How do you judge the quality of jewelry?
September 4, 2016 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in learning how to differentiate high quality jewelry from common pieces--especially on the resale market. When I go to an antique store or thrift shop and look at jewelry, it all looks the same to me. Sure, I can differentiate by color and number of stones, but that is about it. How could I develop the ability to tell the difference in quality of jewelry, apart from the price tag that a store manager or dealer has put on it? Are there resources that you have used, such as blogs or books, to help you learn to appreciate the truly great from the mediocre? Any general advice for someone that wants to be a jewelry connoisseur? Any input would be greatly appreciated.
posted by mortaddams to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (4 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you looking at coloured gemstones...? Costume jewellery? I have no advice on diamonds, but...

You might go to some bead shops, the nicer ones that sell gemstone beads, and do a lot of looking and feeling and so on, and order some catalogues that sell loose stones and beads -- I'd suggest Fire Mountain's catalogue, not sure if it's still free, and Rio Grande's, which is a massive tome entirely worth the $10 it cost last I looked.

Pick up a book on gemstones, the straightforward kind with lots of pictures and little explanations about what variations a particular stone comes in, what characteristics identify it, its hardness on the Mohs scale, etc. This and the bead store visits are helpful for getting a sense of the quality of particular stones, how many inclusions to expect, etc. (If you live near a museum with a good mineral exhibit, spend some time there, too.)

Scavenge about for used books on vintage costume jewellery -- these can often be cheap if they are meant to be price guides as time and the internet has rendered them semi-useless to many. Check out the styles from various era. Read about when various things like 'paste' lookalikes were used as stones, note things like garnet waxing and waning in popularity. Thrift stores can be a good place to find outdated 'Edwardian Costume Jewellery -- Its History, With Price Guide' (a wholly made-up title) books going cheap.

The seller's reputation is important -- how long have they been in business for, how much of their business is vintage jewellery, how knowledgeable are they when you ask questions? If somebody happens to have a few pieces in a random mess of antiques, you need to do more research than if it's a shop or stall run by somebody whose sole stock in trade is vintage jewellery; the latter has a lot more to lose by making an error and will be less prone to doing so. EBay is very risky, for example, if somebody is selling one bit of jewellery; less so if that's their whole stock and they have stellar feedback.

As a rough guideline, items that are stamped are of more value than items that are not (see also: unsigned works of art, where something was knocked out en masse to decorate living rooms of a previous era, vs pieces where somebody was working on building a name for themselves and did want their name attached to it). Some brands of costume jewellery are very collectible, and some artisans are very ditto -- if you find a piece by Margaret de Patta, you are in the pink; if you find something handmade with no mark...student piece? Who knows?

However, unless you decide you adore the works of X and wish to collect it, you should prioritize buying what you like. Sometimes things have a higher price simply because they are beautiful, and both you and the seller know that, which is why there is no metric for X amount of sterling plus X amount of X quality moonstone = $X (unless something is awful or broken beyond repair and being sold for scrap). Trust your gut when it comes to discerning between the truly great vs the mediocre -- if it looks splendid to you, it is splendid. Terrific vintage 'costume' pieces are often genuinely worth more than contemporary mall jewellery made from 'real' materials; if value is a concern, don't limit yourself to the idea that it must be 'real' to be 'truly great.' Design is important. I am a plastics fan and really thrill to old buch+deichman pieces...

Try things on -- one hallmark of bad jewellery is that it does not hang right. I once had a lovely handmade necklace, very pretty to look at, with a pendant that kept sliding forward and not hanging correctly off the chain. Loads of amateur stuff will not drape as you hope it will. Note how it actually functions, and trust your gut; if you need to keep poking something back into place, skip it. Look at the quality of the finishing -- if somebody has made a lovely beaded necklace and the closure is a cheap clasp with knots of fishing line, this is a thing that might not hang right and which might break at the wrong time. I used to make and sell beaded jewellery and every knowledgeable vendor I dealt with noted and complimented that it was well-strung and well-finished. Pearls have knots between them because they are soft and the nacre is easily damaged so you don't want them bumping up against each other -- knowing little things like that helps.

Which is why I would not buy a pearl ring, unless it was a splendid cocktail ring meant for occasional wear -- if you are looking for something like a ring for daily wear, check the Mohs hardness of the stones and find out if it's liable to be easily damaged. Delicate stones should be set in a way that leaves them well protected.

After some reading and shopping -- and if you are shopping at a place where there is an antique jewellery enthusiast on staff who is chatty, chat! -- you will probably start to develop preferences, and then you can specialise a bit more in your reading and invest in less random books and more 'Enamel Art Deco Jewellery -- A History' or '1980s Jewellery -- Plastic Fantastic' or whatever.

When it comes to precious and semi-precious stones and metals, be aware that retail jewellery mark-ups are almost always enormous. Written appraisals mean nothing except for insurance purposes; you would virtually never be able to sell a piece for what it was 'appraised' at. A private seller will always take a substantial loss if they tire of a piece. If you buy something expensive, expect it to have no 'investment' value; its value to you is primarily in being something lovely to look at and wear that you happen to personally enjoy.

Sorry for the novel; I hope at least some of this is useful!
posted by kmennie at 1:34 PM on September 4, 2016 [18 favorites]

Define quality. Are you looking for durability? How to tell if a piece will hang and wear well, like the pearls info above? How to tell if stones are going to fall out over time? If any of those then you can narrow down your specific are of interest by looking in to those specific types of questions. If you're looking more for "value" then you'll want to follow some of the trends and see what's popular now or not, what styles come from different eras, price guides are a good bet then again mentioned above. But distinguishing between the two types should also help you narrow your search.
posted by Lady Li at 10:33 PM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Excellent advice from kmennie.

I buy used pieces at pawn shops, for the most part, because vintage stores charge way too much to make it worth my while. The shops in my area are selling jewelry based on the gold value (they don't care about the gems that much, unless they are diamonds), and the better ones will tell you what the stone is, and they all use diamond testers, so if you're buying something with a diamond in it, you can ask them to get out their diamond tester and prove to you that it's a real diamond.

Pick a gem that you like, say... rubies. Study rubies online. Look at the GIA website, lots of good info on there.

I won't buy anything that's stamped 10K gold. A lot of those, I've found, are less valuable pieces from places like QVC and HSN. Not that I've never bought those, I have a pinky ring with a pink stone in it, set in 10K gold, and maybe paid $30 for it. It might be kyanite or pink sapphire, but it's not valuable, I just liked it, so I bought it.

Recently, I got a nice gold necklace pendant, with 2 small natural rubies and some small diamonds, for oh, $45 at a pawn shop. It was stamped 14K gold. In general, I look for 14K gold and above. Sometimes I'll buy rings set in silver, which is usually stamped .925 (google silver stamps for other markings). Just be aware that the spot price on silver is way lower than gold, so if you're ever trying to resell the item, don't even bother with silver, only buy something because you love it. I know a place that has over $20,000 in inventory, and they can afford to sit on it, but I can't, so I shop for myself and not for the thought of an investment piece. Reselling jewelry is a fool's game, unless you are a dealer, in my experience.

You can also look around on Craigslist, sometimes you'll see nice pieces on there, but in general, people reselling their jewelry, used engagement rings, etc., ask more than it's really worth on the open market. You can always make an offer, however, if you see a piece you really like. But buyer beware, of course, most people will tell you the back story on where they got it, and if it has a certificate and you like it, then go ahead and buy it. Or a receipt from a jewelry store, etc. But again, I see people asking $1,000 for something that I know I can get at a pawn shop for $100 or less, so I don't usually bother with CL for jewelry.

When I go to pawn shops, I look a lot, and I don't always buy. I just ask a lot of questions, and the good shops will tell me what something is, and let me try it on, etc. And I usually don't pay over $100 for anything used, unless it's a really, really nice piece (like say, a Tiffany diamond ring, because well, it's Tiffany, but I don't have one of those, because they are usually out of my price range, even used). I do have a nice silver Tiffany bracelet and ring, didn't pay much for them, because who doesn't want something from Tiffany's? Ha-ha. But not worth much for resale value, because they are silver. Just fun pieces.

I've been collecting rocks and minerals (and jewelry) since I was a little kid. One way I've learned, aside from reading books and websites, is by going into jewelry stores and asking them about various pieces. You're the customer, and they should be transparent, and have a good reputation, as mentioned above. I probably wouldn't pay retail prices on anything, because I know I can get it at a pawn shop for way less. One of my pawn shops has their jewelry organized by color, and they also have a section for the more valuable items. I've gotten sapphires, emerald earrings ($60, 23K gold, which is what some countries use instead of 24K, so if you have a big immigrant population, you might run into that once in a great while).

In general, natural stones will have a look and feel about them that is vastly different than a fake stone. See if you can get someone at a pawn shop to let you compare a glass stone to a real one, and ask questions! Sometimes they will know and sometimes they'll just say, "I don't know, but it's old," and in that case, if the price is right, sometimes you have to take the risk. It depends on if you love the piece. One time, I bought a teardrop-shaped smokey quartz cocktail ring, think it was $60, and I loved it. Quartzes in general are less expensive than gemstones, and can be cut very nicely, but quartz, clear, amethyst (purple quartz), smokey (brown) quartz, etc. can chip and/or shatter if you drop them hard enough, or bang them against the sink faucet, so don't be doing dishes or housework wearing those! I take off my rings when I get home and put them in my jewelry box or on a ring holder.

You can also go to places like Walmart and look at their jewelry, which will give you a feel for "cheap" jewelry. You can get manufactured emeralds at Walmart, but the settings aren't going to be that great. I do have a manufactured ruby, which I purchased from a chain jewelry store (i.e., a mall store, one of the few times I've bought something at full retail price). It is a pincushion cut, with 2 diamonds on either side, 14K yellow gold setting, and it's really brilliant, sparkles like crazy, and I've gotten more compliments on this ring than any other I've worn. It caught my eye, wasn't too expensive ($300 range), so I bought it. Don't regret it one bit, it's currently my favorite ring. It looks exactly like this manufactured emerald, same ring, but it's red, because it's a ruby. So some manufactured stones can be really nice looking. Here's a short guide from Ebay on the differences between natural, manufactured (lab created), and simulated (such as cubic zirconia, which I've bought in the past, if I liked it, I like sparkly things, ha-ha, and it's not usually that expensive).

Lately I've gotten more into emeralds and I want an emerald ring. What I do is shop around the pawn shops, and there's also a vintage shop that sells used jewelry. I found a really nice emerald ring for $60, and am still considering it. I don't worry about something being sold, because there is so much used stuff out there, that I know I can always find something else! So don't be all, "must buy this now or it won't be here tomorrow!" when you're shopping. Sure, if you see something cool and it's not that much money, and you can afford it, go for it. I've bought lesser quality items just because I liked them, and I keep my better quality stuff for going out to dinner, etc.

One thing about emeralds: they have a tendency to have tiny cracks, and little black specs in them, the natural ones. Invest in a jeweler's loupe, so you can examine things. You won't see a lot of emerald engagement rings, because they can shatter if banged around (that's why I bought earrings, I'd be ticked off if I dropped or shattered an emerald ring, but now I'm looking at one for special occasions, and emeralds should be in a protected setting, unlike say, diamonds, which you'll see up high in pronged settings, because they are hard and can take more abuse).

I have a sapphire ring, light blue, from Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and it's set in a big cage with old diamonds around it, 5 carats. I bought it on instinct, and it turned out to be worth quite a bit, appraisal wise, anyway. I have had several jewelers look at it, and then I took it to a big auction house, with a good reputation, been around for 40 years, etc. Because I have an appraisal from a GIA-certified gemologist, I can put it in their next auction and see what happens. It's all commissioned based, so if it doesn't sell, I'm not out any money. But: I held onto this ring for several years, and I don't ever try to resell jewelry when I *need* money, that's just asking for someone to come in and rip you off. And pawning is for short term loans (for me, anyway), as you're only getting a loan on the gold value, and of course the interest is super high, if you've ever watched the TV shows on them, the person pawning something is not in a great position to bargain.

Another thing to learn: what area of the world do gems come from? We have tourmaline here in Maine, and the best emeralds come from Columbia, S. America. So I go to YouTube and type in "Emeralds" + "Columbia" and start watching. I also look at videos on how to spot fakes, but since I am usually buying at pawn shops, and I know the guys I buy from know their stuff, I'm never too worried about getting a paste emerald. If you have a loupe, or they let you borrow one to look through, you can see chips and stuff on a gem, and glass will have a lot of chips and scratches, and older stones may be somewhat scratched or worn (and you can see how good the prong settings are using a loupe), but not as much as a glass stone (i.e., quartz or manufactured glass).

I've got several books on rocks and gemstones, and I have one like this, available for 1 cent on Amazon, Rock and Gem, by Ronald Bonewitz. The one I got was a $10 special at a big bookstore, no longer in business, and is a paperback. It can be overwhelming, trying to learn all at once, so I just go back when I'm in the mood and thumb through it and read about something that catches my eye. But it gives me an idea of where the best sapphires and rubies come from, etc.

I've also studied and read about diamonds, and I like diamonds, but am more attracted to the color gems. I do go by the Mohs hardness scale, because if I buy say, a tanzanite ring, while the color may be awesome, it's not as hard as a ruby or a sapphire (which come in many colors, and sapphire is very hard).

In regards to metal: bring a small magnet with you. If it's attracted to a magnet, don't buy it. That means the base metal in the ring or necklace isn't real gold or silver. It may be dipped or coated, but I stay away from jewelry that can be picked up by a magnet. Here's a short YT video showing a man testing metal bracelets, and as he says, just because it's not attracted to a magnet, does not mean it's real gold, but if it is attracted to a magnet, it's definitely not gold or silver. He also says to avoid testing the clasps, as those are likely to be something other than gold or silver. There are ways to test gold, but if it's stamped 14K and you like it, I wouldn't worry too too much, especially if you're buying used and the price is right. You'd be more likely to be buying fake gold at say, a flea market with tons of new gold chains for sale (which I stay away from, as I like vintage pieces).

So what I'd do is set a budget, say, $100, and go visit the area pawn shops, and look around. Don't buy anything at first, look at 2 or 3 shops. I've got one in my area that has a lot of what they call fantasy rings, stuff people buy for role playing games. I don't buy those. I also stay away from weirdly cut stones, such as a rectangle with all 4 corners cut out (natural stones aren't cut like that, but simulated stones can be, I did buy one like that a while back and it was worthless, but it was pretty, and I learned a valuable lesson when I took it to my jeweler and he told me about it, ha-ha, I ended up giving it to a friend, think I only paid $30 for it to begin with). So while you might find some cool looking stuff in the fantasy ring genre, if you're looking for high quality pieces, don't buy jewelry at a head shop (i.e. a place that also sells incense and pewter dragon statues).

After you've looked at some pieces that you like, research the stones and such, and then decide which one (or two) you like the best. Go back and look again another day, so that your "OMG I have to have this!" enthusiasm is toned down a bit. Look at it like buying a car, sure, we all like cool looking cars, but we can't buy them based on style and paint job alone, right? We have to do the research and compare models, get a feel for the person selling it to us, check out online reviews, etc. Like stated above: you want to buy from people with a good reputation. Someone at a flea market, you don't know them from Adam, so until you get more experienced, stick with one or two places that you feel comfortable with. Oh, and if I see someone wearing a piece that I love, I will ask them where they got it! Another good source of information, ha-ha.

Hope this helps. I am strictly a hobbyist, and have found out that there's always more to learn, and I still make mistakes, but I try to keep them under $100, ha-ha. I recently bought a rainbow topaz, which is a clear topaz that's been dipped and treated to look colored. It was $30, and it's a cool looking stone, but the setting is some kind of metal that's been dipped, so I am kinda "meh" about wearing it, especially when I am wearing my nice ruby on my other hand. I'll probably keep it for a while, but it's not really my favorite stone, just something sort of cool looking unless you get up really close and look at the cheap setting. Here's a short guide to rainbow topaz, also called mystic topaz. You'll also see a lot of quartz pendants treated in a similar fashion, and I have a few of those, but I know what they are and I buy them because I think they're cool looking. Good luck!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:40 AM on September 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

You want the forums.

The posters there are incredibly discerning, and just by lurking you'll learn so much about stones and settings. The main forums are very diamond-centric, but there is an active subforum about colored stones. You will quickly learn what colors are considered ideal for any given gemstone, the importance of cutting, what a "window" is, what kind of treatments to avoid (and which are acceptable), etc.

Some of the best posts to look for are by people seeking advice about a purchase. If they link a stone or jewelry piece they're considering, you can read other posters' advice to see their critiques. Soon you'll be able to test yourself by pulling up one such post, evaluating the stone/piece the OP posted on your own, then reading the other replies to see if they answered the same way you would.

For example, here is a thread that includes advice/explanations for finding a quality setting; discusses color, cut, and treatments of rubies; touches on what price ranges are a red flag for low quality; and links out to specifically recommended stones and vendors. All in one thread!
posted by mama casserole at 11:17 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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