Before we begin, let’s clear some definitions of what makes something antique or vintage – terms we commonly hear loosely thrown around, but actually refer to a range of dates. If an item is older than 100 years, it’s referred to as “antique”, while anything made 50-100 years ago is considered “vintage”.
Being pre-owned jewellery which simply isn’t made anymore, antique and vintage jewellery’s attractive valuations make it liable to knock-offs and false claims. From clever reproductions to jewellery with replacement parts, it’s both intentional fraud and the inexperience of online sellers who drive erroneous “vintage” and “antique” claims.
So how can one validate jewellery pieces as authentic or not? The most obvious answer: only buy from reputable jewellers with specialised expertise. (Omnēque, of course, is backed by such expertise.) But if you’ve been passed down a jewellery item or are on a treasure hunt for a rare piece online, how can you reassure yourself you’ve struck literal gold or are, in fact, eyeing an expensive counterfeit?
Tip 1: Assess the Materials
The most direct estimate of jewellery’s value is the materials it’s made with. Knowing whether an item consists of sterling silver or stainless steel, or whether it holds real diamonds or glass rhinestones, can literally make the difference of thousands of pounds. But without an expert’s eye, how can you tell if you’re in possession of rare precious metals or cheap alloy?
For fine metals, it comes down to hallmarks – the little stamps on the inside of pieces that act as a sign of assurance for their minimum metal content. A 22-karat gold bracelet should bear the stamp “22K”, while a 24-karat gold ring would be marked with “24K”. Other popular hallmarks include: “GP” for a mix of gold and alloys, “sterling” or “925” for sterling silver, and “plat” for platinum. But since hallmarks, too, can be faked, there are other ways to tell your materials apart.
Gold famously never tarnishes, unlike cheaper metals that will wear away with time – and because it’s soft and malleable, gold also won’t easily scratch glass if you scrape it along a surface.
When it’s a question of diamonds or rhinestones, a simple fog test can be revealing. Since diamonds distinctively don’t retain moisture, if you breathe on them they will clear almost instantly, unlike rhinestones, which will remain foggy for several seconds.
Tip 2: Investigate with a Lens
Investing in a magnifying lens with a 10x zoom can be a great – and cost-effective – way of verifying your antique and vintage jewellery. With retail market prices ranging from £10 to £30, with some little training, you can use a magnifying lens to examine your precious stones. If you find yourself with a potential diamond accompanied with a gem report, you can use the magnifying lens to authenticate whether the numbers lasered on the diamond’s girdle – the narrow, vertical plane circumventing it – match those on the report.
A lens is also useful at assessing whether any settings have been replaced or changed. When magnifying precious stones, you’ll often see natural imperfections, called “inclusions” – not the flawless forms we see when unmagnified. If you notice internal bubbles, however, that’s a strong sign you’re dealing with a cheap, glass copy. Another giveaway of counterfeit diamonds is how their edges look up-close. Diamond is the hardest gem in the world, with edges that are sharp and precise – unlike fake stones that will have dull edges with a rounded appearance.
Tip 3: Identify its Designer
Aside from its materials, the value of jewellery also largely comes from its designers. But the lure isn’t only in getting a big discount for an antique or vintage item designed by a big name. If its identity passes by a seller and you luckily snag it, you could fetch a substantial sum in auction houses that run in the thousands – with interest not just for rich jewellery collectors. Several famous vintage designers are still renowned to this day, from Coco Chanel to Christian Dior, Tiffany, and Cartier, and they, too, are searching to buy back their own brand pieces.
To find out if the gorgeous ring you’re eyeing is designer-made or not, often you’ll find a designer piece marked by a logo. With a magnifying lens once again coming in handy, scour your jewellery for signed marks that might attribute it to a famous designer. But an important side note: in the world of counterfeits, stamping a fake designer logo on is fairly easy to do – so just discovering a mark isn’t conclusive of a jewellery’s authenticity.
And another side note: some big designers are known for purposely not signing their jewellery. Suzanne Belperron, one of the most iconic jewellery designers of all time, famously left her pieces unsigned, stating, “My style is my signature.”
Tip 4: Pay Attention to its Style
Following from the previous tip, it’s not all hopeless if your antique and vintage jewellery is left unsigned. Iconic vintage jewellery designers are “iconic” for a reason: their styles are distinct and instantly recognisable. So, while your piece may not have any logos or signings, being familiar with the overall look of famous designer brands can quite literally pay off. In the case of madam Belperron, her jewellery was known for its bold and organic curves. Cartier, one of the world’s most prestigious designers with a history of more than 150 years, is renowned for its one-of-a-kind, exquisite designs; while a designer such as Boivin is recognised for its strong sculptural style.
But even if your jewellery piece isn’t made by a big-name designer, knowing your styles can go a long way in helping you authenticate if it’s antique or vintage. During the 20th century, the trends for jewellery changed quite distinctly and dramatically. While periods such as the mid-20th are known for their extravagant designs and bold colours, earlier times featured pieces that were more refined and demur. Browsing online will help you get an idea of antique and vintage jewellery trends – not just what time period they were made in, but also their potential value.
Tip 5: Observe Craftsmanship
Unlike the vast majority of jewellery today, antique and vintage pieces were mostly not mass-produced. Large-scale manufacturing processes became commonplace in the 1940s and ’50s – and before that, much of the jewellery was handmade. So, observe the craftsmanship of your jewellery, and not just its front side. A giveaway sign that jewellery is not authentically antique or vintage is the uniformity of its construction.
Only industry manufacturing uses casting machines to create jewellery from moulds, producing large quantities quickly and cheaply, unlike handmade pieces that are very rarely the same.
If you notice variations in your jewellery, especially from the textures created on them, that’s a strong sign it was very likely handmade. Observing the entire item, from its clasps to its ear wires and bases, can also give you a clue if you’re looking at a true antique or vintage piece or a cheap reproduction. Authentic pieces will be nicely finished across their whole form – unlike counterfeit items, which may come with low-quality components. When it comes to antique and vintage jewellery, it’s exactly this handmade aspect that makes buyers and collectors so passionate about them – it will truly be one-of-a-kind.
Tip 6: Get an Expert’s Say
While the tips we’ve shared in this report are very much DIY, getting an expert’s opinion is often the surest path to both authenticating your jewellery and finding out its value. There are specialists who have extensively studied designers, trends and styles of vintage and antique jewellery – across all their various time periods. A search online would yield you several sites that offer a valuation service for antique and vintage jewellery, but even then, be sure to do your due diligence to ensure that they are reputable and trustworthy.
In a market as enormous as antique and vintage jewellery, having a genuine expert’s say can save you from clever mimics, outright frauds and experiences that would ruin your otherwise exciting search for one-of-a-kind jewellery.
The information in this article has been compiled by Omnēque contributors and curators, and should be used for general informational purposes only.