and reading up on vintage and antique jewellery can you then start to get a sense of what is beautiful and worth collecting. It is a far more interesting journey than what you see in most modern jewellery stores today.

Museums (for example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or New York's The Metropolitan Museum of Art), auction houses, vintage jewellery stores like ours that carry high quality vintage pieces, the National library and Amazon all are great resources for learning more about how to start a vintage jewellery collection."