Copyright 2009 – Kimberly Clay
There are two major reasons for purchasing antique jewelry: as an investment and for fashion. While the term ‘fashionable antiques’ might appear to be an oxymoron, the wearing of old but tasteful jewelry has always been regarded as both fashionable and acceptable in society, and in fact a study of antique jewelry down the ages can tell a lot about the history and culture of a country.
The purpose of jewelry was originally to adorn ourselves, and then became a symbol of status. The ability to afford rare and expensive gems and metals was displayed publicly by wearing them on one’s person. “Look at me: I am richer than you!”
As design became increasingly important, the famous jewelry houses and designers such as Fabergé, Tiffany and Cartier were born from their unique design capabilities, but as the 20th century came along, design became secondary to setting as many diamonds as possible in a piece to increase its actual raw material cost as opposed to its perceived value.
It is doubtful if today’s jewelry will ever become as sought after as that of the great fashion houses and jewelers, and now is the time to purchase antique jewelry for investment because, as it is snapped up and placed in collections, there appears little capable of taking its place. There is still a lot of antique jewelry to be found in antique shops, and even on eBay you will see many fine pieces selling at affordable prices.
It is still worn, of course, although yesterday’s fine pieces do not always fit with today’s clothes fashions. Nevertheless, as taste is replaced by price, this is less important a factor than it once was, and the days appear to be over when jewelry was designed to suit particular styles of clothing and fabrics. Today, anything goes as long as it is bright, glittering and expensive. In many ways, “Bling” has superseded taste and sensitive design.
So, what should you be looking for when purchasing antique jewelry – whether it is for investment or fashion? First check the symmetry of the piece. True antiques are not symmetrical: they are hand-made and each side is slightly different than the other. You can also tell a lot from the fastenings, because barrel clasps are modern, as are post and clip and clip-back earring fastenings (1930s at earliest). An antique will be smooth to the feel, and have no jaggy edges that catch on your hands and clothing.
Platinum and white gold were not used until the 20th century, and earlier 19th century jewelry was made of silver, although gold was used. Also keep in mind that gemstone cutting machines were not used until the mid 19th century, so any modern cut was not possible until then, the elongated baguette cut being introduced in the art deco and art nouveaux pieces of the 1920s.
If you intend purchasing antique jewelry for investment, therefore, it will pay to learn about the subject. Either that or never purchase a piece until it has been checked by an expert. Fashion, on the other hand, is a different thing entirely. While real antique jewelry prices can be set by the piece itself, the value of fashion jewelry is largely set by trends rather than intrinsic value.
Art deco jewelry, art nouveaux, retro – name it what you will, but a large proportion of jewelry designed and produced under these labels had little real value, and some even less in terms of design. To take a corollary with furniture, the ‘in’ furniture style of the 1950s and early 1960’s, ‘G-Plan’ had no mitigating features other than that it was different, and so became the furniture fashion statement of its era. Although it is now enjoying a resurgence under the label of ‘retro’, G-Plan will never be regarded as antique, irrespective of how old it is.
That is as true as the fact that you could never imagine true antiques being referred to as ‘retro’, yet the term can be, and has been applied to the art deco jewelry designs of the 1920s. Whether these designs will ever become fashionable again is another question, but it does raise a question as to antique jewelry and its place in fashion vis a vis that acquired for investment.
Would an art deco piece of jewelry be purchased as a fashion item? Not at the moment, but perhaps as costume jewelry. Would it be acquired as an investment? Doubtful! Can the same be said of art nouveaux? And what else? So where does fashion end and investment begin, or is there no defining line, and do people purchase the jewelry that appeals to them rather than for its projected future value?
One thing is certain. Real antique jewelry has a part to play in the worlds of fashion and of investment, and it is wise to take expert advice prior to parting with your money irrespective of your purpose in buying it. However, would you wear your investment? Only you will know that, and even then only when the time comes to choose – or to show off!