Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2020
The bling's the thing – fine and costume jewelry
One category of antiques and collectibles that seems impervious to market vagaries is fine jewelry. This includes precious gems and metals such as silver, gold, and platinum, but the upper echelons of costume jewelry such as Weiss, Emmons, and Haskell are also popular. If dealers are looking for an inventory type that is relatively impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous markets, quality jewelry's not a bad bet.
An elaborately worked gold ring set with a central opal with vertically aligned teardrop opals on either side and having good fire, metal marked 14k and with a semi-legible maker's mark in initials. The earrings, purchased separately, are also opals in a 14k setting. Probable dating on these is early 20th century. (photo by Peggy Whiteneck)
Sterling may be marked with that word or with the silver content equivalent 925, which means the item is 92.5% pure silver. Gold jewelry is most often marked with 14k or 18k, with the latter having higher gold content and, therefore, usually being more expensive. A rare treasure may be marked "PLAT" for platinum, the king of precious metals used in jewelry making.
These marks can be difficult to read; the older a piece, the more subject the mark will be to wear, especially in gold, an exceptionally soft metal. Look for marks on the clasp. High-end costume jewelry will be marked with the maker name.
Sometimes precious metal jewelry will be marked not only with the metal grade but also with the initials or logo of the maker. These, like metal-grade marks, may be worn to near illegibility and may take considerable research to match with an actual artisan.
My mother had a special fondness for Native American silver jewelry, and I inherited from her several Navajo and Zuni pieces with the marks of famous silversmiths. Indigenous jewelry was not commonly signed by the maker until the 20th century, so older pieces will generally be unmarked. Authenticity is a special challenge in unmarked Native American jewelry because the style has been widely imitated by non-indigenous makers.
Gem settings in old jewelry are a bit harder for the non-jeweler to identify than the metal grade. What looks like a diamond may be glass or paste. What looks like a garnet or a ruby may be red glass. Generally speaking, the higher the grade of the actual metal setting, the more likely the stone is to be a genuine gemstone. For instance, I have a platinum ring inherited from my mother and set with a small diamond flanked by diamond chips. The metal itself is well detailed, and it's very unlikely that the maker would have gone to all that trouble with such a precious metal only to set it with glass.
Aside from diamonds, emeralds, or rubies, one of the priciest secondary market gemstones is garnet, a deep red alternative to rubies. There may be as many as 20 or more garnets of various small sizes in the same bracelet or necklace, but the aesthetic effect is delicate rather than gaudy. Lucky the dealer able to acquire these at a reasonable price that leaves room for resale!
All other factors being equal, cracks in a non-diamond gemstone will lessen the value of the piece, although rarity and provenance (for example, an item from a museum or a famous person's collection) may lessen the negative effect of gem damage. Turquoise or malachite (a striated/matrixed dark green stone) in Native American jewelry should be checked for cracks in the stone.
Opals in jewelry should also be carefully inspected for condition. These fiery beauties are soft, and it doesn't take much to crack them. The quality of an opal is judged by the amount of "fire" and the colors that flash in the opalescent stone. I have a small, opal carved with a girl's face set in an unmarked gold-colored, frame in which the back of the stone is visible, showing a network of cracks. This opal doesn't have a lot of fire, and while I often wear the piece on a neck chain, since the cracks are not visible on the face, it's unlikely that the quality and condition of this stone would render it saleable to anyone else.
Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at email@example.com.