HOW TO SELECT ESTATE (USED) JEWELRY
Unlike clothing or shoes, jewelry is hard to wear out. It may show signs of wear over the years in the form of nicks or scratches, but these can often be buffed or polished away. Most estate jewelry isn't something you can stockpile as an investment -- we're talking normal people's jewelry here, not Harry Winston and Bulgari, although we will mention Tiffany -- but it is something that will pay off over time in terms of sheer enjoyment. Who doesn't love to find just the right pair of earrings, the perfect brooch, the ideal bracelet or necklace or pendant or ring to complement their prettiest ensembles?
When shopping for estate (a.k.a. used or secondhand) jewelry, the guidelines are simple. In fact, it's mostly a matter of having a little knowledge, using common sense, and gaining a sharper eye with experience.
CONSIDER QUALITY AND WORKMANSHIP
First, look at the overall quality of the workmanship. Are the details of a charm, pin, or pendant sharp and clear? Are any seams clean and true? Look for solder joints, such as those found around bezels (the rings of precious metal that hold the gemstones) and where the pinback is soldered to a brooch. There shouldn't be any visible solder sticking out. Edges should be smoothly finished, not jagged or overly sharp. If it's a locket, does it snap tightly shut? If it's gemstones, is there glue around the edges, loose settings, or jagged prongs? Does the piece have substance, or does it feel tinny and cheap? The quality of the workmanship shows in these details, and with time you will learn to quickly spot quality pieces versus lesser items.
CHECK FOR CONDITION
Next, check for condition. Are there a lot of scratches and/or nicks? If the piece is sterling or plated silver, is it very tarnished? The desirable patina of age is not to be confused with tarnish. Are pierced earring posts straight, or are they bent? If they are bent, it can mean that they are weakened and will soon break off. Earring posts can be replaced by any good jeweler at a nominal cost, but be prepared to add that amount to the price of the piece. In the case of clip-on earrings, does the clip lever still meet the earring back, or is there a gap? A gap could indicate a weakened hinge or a fastening that's too loose to hold the earring securely.
For brooches, make sure the pinback is in good working order. With necklaces and bracelets, check that the clasp still fastens properly. If it's a ring, is it still round, or has it gotten lopsided from wear? Lopsided rings usually can be made round again, but it may cost you. As for the finish, tarnish can be removed, plating can be replated, and stones can be cleaned. So don't rule a piece out just because it's dirty. Check our other guide to find out how to safely clean and store your estate jewelry.
LOOK FOR HALLMARKS, MAKER'S OR ARTIST MARKS, AND SIGNATURES
Third, look for hallmarks, maker's or artist's marks, and signatures. When somebody signs a piece of jewelry, they're putting their name and reputation on it. So in general, a signature is one sign of a quality piece. That's not to say you won't run into cheapies and knockoffs! Tiffany jewelry in particular is highly susceptible to counterfeiting. When you run across a signed article, it helps if you have a genuine piece with which to compare it. For Tiffany pieces, check that the typeface of TIFFANY & CO. (yes, it has a period) is exactly right and that it is properly placed on the piece. There are several good eBay Guides to spotting the differences between real and fake Tiffany, and I highly recommend you read them before buying any. By the way, there is no such thing as wholesale Tiffany. It's all retail and originally sold only at Tiffany stores or through their website.
Most sterling silver -- but not all -- will be marked STERLING, STER, or 925 (the amount of pure silver per 1000 parts in sterling). You may need a magnifying glass or a jeweler's loupe to see it, so consider investing in one of those if you do a lot of estate jewelry shopping. You can find 4x, 10x, and 20x loupes quite inexpensively on eBay; some of them even have built-in lights. It definitely pays to have a sharp eye, because hallmarks can lurk in the most unexpected or inaccessible places.
In general, they'll be on the back or underside of a piece. Check the back and bail (hanging loop) of pendants, including the inside of the bail; the back of brooches; the underside or back side or inside of charms; the charm's jump ring; the clasp and adjacent flat loops of necklaces and bracelets; even ear wires, earring backs, and the back of French clips. Hallmarks can be found in all of these places, including the claw or head of a lobster-claw clasp and even the side of a ring clasp. They may be sharp and clear, or they may be worn down with age. Other hallmarks you'll see on silver are 999 (also known as fine silver) and 800 or 850. So-called German silver, also known as nickel silver, actually contains no silver at all.
Gold may be plated over sterling silver -- which is called gold vermeil -- or it may be solid 10K, 12K, 14K, 18K or even 22K. The amount of gold in the mix increases with the karat count. (Don't confuse karats with carats; karats are for gold, while carats are for gemstones.) Gold should be hallmarked with the appropriate karat mark, or it may bear a numerical designation such as 750 for 18K. The number represents the number of parts of gold per thousand. Gold vermeil jewelry, which is gold that's plated over sterling and therefore hypoallergenic, will probably be marked 925.
MAKER'S AND ARTIST'S MARKS
Maker's or artist's marks are generally located in the same places you'll find hallmarks. They, too, may be worn with age. And while quality brands such as Beau Sterling and SJC are clearly marked with those words and initials respectively, other jewelry lines such as Brighton may just bear a signature symbol, such as Brighton's engraved heart. British silver will have a lion stamp along with other identifying marks. James Avery jewelry may say AVERY or it may be marked with just the company's signature three-candled candelabrum with JA at the base. Jeep Collins uses an artist's mark that artfully incorporates the letters JC. There are several websites and some excellent books devoted especially to maker's marks and designer costume jewelry, so you might want to invest in some self-education along those lines. Browsing eBay is a good way to learn, too.
SHOPPING FOR ESTATE JEWELRY ON EBAY
EBay is a great place to buy estate jewelry from reputable sellers. The selection is certainly exceptional; you'll find more estate jewelry on eBay than anywhere else in the world! Check feedback ratings and comments to see what kind of experience other buyers have had with a seller before placing your bid. And be sure to ask any questions upfront. Bids can be retracted under certain circumstances, but failure to do your homework is not one of them. Most sellers are happy to answer questions and will do so promptly.
Don't be fooled by stock photos taken from a jeweler's website. Photos should be of the actual item you're bidding on. And if the photos aren't clear and sharp, then you can figure that you are taking your chances on what you'll be getting. Some sellers describe their pieces in detail, including any flaws, while others may just say, "It shows some signs of wear." That could be anything from light scratches and tiny, almost invisible nicks to visible gouges and dents, so look carefully before you buy. And check the seller's return policy, too. What if that gorgeous ring doesn't fit? Some sellers won't accept returns at all, but most are more accommodating.
RESIZING AND REPURPOSING
Speaking of rings, many can be easily resized unless they are bands with a design that goes all the way around. So if you like a ring but it's not your size, ask the seller if it can be resized. Some sellers, including acquisator, can even have the ring resized for you. Or it can be done by any reputable jeweler for a nominal fee.
It pays to be a little creative when you're looking at estate jewelry. A single earring might make a lovely pendant with the addition of a soldered hanging loop or conventional bail. That broken necklace might make a lovely bracelet. Those pretty beads might could easily be restrung.
SHOPPING GUIDELINES AND A FEW LAST WORDS
Above all, when shopping for estate jewelry — on eBay or anywhere else — trust your own good taste. If you think it's beautiful, if you like it, then check it against the other criteria described herein to decide if it's a good value for the asking price. And do a little comparison shopping; that's easy to do on eBay. Check completed auctions to see what similar or comparable pieces sold for. When shopping for a well-known designer name such as James Avery, remember that retired pieces are likely to be rarer and hard to find, so they may sell for a premium.
Unless it's very high end (and again, we're talking here about regular folk's jewelry) estate jewelry won't make you rich. But if it's made of precious metal such as silver or gold, it will at least hold its value and possibly even appreciate over time. Base metal costume jewelry may or may not appreciate with age, depending on the designer. For example, retired Brighton pieces (which are silver-dipped and lacquered) tend to be highly desirable and collectible. But don't buy estate jewelry for its intrinsic value. Buy it because you love it and want to wear it happily for many years to come. Now go forth and shop, preferably on eBay!