Buying Vintage Costume Jewelry

Learn How to Purchase Like a Pro

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Monet Jewelers Key Necklace, c. 1940. - Photo by Jay B. Siegel for www.chicantiques.com

Have a yen to add a piece of vintage costume jewelry to your accessories wardrobe? Or, maybe you have a jewelry lover in our life who'd relish a vintage gift to add to their collection. Keep these helpful tips in mind when you’re ferreting out vintage costume jewelry to purchase for yourself or a friend:

Condition, condition, condition – Don’t take the condition of a vintage jewelry item for granted.

Sure, vintage jewelry from the Victorian era through the 1930s can have a very vintage look to it (meaning it doesn't look "new"). But there are times when you can find jewelry from the '40s, '50s and 60s in like-new condition or very lightly worn. Even with older pieces, don’t settle for second best.

Extremely worn plating, darkened or cloudy rhinestones, missing parts, clasps that don't work properly, missing stones, and chipped or scratched enamel all lower the value of a vintage piece. Obvious repairs such as sloppy soldering and haphazard stone replacements should also be avoided. That can mean close inspection is necessary to see some of these important details, so take care when examining online photos. Don’t pay top dollar in a fit of last minute shopping desperation for a piece in poor condition.

Look for quality – If you find a bargain piece of low quality jewelry that’s kitschy and fun, and you absolutely love it, go ahead and purchase it.

But overall, buying vintage costume jewelry of quality makes sense. Quality pieces will hold their value and wear better over time. Look for signs of quality such substantial weight, smooth plating and sparkling stones.

Certain manufacturers are known for creating jewelry of quality as well: Eisenberg, Schiaparelli, Miriam Haskell and Schreiner are a few names to look for when purchasing high-end pieces.

More moderately priced signatures include Weiss and Kramer among many others. Should a vintage jewelry purchase always be "signed?" Not necessarily. There are even more beautiful unsigned pieces available on the secondary market, including those made by DeLizza & Elster known as "Juliana" by collectors, and all the aforementioned companies marketed unsigned jewelry at one time or another. It really depends on who you're buying for, since an avid costume jewelry collector will appreciate a signature far more than someone who values the piece simply as a fashion accessory.

Consider personality – If you're buying for yourself, consider the types of jewelry you feel comfortable wearing. Size, durability, color and overall style will influence your purchases. For example, clear rhinestone brooches look fabulous on denim shirts and jackets so even the most casual dresser can enjoy a little glitz now and then, while colorful vintage brooches of all types compliment business attire. When buying gifts, it doesn’t make sense to buy your 15 year-old niece a huge rhinestone brooch if you never see her wearing pins larger than the size of a quarter.

And will your aunt who dresses boldly wearing flashy jewelry appreciate a pair of dainty rhinestone earrings? Not so much.

Add a special touch to gifts, even for yourself - Ask the dealer you buy from to give you some background information on the piece you're purchasing. This can include the designer or manufacturer, age or era of the piece, distinguishing design characteristics or materials used in construction, and background on the former owner (also referred to as provenance), if known. Print out these details on a small card you can tuck in the box with your gift. To someone who knows little about vintage jewelry these tidbits are priceless, and make owning a piece even more meaningful.

Whether you’re just wanting a fashionable-for-the-moment look for yourself or a gift for a jewelry collecting friend, there are some great sites to shop online for quality vintage costume jewelry ranging from the Victorian era through the 1970s. These reputable dealers also carry collectible contemporary jewelry from the best designers around. Take a look at the "Shopping Spots" links provided here for some glitzy goodies for shoppers with impeccable taste.

Pamela Y. Wiggins is the author of Warman's Costume Jewelry (Krause Publications).