What to Look for When Buying Antique Jewelry at Auction  

What to Look for When Buying Antique Jewelry at Auction

Ask the Experts | July 5, 2016

Director of the Important Jewelry and Fine Timepieces department, Alexander Eblen, explains characteristics of antique jewelry and what to look for when buying these unique heirlooms at auction.

Working with true antique jewelry that is 100+ years old is a great joy for the jewelry team at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. Many people find antique jewelry intimidating or hard to understand. These guidelines will help you learn what to look for as you discover the incredible beauty, quality and value that lies in buying antique jewelry. The September 11-12 Important Jewelry sale at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers will offer a variety of antique jewelry—from brooches and pins to diamonds and gold. Here are the basics of what to look for and consider when bidding on one of these beautiful items.



Over time, jewelry has become incredibly recyclable and dynamic.   With each passing decade, designers have combined fashions and trends to create new styles that define a time period. For example, Art Deco brooches and charms from the 1920s were sometimes beautifully mounted on wide rose and yellow gold bangles in the 1940s, inventing a chic look for a new generation not content with wearing “mother’s jewelry”.


A Retro Yellow Gold Bangle with Attached Art Deco Platinum, Diamond and Multigem Charms. Sold for $8,125.

In the jewelry trade, combinations such as these are referred to as a “marriage” and, just like people, some are a better fit than others.


When buying antique jewelry, remember the likelihood that the item you are considering has been changed, altered, or combined with another piece of jewelry is very high.  There is nothing wrong with these alterations and combining different elements can be aesthetically pleasing.  However, serious collectors will often seek out those rare few items that have survived intact and unaltered.  A wearable time capsule of sorts, these are a prize!



As Jewelry specialists, we are trained to pick up on the little details that help differentiate items from different eras.  Aesthetics change wildly from one generation to another and so too do the construction techniques that jewelry makers have utilized over time.


One technique that we find fascinating is the process of using gold as the base of a jewel and topping it with white metal setting work, making a laminate or “sandwich,” so that the diamonds and colored stones are beautifully contrasted.  This technique can be seen first with silver-topped gold from the Georgian and Victorian eras.  Keep in mind, silver can look dark or even black from oxidation, but this can be restored to its gleaming white tone with an expert’s help.


A Victorian Silver Topped Gold, Black Opal and Diamond Ring. Sold for $10,625.

This oxidation and a growing skill in a new metal alternative led to silver’s replacement with platinum at the start of the 20th century.  Edwardian jewels do not suffer from oxidation—their diamonds and gems are secure in everlasting bright white.


You can easily see the layers in silver or platinum topped jewelry with a loupe and even sometimes with the naked eye.  Marvel at the intricate melding of metal done by masterful hands creating wearable fine art.  The artisans responsible for these creations had such incredible skill, one that is exhibited in their magnificent designs.



There is something instantly recognizable when looking at antique jewelry set with diamonds and gems. The stones look different and echo a simpler time when jewelry was handmade and antique stones are known for the fact that each one is slightly different in shape and size.


Have you ever looked at a round or cushion shape diamond in a grandmother’s or great grandmother’s ring and wondered what that “hole” in the bottom of the stone is?  Rest assured that it is an illusion caused by the flat bottom of the stone, called the culet, found in two elegant cuts called the old European (round) and its precursor, the old mine (pillow shaped).  These cuts, among several others, dominated the diamond scene during the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco timeframes, lending their unique looks to countless treasures.  Eventually they gave way to the modern round brilliant cut of today, but are coveted because of their “old school” charm.


A Pair of Victorian Silver Topped Gold and Diamond Earrings. Sold for $52,500.


Finally, touching on my favorite topic of colored gems, antique jewels provide the opportunity to own gemstones from classic sources long since exhausted.  Whether it be tiny accents or larger center stones, the jewelry world was completely spoiled in the past, with the “best of the best” gem materials, using them in jewelry of all price points.  Keep your eyes open for a glorious example of Edwardian jewelry set with brilliant green Demantoid from the original Russian find.  Or that late Victorian or Edwardian piece with Montana sapphires of shocking color and crystal clarity.  Enjoy the vivid pink-red hues of Burmese ruby and intense greens of Colombian emeralds with the knowledge that they are most likely in their pure, untreated forms unlike the commonly treated examples used today.



An Important Belle Époque Platinum, Montana Sapphire and Diamond Bracelet, Circa 1910. Sold for $81,250.

Contact us for a free appraisal of your antique jewelry and for more information on our jewelry auctions, click here or sign up to join our mailing list.



  • Alexander Eblen, Director of Fine Jewelry explains what to look for when buying antique jewelry at auction.

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