About 14 years ago, I attended a rural estate auction which ended up changing my life. The excitement in the air was palpable. Auctioneers rapidly introduced a variety of items, while hands were quickly raising in the air to place bids on antiques.
At one point, a huge dusty bin about the size of a large trunk was pulled out from under the table. The auctioneer removed the lid to reveal a tangled collection of jewelry, and I was spellbound! There were easily thousands of pieces in the bin, just waiting for someone to dig through and explore.
On mostly a whim, I ended up bidding on the collection. Though at the time I was quite inexperienced, I felt confident I saw some interesting pieces I wanted for myself and the rest of the collection I could probably resell. For just over $100, I became the new owner of a massive jewelry collection which was so heavy and extensive, I could hardly load it into my car myself.
After detangling, sorting, and admiring the collection for about two weeks, I decided to sell a portion of it. I knew some of the jewelry was higher quality - I spotted some gold purity markings, sparkly stones, and signed pieces. But in order to sell these pieces, I had to have a clearer understanding of what exactly I had.
Before I became a GIA Graduate Gemologist and opened my own vintage jewelry store, I had to use more informal, at-home methods to determine the value and authenticity of my jewelry finds. How do you know if your jewelry is fine jewelry made of precious metals, or if it’s more affordable costume jewelry? There are several routes you can take to check!
Above: A random selection of both fine jewelry and costume jewelry. Can you tell what is solid gold, what is gold filled, and what is gold plated?
1) Consult a Professional - If you don’t have much experience with jewelry, consulting with a professional jewelry appraiser is going to give you the most accurate information about your pieces and is usually well worth the investment. Professionals are able to perform multiple tests on jewelry with lab equipment and other tools to determine its authenticity. Be sure to look for someone who has credentials from reputable organizations like The Gemological Institute of America or International School of Gemology. If the pieces you are inspecting contain stones that appear to be diamonds or colored gemstones, look for professionals who also have specialized credentials in Diamonds or Colored Stones.
You can find reputable, accredited appraisers on the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers website.
If you're curious about some of the tests that the professionals perform, watch our Tiktok about professional gold testing methods
Not interested in consulting a professional and satisfied enough with some at-home observation and tests? Read on!
Above: A 10x magnification jewelry loupe is a great tool to have when treasure hunting, and it's so portable!
2) Inspect your piece - View your piece at different angles in a well-lit area. What do you observe? Use magnification to look at your jewelry up close. Do you see any gold purity markings or designer names? Do you see any wear to the piece? Is there any antique patina? Gather as many observations about the piece as possible.
Above: A solid 18k gold cocktail ring with Swedish hallmarks on the inside of the band.
3) Analyze your observations - Determine the meaning of the observations you made.
If your piece contains metal purity markings (such as 14k or .925) interpret the information. American gold and silver markings are pretty straightforward and if you are unfamiliar with them, a simple online search will explain them.
Did your piece feel lightweight or heavy, in relation to its size? Precious metals tend to have a solid weight to them, especially platinum.
Above: Two of our well-loved reference books that we use when researching markings we find on vintage jewelry!
4) Do your research from reliable sources - some pieces may have maker's marks or special features that, with a quick internet search, could reveal answers as to its origins and authenticity.
We use a combination of thorough internet research and reference books like the ones pictured above to find out more about our pieces. Not only can this help tell you what your piece may be made of, but finding out who manufactured the piece of jewelry can help narrow down its age!
Your piece may even have a distinct or unusual design that could be a well-known specialty of a certain company or a telling characteristic from a certain era! Reverse-image and detailed keyword searches to find similar pieces are a great way to learn more.
Above: A gold plated (costume jewelry) necklace reacting to the magnet test.
5) Consider the “magnet test” - If you have a strong magnet, it can help confirm if your piece is comprised of the precious metals gold or silver, since they are NOT magnetic. If your piece of jewelry is strongly magnetic, you can be pretty certain it is not silver, gold, or platinum. Do be aware that there are some other non-precious metals that are also not magnetic and sometimes precious metal clasps have steel spring components in them, which can result in slight magnetism.
My auction finds ended up being quite lucrative! From my own research and consulting professionals, I was able to discern exactly what I had on my hands. Much of the collection was costume jewelry, but there was also a good amount of fine jewelry. That storage bin I purchased for over $100 ended up being worth at least $5,000 on the retail jewelry market! That auction experience only fueled my lifelong passion for vintage and estate jewelry. With a little patience and a whole lot of time and dedication, anyone can become a jewelry treasure hunter!
- Laura Mae, GIA Graduate Gemologist
- Jess Lynne, GIA AJP