Guide to buying vintage jewellery

A Tiffany halo ringAs one of the leading auction aggregators Barnebys includes vintage jewellery listings that encompass everything from ancient Egypt to celebrated modern-day names like Tiffany & Co and Cartier.

So whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day or planning a wedding later in the year their expert guide to buying a vintage engagement ring is packed with sparkling suggestions and tips.

Authenticity

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify a counterfeit stone, so it’s crucial to buy through a certified jewellery expert. Reputable auction houses check for authenticity before listing an item, so you’re less likely to get caught out when purchasing from a reliable vendor. Be wary of the selling price – if the price seems too low you should always question the authenticity and quality of the item.

Quality

Most choose to wear their engagement ring on a daily basis, and so the ring must be durable and well-made. Be sure to check the quality of the stone’s setting on a vintage ring. If it looks worn, loose or damaged, consider negotiating a lower price to cover the cost of resetting the stone. Antique stones can similarly be quite fragile, so check for hairline cracks or chips to the stone.

Resizing

If you’ve found the perfect ring but the size isn’t quite right, don’t worry – resizing a vintage ring won’t detract from its value or worth. Making a ring slightly smaller or larger will not reduce the overall worth of the item, as the original composition of the item remains largely unchanged.

Recutting

More and more couples are buying a vintage ring and re-setting it in a new metal, or melting down the antique gold or silver for re-use. This allows for a truly unique piece and offers the buyer far more choice when shopping for an antique item. So long as you like the cut and colour of the stone, you can remove it from its original casing and design your own band.

Hallmarks

Silver and gold rings are stamped with easy-to-read markings, indicating the production date, location, quality of metal, and tradesman. By checking that the ring has these markings, it is easy to gauge the age and quality of the ring. Often the stone will be older than the metal, as precious gems were commonly passed down through generations. Hallmarking guides are accessible online or you can ask a jewellery specialist.

Jewellery is as subject to fashion as any other commodity says Barnebys, with jewellery from the 1960s and 1970s extremely desirable at the moment. There is also a real interest for signed art deco jewellery, viewed by collectors as small works of art. But it is the great white diamonds, the coloured diamonds, the coloured gemstones – sapphires, emeralds and rubies – and the very best pearls that are currently commanding the most excitement in auction rooms.

Pontus Silfverstolpe, one of Barnebys founders, says: “If one trawls the world’s finest auction houses for jewellery, the range is enormous. And it is not only the jewellery Departments that have wonderful offerings – the Antiquities, Indian and Islamic Art, Chinese Art, and other Departments too will have jewellery that will rival anything that is available at the world’s leading boutique jewellers. And this ancient jewellery carries with it the glamour of age and history.”

He adds: “It is hardly surprising that a growing number of couples come to auction houses to shop for engagement rings; the choice is that much greater and the prices very competitive. Then there are the passionate collectors with very deep pockets and the investors with their advisors buying for an investment portfolio. And there are big name jewellers too, wanting to acquire legendary gems to add to the lustre of their own offering, or indeed for their own private collections.”

There is jewellery that is 2,000 years old and older, from Egypt, and the Greek and Roman empires. Some of it is astonishing in its modernity and which would not look out of place in a jewellery shop in Bond Street or the Rue Fauborg St Honore in Paris. This ancient jewellery ranges from pieces as modest as £200 upwards to thousands of pounds. Their fascination is not only in their beauty but in the skill evident in their production, made by craftsmen alive in the time of Christ and before. And then there is the thought of the many beautiful and fascinating women who would have worn the piece. If only the jewels could speak, what tales they would tell.

From India comes another style of jewellery, heavily laden with locally mined gems and heavy with gold and silver. All of this material passes like a bejewelled stream through the world’s leading auction houses.

Adding to the interest in buying jewellery is the value placed on the work of certain modern designers or studios. The sheer skill involved in working jewels into jewellery has a fascination of its own and names like Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, plus silver from Georg Jensen add their own lustre. The draw of designer pieces at auction is no different to that when clothes shopping on the High Street.

What’s hot now?

Antique diamonds are often cut by hand and as no two are identical this gives them their charm. They can fetch large sums at auction. Coloured diamonds are exceptionally rare with pink, yellow and blue diamonds performing extremely well at auction. Old rubies, sapphires and emeralds can be more valuable than newer mined stones, especially if they come from famous mines that have now been worked out.

And last but certainly not least natural pearls: In the late 19th and early 20th Century, pearls were one of the main status symbols in high society.  Sought after and valuable because it took years for a single, well-formed spherical or drop-shaped pearl to grow.  Since the arrival of cultured pearls in the 1920’s, the price of natural pearls has dropped.  But in the last twenty years, the price of natural pearls has begun to rise again. Now, once more, pearls have regained their lustre as buyers compete to own strings of the very best finely matched and strung pearl necklaces.

And don’t forget the power of brand names: hallmarked signatures and initials on pieces by leading designers and studios are hugely collectable.

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