From the thrill of the hunt to the joy of finding that perfect jewel, buying a piece of antique jewelry can be an exhilarating experience. Once you’ve found that perfect jewel, you’ll want to be sure that the piece is what it is represented to be, that it is in fact a true antique jewel (anything that is one hundred years old, or older, on the day that you purchased it) and not a reproduction. Now that you’ve found the piece that you love, you’ll want to inspect it carefully. This is how you will find clues about the authenticity of a piece. We’ve put together some easy tips to help you get started.
Tip One: The first thing you want to do is start by working with a reputable jewelry dealer or website that has a jewelry expert on staff to help you. Ask for any gemological reports or letters of expertise that come from a third party to authenticate a piece. A gemological report from a reputable gemological laboratory such as the Gemological Institute of America, or SSEF in Switzerland, will be your guide to the stones. The report will tell you the type of stone, the size and quality of the gem and it may also contain information on the gem’s country of origin. A gemological laboratory report is also the only way you’ll know if a pearl is natural or cultured, as only labs have the proper equipment to test these ocean treasures. A letter of expertise, which is different than a gemological report, will provide information on the overall jewel. All of these factors will help to determine the authenticity of a piece.
Tip Two: Look at the piece carefully. If you have a jewelers loupe now is the time to pull it out to take a closer look at your jewel. Examine the prongs holding the stones in place. Do they show wear? If the answer is yes, that’s a good thing because it means the piece has been worn, so you know it’s not brand new. In a reproduction piece the prongs will be large and chunky with no signs of wear.
Tip Three: If you are looking at a brooch, the clasp on the brooch will go a long way to dating the jewel. An antique brooch will have a “C” clasp, which is a long pin that will be slightly extended over the edge of the piece. It catches in a hook that is shaped like a “C”. The opening of the catch does not close.
Tip Four: Check any markings that may be on the piece, metal karat weights or makers marks. In an antique piece of jewelry, these markings may be partially rubbed away from being worn. Also, in a modern piece of jewelry, karatage is often stamped on the clasp and that is not necessarily the case in older jewelry. If you happen to run into a gold piece that is stamped 15-karat then you will know that it is from Britain. That karatage was used In some jewelry made between 1854 and 1931, but only in England.
Tip Five: Ask about the gemstones in the piece. What type of cut are the diamonds? In antique pieces you will find rose cut, old mine and old European cuts. Because antique diamonds and gemstones were cut by hand they tend to be a little lumpy and uneven, they are also mostly round in shape. Generally speaking you will not find sharp cornered stones in antique jewelry before the 1920s. Angular shapes began to appear in the 1920s as the technology to create those shapes became available.
Tip Six: Another note about gems is that not all stones that we know and love today were available for use in antique jewelry. For example tanzanite and tsavorite garnet are both gemstones that were discovered in the late 1960s. Some gems that are commonly found in antique jewelry include pink topaz or imperial topaz, demantoid garnet, amethyst, sapphire, ruby, emerald, diamond and natural pearls. Cultured pearls started to show up in the first decade of the 1900s, but were not widely available until the 1920s.
Tip Seven: Diamond jewelry was frequently set in “silver topped gold”. Diamonds looked better set in a white metal, but silver tarnished and left marks on skin and clothing, so it was backed with gold. This process allowed the gold to touch the skin or clothing, so staining was avoided, while the silver optimized diamond sparkle. Silver topped gold was first used in the Georgian era in 1767, when it was introduced by British jeweler James Cox. The use of silver topped gold became obsolete in the early 1900s when platinum became widely used in jewelry eliminating the need to set diamonds in silver.
Evaluating antique jewelry is challenging. Dealers spend years looking at jewelry and gaining knowledge, so while we’ve given you a few pointers to help you determine the age of a piece of jewelry, there is no substitute for working with a jewelry expert who can help guide you as you make your purchase.
Featured image (top of page): Antique silver topped gold ivy leaf themed brooch showcases old mine and rose cut diamonds.
First: IAJA Letter of Expertise; Second: Back of antique brooch with “C” clasp; Third: Amethyst and 15-karat gold cross pendant/brooch; Fourth: Rose cut diamond, with a total weight of approximately 2-arats, and 18-karat gold ring, circa 1780; Fifth: Silver topped gold, unheated Burma ruby and rose cut diamond brooch, circa 1885; Sixth: Victorian silver topped gold, diamond and natural pearl bangle, French.
Authored by Amber Michelle