When gazing at a piece of estate jewelry, some see sparkle. Others see size. Carey De Tota sees a story. “It’s a window — a physical connection — into a
When gazing at a piece of estate jewelry, some see sparkle. Others see size. Carey De Tota sees a story. “It’s a window — a physical connection — into a past era,” she says. De Tota is the lead gemologist at Replacements, Ltd., the world’s largest retailer of tableware, silver, estate jewelry, and watches, and she’s one of eight experts in the company’s robust estate jewelry department.
It’s a natural collection for a company known for uncovering rare treasures.
“By definition, estate jewelry is any piece of jewelry that was previously owned,” De Tota says. Under the estate jewelry umbrella, you have vintage jewelry, which is any piece over 50 years old, and antique jewelry, which is more than 100 years old. “When we get something from the Victorian period, I imagine the person who first wore it in a hoop skirt,” she says. “I’m holding a physical piece that somebody else had 150 years ago.”
But De Tota acknowledges that every shopper isn’t lured by the story — some are lured by the savings. “One of the biggest appeals of estate jewelry is you can get a really nice piece for an affordable price,” she says. To help treasure seekers uncover those special, storied — and valuable — items, De Tota and her colleagues are sharing their top tips for estate jewelry shopping.
You’ve seen the magazines and you know what’s in style, but that doesn’t always translate to what’s best for you. “Remember that every hand is shaped differently, and certain pieces look better on certain hands,” says Amanda Womack, the relationship coordinator with Replacement’s estate jewelry department.
Put yourself out there and try things on, even if it feels outside your comfort zone: “When you do, you might fall in love with something you wouldn’t have expected to like,” Womack says. Buying from a business that has certified gemologists available gives you the ability to call or email questions and get an expert answer before you buy. And if you choose to buy estate jewelry online, “Be sure you’re buying from a reputable dealer that offers a reasonable return period. That way, you can get it, try it on, and see if you love it,” Womack says.
When valuing estate jewelry, gemologists Anita Ford and De Tota pull out their jewelers’ loupe to inspect each piece under high magnification. Acknowledging the average buyer isn’t walking around with a fancy instrument, Ford says it’s OK to start with your gut instinct. “Turn it around and look at it from every angle,” she says. “If you shake it and it feels like the diamond or the stone is a little bit loose, you probably want to move on to something else.”
In addition to checking the prongs to be sure they have a strong grip on the stone, check the stone itself for scratches. Is it dirty or dingy? In general, did the previous owner take care of it? “I adjust my expectations if a piece is from 1865,” Ford says. “But if it’s newer, you’d expect the condition to be better.”
In the mid-20th century, the nonprofit Gemological Institute of America established the world’s first method for assessing the quality of diamonds, and to this day it’s the universal standard.
“When you’re buying estate diamonds, the four Cs still apply,” Womack says. “Ask about color, cut, clarity, and carat weight.”
Most of today’s diamonds are cut by machine, but most antique diamonds were hand-cut by artisans. “A human being sat down with this material, and actually looked at the light that was going into it and made each cut intentionally,” De Tota says. “They were cutting stones without magnification. How did they see to put all those little facets in? It’s so artistic.”
De Tota adds that prior to the Industrial Revolution, many people would take inherited jewelry to the local goldsmith, who would melt it down and recast the setting. “We don’t see a lot of stuff that’s Georgian or earlier — late 1700s to early 1800s — because it kept getting recycled and recycled and recycled. The demand is through the roof because it’s just not there.”
Before you buy a piece of estate jewelry, confirm that it was vetted by a certified gemologist. That’s important, De Tota says, because a lot of people selling an estate piece don’t know exactly what they have: “They’ve been told a story, maybe that their ring came from a grandmother and it’s a real ruby. But a lot of times those stories have been warped, and they’re not really sure what they’ve been given.” According to De Tota, there’s often more memory involved than actual knowledge about the value. “A piece has value because of the sentimentality involved,” she says.
Certified gemologists have taken numerous classes and hands-on labs in diamonds and colored gemstones. “We’ve literally seen and graded tens of thousands of pieces,” De Tota says. “We’re trained in knowing what time period pieces are produced in. We touch every piece that we sell.”
Knowing the history of your diamond or other estate piece provides insight into a different time and way of life.
Take the “variety ring,” for example, one of De Tota’s favorite convertible pieces. Popular in the 1920s, the Variety Ring kit comes with a stone that slides out and can be replaced with one of five other stones in the set. And another ’20s cult classic, the “poison ring,” was outfitted with a tiny container under or inside the ring’s bezel setting.
De Tota also points out the Sputnik jewelry, made in the mid-century era during the space race. “You’ll find these weird and beautiful ball-shaped pieces made to look like satellites, often with striking, colorful gems,” she says. “It’s interesting how you can really tell a lot about what was going on politically and socially just by the jewelry that’s out there.”
Jewelry is an expression of who you are, De Tota says. And that’s even more true when it comes to vintage and antique pieces. “There is literally something for everybody,” she says.
While the Replacements, Ltd. storefront is currently closed to visitors, you can purchase estate jewelry and other items on replacements.com/estate-jewelry or by calling 1-800-REPLACE.