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New Versus Old

Appraising antique and period jewelry presents its own set of challenges.

By Ettagale Blauer

Michael Goldstein

Peter Schmid for Atelier Zobel
When an appraiser takes in a typical piece of jewelry, whether it features only diamonds or a variety of gemstones, the task is relatively simple. Determining the quality of the metal and the quality, origin, size, color, type and characteristics of the stones, along with evaluating the condition and market appeal of the piece, is time consuming, but it can be done with the tools at hand. Two other categories of jewelry, period and contemporary studio work, however, present totally different challenges.

Antique Jewelry
   Antique jewelry requires a different knowledge base and understanding of the methods and materials available during the time in which it was made. Generally, these pieces were made by hand and the work may be a combination of metals, or overlays of metals. The gemstones, especially diamonds, will have been cut to proportions unfamiliar today but typical of their time. The appraiser also must know how to measure old mine and rose-cut diamonds.
   The first task of the appraiser faced with evaluating a piece or an estate brought in as antique or period work is to determine if it is authentically from that time. Fabulous fakes are on the market today, replicating jewelry across a wide span of history and styles, and it is up to the appraiser to determine what is real and what is a reproduction. Exquisite reproduction Art Nouveau work from Portugal, for example, is more widely available than the original work. Thai manufacturers have been known to replicate Art Deco work but there is often a telltale stiffness to it. Today, pieces coming out of England emulate the feel of original period pieces all too well.
   Once it is determined that the piece is authentic, the appraiser looks at the condition of the jewel. It’s natural for there to be signs of wear but if these are extensive and affect either aesthetic appeal or the physical integrity of the piece, the value decreases.
   If the piece is unique, however, and is also desirable in the current marketplace, the value goes up. Tastes in jewelry, even period jewelry, ebb and flow. The popularity of specific designers also fluctuates. Appraisers scour the markets, looking at all kinds of jewelry. At one time, Retro style jewelry was out of fashion. When it became popular, prices soared. The appraiser is expected to know, or to find out, the current value of any piece brought in for appraisal, since that affects both the replacement cost and the insurance value.

Authentic Details
   Every element of a piece of jewelry has a story to tell if one knows how to look for it. One of the masters of knowing how to look is Gary Smith, who has trademarked the term “forensic gemologist.” Though located well off the beaten path — Montoursville, Pennsylvania, surely meets that description — packages filled with jewelry find their way to him from all over the world, every day.
   Smith is a master goldsmith who apprenticed in Germany, where he learned some of the myriad skills he brings to his work. “I have databases from the 1600s that show the alloys in use at various times in history.” To date a piece of jewelry accurately, it is important to know if the materials in that piece were available to the working jeweler in that era.
   It all begins, Smith says, with the back of the piece. “Original pieces were all hand-wrought and the back was finished as nicely as the front.” This is the kind of detail, he says, that tripped up a jewelry maker in Turkey, who had picked up a Tiffany & Co. catalog in the late 1970s or early 1980s showing its exquisite enamel work. The goldsmith had the skills to emulate the piece and reproduced it perfectly — but didn’t have a photo of the back so he left it totally plain, a sure giveaway to the fact that it wasn’t made by Tiffany.
   Next, Smith says, “Look at the ajouring,” the way the holes were drilled to make room for the stones.” Ajour comes from the French words for “a jour” meaning “by the daylight.” In a well-made piece, the ajour or hole is polished inside to allow the diamond to reflect the most light. Next, you look for hallmarks or maker’s marks, the symbols of the person or company that made the piece.
   The stones tell a story as well. “You have to know the period and cuts of stones through the years,” Smith says. A piece that purports to be Victorian should not be set with a modern round brilliant if it is to be appraised as authentic to the period. If the piece truly is Victorian but the stone has been replaced, that is noted on the appraisal.
   The piece is then subject to metal analysis, using an X-ray spectrometer. The device analyzes the metal content, giving a clue not only to when it was made but sometimes where it was made as well. Pieces from the Middle East and Far East often exhibit a mixture of metals. If a piece is consistent in its makeup but shows signs of a repair made with a solder that doesn’t fit the period, the value decreases.

Value of Provenance
   Provenance plays an important role in determining value. Is the work signed by a known maker, such as René Boivin, Suzanne Belperron, Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels or Cartier? Is that particular maker “hot and trendy” at the moment or in decline? Within the world of signed period pieces, is the work unique or can comparable pieces be found at auction or online, a major source of both information and jewelry?
   A previous owner of the piece also plays into provenance. Is this from the estate of a well-known person, a celebrity, a philanthropist, royalty or someone who just went through a well-publicized divorce? The elusive and sometimes ephemeral value of fame takes many forms and sometimes drives values into the stratosphere. Consider the 2011 sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels at Christie’s New York. The prices realized were beyond anything ever seen before in the public sale of jewelry. But whether or not those prices hold up years after the glow of the auction event has faded when the pieces are reappraised for insurance purposes remains to be seen.

Contemporary Studio Jewelry
   Another challenging jewelry category for appraisers is contemporary jewelry, known as studio goldsmithing. This movement, which started to gain attention in the 1970s, has carved out a modest niche in the retail jewelry marketplace over the past quarter-century. It centered on work that was completely handmade, using techniques that involved enormous amounts of time. One example is the metalworking technique of mokume gane in which different layers of metal were fused and then arranged to form wood-grain patterns. In another hand process, granulation, tiny beads of gold were placed on a gold background and gently fired into place. The jewelry creations crafted with such techniques were almost always one-of-a-kind. Much of this work was sold at high-end craft fairs, such as the American Craft Council events and the Buyers Market of American Craft shows.
   Contemporary studio designer-manufacturers often formed close relationships with their customers, both retail and wholesale. Since many of these artists were one-person operations, records were minimal. Designs often were not documented or cataloged and sometimes work was sold before it was photographed. As makers and markets became more sophisticated, this changed and better record keeping allowed makers to establish the kind of provenance buyers seek.

Insuring the Value
   According to Patricia Faber, partner in the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City, when it comes to assessing the value of a piece for insurance purposes, there are issues that are unique to studio goldsmithing. “What is the replacement value of the piece? Can it be replaced? Is the artist still working?” Ironically, with the rising cost of everything, the hand labor that once comprised much of the cost of studio goldsmithing has diminished. Mokume gane, for example, is available commercially today in made-to-order blocks of patterned metals, so if a wedding ring of this type is to be valued that is factored into the appraisal.
   The question of replacement value is paramount when preparing a document to be used for insurance purposes. That’s because most insurance companies do not give a check. They replace the item, so the policy is written based on the replacement value. And, points out Faber, many of the insurance companies go directly to manufacturers when possible and consider the wholesale price they pay the replacement value. When an appraiser is dealing in replacement value, and there is a new piece available in the same design, style and quality, this changes the equation dramatically, reducing the insured value.
   Given her 40-year history as a retailer of studio jewelry, Faber says, “If this is a maker I am familiar with, I can look at sales records to establish a price. But I also must take into account the current value of materials. Could the piece be remade today?” And what would the cost be? When some of these makers first entered the marketplace, gold was less than $200 an ounce. Depending on the year in which a piece was made, that same amount of gold would have cost $600 an ounce, $1,000 an ounce or $1,600 an ounce. Today, it’s around $1,300 an ounce. The appraisal document must give today’s value. This reinforces the need to have appraisals updated regularly to truly reflect replacement values.

Consult with Colleagues
   To determine the value of a particular piece, the appraiser searches for similar pieces that have sold at auction or elsewhere. Appraisers call on their colleagues all the time to ask about particular pieces, since it’s not possible to be an expert on every type of jewelry that has ever been made.
   Smith, who says he has handled thousands of period pieces, will turn to his colleagues at the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) using a very modern “tool” — the chat line. “I’ll look for something similar that was sold in the last year to find a correct value. Putting it online gives you feedback from a lot of people,” says Smith, and he could add, a lot of expert people.
   Block adds that an appraiser “should be in touch with people who buy and sell,” people in the marketplace. He reaches out to the experts he knows to confirm his opinion about the qualities of a stone and the value he is contemplating.
   An appraiser is not just a jack-of-all-trades but a veritable master of them. He or she must bring vast knowledge, constantly updated, to the task at hand. While jewelry is often an emotional gift of love, appraising it is serious, objective work.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2014. To subscribe click here.

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