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High Jewellery

Five things you need to know about buying vintage jewellery: master jewellers share their tips

  • From provenance to workmanship to the size of stone, there are many things to consider
  • Follow these experts’ guidelines and you could get your one-of-a-kind dream jewellery piece
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 1:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 7:01pm

Vintage fine jewellery has all the hallmarks of a great Christmas gift. In the past Asians may have preferred to invest in new pieces, but this is changing. There is a growing number of showrooms specialising in antique jewellery, including Palais Royal and VVintage in Hong Kong, while established maisons such as Van Cleef & Arpels continue to show more pieces in their flagship stores.

“I initiated the heritage collection in the US first, but I heard stories about Asians being very superstitious about anything vintage, even though they were big jewellery buyers. I didn’t think it was a very big market until about five years ago when we started bringing pieces in,” says Nicolas Luchsinger, president of Van Cleef & Arpels Asia-Pacific.

“Since then it’s become more popular. It is the idea of uniqueness that is the main appeal for Asian clients.”

While rarity is driving the demand, finding the perfect vintage piece isn’t easy for new buyers.

Experts suggest following a few simple guidelines to make your buying experience easier.

1. Don’t obsess over provenance

While many women dream of owning a piece worn by Elizabeth Taylor, the reality is that finding one is difficult (and if you do, you will need to pay a premium for it). Most famous creations tend to stay with the original owner’s family and are handed down through the generations. Those that are available on the market may be hard to trace and verify.

“Provenance isn’t really going to affect the value of a piece. Even when it involves a celebrity, it still depends who the person is. In many cases Asians don’t want to know who has worn the piece,” says Vickie Sek, chair of Asia jewellery for Christie’s.

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“Of course there will be times when the previous owner does matter. For example, about three years ago we had some estate pieces from the famous Kung Hsiang-hsi family which sold out immediately. It depends on the market for sure,” she says.

2. Workmanship matters more than the size of the stone.

If you are after big gemstones, then vintage may not be for you.

“This trend of buying estate jewellery is only 25 to 30 years old. Before this, many dealers would buy Van Cleef and Cartier pieces solely for the stones – the mounting or design had no value at that time. As a result many vintage pieces may have their original stones removed and replaced with something of lesser value or quality. It’s not like an artwork. It’s harder to find pieces that haven’t been altered,” says Luchsinger.

Experts suggest that buyers choose pieces based on their workmanship. Examine the piece from the back so you can see the settings up close. The less metal you see, the better made the piece is.

When it comes to design, personal taste should take precedence. Buyers should also consider choosing a design that is the brand or designer’s “signature”.

“Iconic pieces are those where you can tell the artist from the look alone. Suzanne Belperron, one of the most revered jewellery designers of all time, once stated that her style was her signature. That’s really true of all great designers,” says Richard Tilles, president of Circa Jewels.

3. Consider unbranded pieces

While signed – otherwise known as branded or stamped – pieces are in high demand in Asia, unsigned creations can be of equal quality and are much more affordable. Just look out for the workshop’s name, which should be visible on the piece itself.

“For example, during the Art Deco period, many brands didn’t have their own workshops so they outsourced a lot of the work. These workshops also created jewellery for themselves and other clients which are still available in the market today. The quality is the same as a piece that is signed by a brand, but may be more affordable,” says Luchsinger.

4. Always choose a style that you will wear

Long gone are the days when women kept jewellery in the safe – especially in Asia. So it’s best if you choose things that you will wear often such as earrings, bracelets or brooches. In Asia, the latter are extremely popular due to their versatility.

Experts also suggest that you look into fashion trends before buying. While the Art Deco period is still popular, the 1970s and 1980s are also in vogue.

How did they cut the 1,109-carat, US$53 million rough diamond – and where did the pieces go?

“The demand is not just based on exclusivity of a piece. The 1980s are having a comeback. We’re also seeing a lot of trends from the 1970s including coloured stones, and materials such as coral, chrysoprase and wood. At the time women didn’t dress so formally so there are more relaxed styles such as sautoirs which work with modern fashion today,” says Luchsinger.

5. Never buy a piece solely for investment

With any investment, no one can predict the future. For vintage jewellery, however, Sek says that most pieces will keep their value as long as you view the purchase as a long-term buy.

“Right now the 1970s is a fairly new trend. If you bought something 10 years ago when no one was looking at this period it would have cost you nothing. Today, however, the price will be higher because it happens to be in fashion,” says Luchsinger.

For those looking to sell their vintage piece, it’s best to investigate recent auction prices, which are a good barometer for current market value.

But bear in mind that there are several other factors that will affect a piece’s resale value.

“Paperwork is always helpful, but you won’t always be able to get a certificate of authenticity, though they are sometimes available. In lieu of that, get an appraisal from a respected appraiser before buying. A good appraiser knows exactly what they are looking at,” advises Tilles.