Guide to Buying Estate Jewelry

Blog Written by Pamela Siegel
Written by: Pamela Siegel
December 21, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM
December 21, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM

by Pamela Siegel

“Jewelry has the power to be the one little thing that makes you feel unique.” When the inimitable movie star and jewelry maven Elizabeth Taylor uttered those words, she probably wasn’t thinking of estate sale jewelry, although she sure could’ve been. For many stylish jewelry shoppers, hunting down preowned treasures provides the distinctive adornment they seek.

Not familiar with the concept of estate jewelry and shopping for gently used bling? Learning more can yield not only timeless accessories for your jewel box but, in many instances, you can save some cash, too.

What is Estate Jewelry?

When boiling down jewelry terminology, it’s easy with estate jewelry. Pegging a piece with this lingo just means someone else has owned it previously, whether they’re now with the dearly departed or still living. At its core, estate jewelry is simply used jewelry. The term often references fine jewelry, although any type – including costume jewelry and bridge jewelry – can be deemed estate jewelry as well. Secondhand and preowned are other words that can be used to describe estate jewelry.


Antique peacock brooch, sold on AuctionNinja via Estate Alchemy

Other terms associated with estate jewelry are antique, vintage, and contemporary. These descriptors can help shoppers more readily understand the age of the items they’re buying. For instance, antique jewelry is defined as a piece more than 100 years old. That’s a rule set forth by the United States Customs Service that most preowned jewelry sellers follow.

The designation of vintage can be more ambiguous. The basic definition is the delta between antique and contemporary jewelry. Several large online marketplaces now consider 20 years or older to be the rule with vintage items. Some jewelry sellers still bump vintage up into the 30-to-50-year age range as a starting point.

Contemporary jewelry is anything newer than your, or a vendor’s, decided definition of vintage. If you’re not sure about the age of a jewelry item you’re contemplating, ask the seller to give you more details.

How to Identify Vintage, Antique, and Estate Jewelry at Estate Sales

When poring over preowned jewelry for sale, whether you’re shopping in person or perusing online auctions, there are some things to keep in mind regarding identification. First, there have been many revivals of jewelry periods, so some things might look older than they are at first glance.

For instance, you can find antique Victorian jewelry that was made during the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901 at estate sales. There were also revivals made decades later that have the look of Victorian jewelry decades, and those are now vintage pieces. It takes some practice to be able to tell them apart, but in general, older pieces of jewelry will have patina, wear, and components that offer hints about the age. “Warman’s Jewelry” by Christie Romero is a good reference book for all types of jewelry and well worth tracking down to learn more about styles and periods. 

You’ll also want to look for marks on the pieces you’re considering. They’re usually found inside ring bands, on bracelet and necklace clasps, or on the backs of brooches and earrings. Some indicate metal fineness, while others can offer clues about a manufacturer or designer associated with the piece.

Take gold jewelry and electroplated jewelry as an example. If you see a ring marked 18K HGE, that means it is electroplated. A piece marked only 18K (or 750) or is indicative of gold. The difference in quality and price is huge in these instances. Carrying a jeweler’s loupe with you is a good idea so you can read these small marks more easily at in-person estate sales.


Magnified mark on a piece of David Yurman sterling silver and gold jewelry 

Marks indicating a manufacturer or designer are just as important. That’s not to say an unmarked piece of jewelry can’t be beautiful and desirable but being associated with a well-known brand can also add measurable value. This is far-reaching and applies to all types of jewelry. Whether you’re looking at sterling silver made by James Avery, pieces designed by David Yurman, or a vintage Mexican piece by William Spratling, looking thoroughly for maker’s marks is imperative.

Benefits of Buying Preowned Jewelry

One of the best reasons for buying used jewelry is the potential to save big. Depending on what you’re seeking, an estate jewelry find can cost far less than a comparable new piece. Jewelry that has been gently worn and properly cared for, in fact, can be considered better than new when the price is right. This is sometimes the case with bridge jewelry, pieces bridging the gap between costume and fine jewelry, which often consists of semi-precious stones set in silver or gold plated metal. 

Another good reason to purchase secondhand jewelry is its sustainable nature. That means new resources weren’t employed to make it, so it’s more environmentally friendly. From water to fuel, every type of manufactured good requires natural resources of some sort for production and transport.

Custom jewelry, alternately called bespoke jewelry, is offered through estate sales with regularity. These are unique designs a jeweler has created under the direction of the original owner. Sometimes they’re pieces made for special occasions; other times, they’re the result of reworking outdated jewelry components into something more fashionable. Either way, these pieces are often one-of-a-kind and offer the opportunity to possess something no one else owns.

Buying estate jewelry also gives the new owner a chance to purchase a piece with provenance. Whether it’s a bauble previously owned by a local with notoriety or a splurge from a high-end sale of a celebrity’s belongings, there can be great history attached to secondhand jewelry.


AuctionNinjaAn array of estate jewelry

How to Buy Estate Jewelry

The cardinal rule of jewelry buying, as with most collectibles, is to buy what you love. This means focusing on the design, materials, and periods that speak to you. That’s not to say you can’t venture out and buy something from the Art Deco era if you’re usually drawn to Modernist designs. But you’ll build a collection you really treasure if you buy things that captivate you from the moment you see them.

There are, however, some precautions to take to make sure you’re getting what you pay for:

Check each piece for flaws. Because you’re buying something previously worn, it’s always a good idea to inspect a piece of estate jewelry for condition issues. This can range from loose and missing prongs holding gemstones in place to chipped and cracked stones. Metals can also have wear or corrosion. Check pieces with your jeweler’s loupe when shopping in person. When buying through online jewelry auctions, look closely at each photo provided by the seller and ask additional questions via email if needed.

Watch for fakes and reproductions. Most estate sale companies take care not to sell items that might be fakes since it’s illegal to do so. Things sometimes slip through the cracks, though, especially at mom-and-pop estate sales, so buyer beware. If the quality is not up to par, or the logo or a mark is poorly struck, use your instincts to steer clear. Also, be aware that most sellers are not going to mark a piece of Chanel or Tiffany & Co. jewelry very low in price if they believe it to be authentic.

Buy from reputable sellers. If you’re picking up a piece here and there, and the price is reasonable, this might not be as much of an issue. When you’re investing a good sum, though, be sure the dealer you’re buying from is a reputable seller. Unfortunately, there are many people out there just looking to make a quick buck and others that just aren’t knowledgeable enough to correctly represent their wares. Deal with sellers who have great word-of-mouth references and/or good online ratings and reviews, especially when you’re first exploring the world of estate jewelry buying.  


Tiffany & Co. contemporary charm bracelet, courtesy of Black Rock Galleries

How to Determine the Value of Used Jewelry

The best way to determine the value of estate jewelry is to do what professional appraisers do: look for comparable values. That means researching what the exact same piece of jewelry in similar condition sold for previously.

This can be easier to accomplish with mass-produced jewelry made by well-known brands. Whether silver or gold, you can often find an online sale record for the exact same piece. Just be sure you’re looking at sold items rather than asking prices. Sellers can ask whatever they like, but the true value lies in what someone was willing to pay.

If you can’t find an exact match, which can happen often happen with custom pieces, that’s where jewelry valuations get trickier. In those instances, look for close comparables taking the design, quality, materials, and condition into consideration. There’s often a bit of guesswork involved, but with some diligent research, you can make a close approximation of value.

Looking to add a treasure, or two, to your jewelry cache? Browse our jewelry selections on AuctionNinja.com.

Ready to locate an estate sale company or explore online estate auctions? Visit AuctionNinja.com. If you're new to online estate auctions, try it risk-free by sigining up here.

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