Step back in time for value

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am


There was a time when Chinese women would frown upon buying anything old or previously worn, especially jewellery. But times are changing as vintage and antique jewellery have come into the spotlight.

Sotheby's Asia will host an exhibition from Friday to Sunday that features a selection of more than 60 pieces from London antique jeweller SJ Phillips after a long absence from Hong Kong.

Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby's Asia and Sotheby's Diamonds, says the demand for period and vintage jewellery has grown tremendously in Hong Kong.

'When we first brought SJ Phillips over [about six years ago], only a small group of clients were interested in period jewellery. Now our clients have expressed a growing interest for unique pieces and we wanted to offer them more outside our traditional twice-yearly sales,' she says.

Chris Del Gatto, chief executive of Circa Jewels, which specialises in buying diamonds, watches and jewellery from the public, says the company has seen a big increase in Asian collectors buying vintage or antique jewellery.

'Asian buyers are more sophisticated in their tastes and they want value for money. This type of jewellery has a craftsmanship that is hard to find in today's market. A lot of the old stereotypes are being broken down, and the younger market who are making money want to spend it on unique antique pieces,' he says.

Vintage or antique jewellery can be tricky to define, although most experts agree that any piece referred to as antique was made more than 100 years ago, usually in the 18th or 19th centuries. Vintage jewellery usually refers to jewellery made during the 20th century. The lure of such pieces lies in their rarity combined with their unique craftsmanship, style and materials.

'Antique pieces are very difficult to find, especially in Hong Kong where auction houses traditionally offer more contemporary and modern pieces. Even when they do come up for auction, most of it is period jewellery, which is antique jewellery that has been reset into something more contemporary. It was common for families to reset gemstones from antique jewellery into contemporary pieces, especially if the stone was valuable such as a diamond,' explains Wong.

Pieces made by traditional French jewellery houses such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are popular in Asia. Nicholas Norton, one of the owners of SJ Phillips, highlights Cartier pieces from the 1920s to 1960s and natural pearls as popular items with Asian buyers.

For the Hong Kong exhibition, offerings will include a 1780 Georgian collet necklace, a gold topaz bracelet from the 1800s, antique diamond pendants and a ruby diamond cross from Van Cleef & Arpels circa 1920s. Other jewellers highlighted in the sale are Bulgari, Tiffany & Co, Mauboussin and Cartier.

'Antique pieces made using unusual materials such as wood, coral and turquoise are also making a comeback,' says Del Gatto. 'Rings and earrings are very popular, as are matching sets.'

Wong says people are mainly going for signed pieces from great French houses, particularly unique pieces not available in the shops. 'Part of the reason they are attracted to antique or period jewellery is the fact that each piece is unusual.'

According to experts, buyers should use reputable dealers when sourcing antique or vintage jewellery. Unlike modern pieces that often come with certificates of authenticity, there are no set criteria to determine whether an antique piece is real or fake. Wong advises new buyers to research the jewellery-making techniques and workmanship used when the piece was made.

'Some pieces may have been altered over the years or remounted, so find out if the stones are part of the original mount. Examine the way the stones are cut, the material and the technique of setting. These techniques have evolved over the years - look for the right thing for the right period. You can tell if a diamond has been cut in a modern way, for example,' Wong says.

Del Gatto adds: 'Something that is antique will never have 14k or 18k stamped on it.'

Most antique pieces will come in their original box and be signed and stamped. If you are buying something from established houses such as Cartier, you can access original drawings from the archives to check details. If there are diamonds, don't expect the piece to come with a certificate unless the centre stone is of significant value.

'If someone famous has owned it, it should typically have a certificate for a significant diamond, as the owner may have recertified it,' says Del Gatto.

Naturally, the quality of the piece also depends on the amount you are willing to spend. Del Gatto says new buyers can purchase smaller pieces for as little as Euro500 (HK$5,300), making antique jewellery better value for money than contemporary pieces. 'It's value for money because you are not paying for the labour all over again. Many vintage pieces you couldn't make for the same price today, so typically you are getting better value.'

Wong says the values of antique and contemporary jewellery are very different.

'If something new was presented at auction, you could break down it down into gemstones, weight, quality, etc. Antique jewellery is more than the sum of its parts - it's about workmanship, rarity, pairing up of the stones. Old pieces are about uniqueness and design. Because they are so rare, we don't have many people looking for a particular design. It has to come to you,' she says.

Experts agree that buying antique jewellery should not solely be a financial investment.

'With contemporary gemstones, you know what you have - if the stone is dwindling in supply, you know prices will inevitably go up,' says Wong. 'With old jewellery, quality and rarity will help retain its value, although it's more about immense pleasure. It's no different from collecting paintings or Chinese ceramics.'