Rapaport Magazine

The Right Stuff

What makes one piece of jewelry fly out of the store and another languish in the display case? While beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, when it comes to choosing marketable estate jewelry, a pleasing appearance is just the beginning.

By Phyllis Schiller
RAPAPORT... Ask an estate jewelry retailer how he or she chooses merchandise to buy and you’ll get variations on a theme. The crucial factors are pretty much universal, but the weight that each criterion is given changes, depending upon the store’s clientele, the period of estate jewelry in which they specialize and finally, the most elusive element of all, instinct borne of experience in the business.


Carol Federer, manager of the jewelry department, Macklowe Gallery in New York City, recalls: “I just had somebody come in yesterday and say ‘up the street’ she could get 14 carats of diamonds in 14-karat white gold and it was half the price. Mine was platinum and almost 16 carats and I had to explain that we’re not going just by carat weight here. It’s the uniqueness of its being signed, how well it’s made, how expensive platinum is now, the difference of the durability of it. Often, these pieces are heavier, the bracelets and the brooches are heavier than what’s made today.”

Those elements sum up the criteria checklist used by the gallery. Uniqueness comes first. Next on the list is how well the piece is made; if it has a signature or marks of origin and, if it has diamonds, the quality and number of the stones. But, Federer says, “Beauty trumps everything — beauty and quality.” The signature “justifies how much we’re going to pay for it. And if we’re going to pay more, we’re going to have to ask more, so a signature always helps. But if it’s a beautiful piece of jewelry, we’ll sell it even without the signature. If it’s beautiful and well made.”

When Malcolm Logan, one of the owners of Nelson Rarities, Portland, Maine, looks at a piece of estate jewelry, he asks himself two questions. “Is it pretty?” And “Is it salable and how quickly?” But, he says, “the first thing is ‘Is it pretty?’ because that will always sell.” Third on his list is condition. “If there are problems with solder, if it’s been altered, those are things that are negative. If it’s in great condition, that would be positive.” Diamonds, he points out, are always a positive. “Diamonds do make a difference — the bigger, the better, and if they’re colored diamonds, even better. The older stones have a great charm, partly because they were cut for candlelight or for gaslight or low-density electric light, and it gives them a wonderful, warm charm. And the way they are set — the ajoure work in the back is so well done that it tends to make the diamond that much prettier.”

Name Value

The criteria used by Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City, according to co-owner/president Edward Faber, includes “brand,” starting with the “premium” names like Cartier, Van Cleef, Buccellati”; “condition,” including original bill of sale and whether there’s an original box; “presentation” and “materials.” The hardest quality to quantify is what Faber calls the “design presence” of the piece in the context of the period it dates from. “In that context, does it stand out, does it have something special?After a while, you do know what is ‘ugly’; there is a line in the sand.”

Judy Rosenbloom, owner, The Treasure Chest, Highland Park, Illinois, points out that “Although antique jewelry and estate jewelry ‘is what it is,’ it represents a time period.

What’s popular is dictated by fashion trends. No question that sometimes cameos are popular and sometimes they’re not, for example. And sometimes platinum is more popular than yellow gold. So that’s the first thing I look at.”


Cindy Ritzi, owner, Wm. Ritzi & Co. Jewelers, Daytona Beach, Florida, rates signature high on her list of qualities for a piece of estate jewelry, or “whether there’s a specialty maker, like Tiffany & Company, Van Cleef or someone like that, which would give added value to the piece over and above the components. That would be important. Signature always adds importance to the piece. It oftentimes adds provenance to the piece.”

And of course, Ritzi goes on to say, hand in hand with that would come the overall craftsmanship of the piece, how well it was taken care of, whether, especially in an older piece, all the stones are in there or whether original stones have been replaced over time or damaged. “One of the things to look for is will it give good wear and good service to the next person or whether there are going to be issues with it over time.”A signature, says Logan, can give a piece “legitimacy.”

However, he points out, it’s not just the familiar names that add value. “To a collector, it’s almost sexier to have a more esoteric maker.” One example he cites is Janesich, “a Russian émigré who established a store in Paris and made wonderful, wonderful jewelry in the 1920s and ’30s. His things are really sought after because of their craftsmanship and design.”

Illustrating how a signature affects value, Faber cites a collet-set Deco bracelet with extremely white diamonds that are perfect old miners. “It’s absolutely stellar,” he says. “It gets a ten out of ten in design presence. The materials are platinum. It’s extremely well made. But there’s no attribution. If it was signed Cartier or Tiffany, it would be a $200,000 bracelet instead of a $50,000 or $60,000 bracelet.”


“Wearability is very important,” says Rosenbloom. “It used to be that people would buy things for special occasions but now, daily wearability has been a really strong demand for me.”

For Faber, while wearability is important, he sees it as “becoming less important because more and more people are investing in fine jewelry as a hedge.” Moreover, points out Logan, “A true collector will understand that a piece that’s oversized or undersized is more valuable than a piece that is normal-sized. Some collectors would want a ridiculously large piece or a ridiculously small piece of a certain style or maker, because it’s rarer.”


“The number one most important thing is the taste of the store or dealer,” says Camilla Dietz Bergeron, principal of the New York firm bearing her name. While being well made is paramount and having great design, a piece has to also have what she calls “a look.” And while she says she and her partner try to buy as many signed pieces as possible “because customers like that,” by the same token, “there’s beautiful jewelry that’s not signed. So we won’t let that stand in our way.”

“I wish there was a formula, but there’s not,” she sums up. “A lot of it is instinct and the look.” Faber concludes, “You have to let your market experience guide you.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2008. To subscribe click here.

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