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Old jewellery

Buyers are willing to part with large sums to buy period jewellery, with the market buoyed by record prices for diamonds. Harriet Meyer reports.

Period jewellery with a real history is splendid to wear and the stones and precious metals you acquire have the potential to rise substantially in value over time.

There are various styles and periods to choose from depending on your taste, whether you are purely profit seeking or simply driven by the desire to wear beautiful items. At present, dealers single out art deco pieces from 1920 to 1935 as the most popular, given their strong aesthetic appeal.

“Art deco jewels are true design classics, easy to wear with today’s fashion and hence very popular,” says Jean-Marc Lunel, head of Christie’s Geneva jewellery department. “With their characteristic simple and elegant geometric style, often set with diamonds and at times enhance by gemstones in a platinum mounting, they are really loved.”

Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron were some of the master jewellers of the art deco period, and pieces made by these houses are rare and highly collectible at present, say dealers. A Cartier Tutti Frutti gem set and diamond bracelet, circa 1928, was sold in June for $1.8 million (€1.2 million) at Christie’s in London – the highest price ever for a single bracelet in this style.

Some collectors enjoy period and antique jewellery for its historic or academic value, but most also appreciate jewels from a bygone era that still serve to flatter modern styles, while at the same time adding a touch of antique charm.

In addition, the notion that jewellery retains its value is ingrained in traditions and cultures around the world. Tribes have often used beads as currency, while jewellery was frequently given as a wedding dowry. Jewellery is seen as portable wealth and a worldwide currency – with gold rings, necklaces and diamonds often smuggled by people forced to flee a country, who want to take their wealth with them.

Impressive returns can certainly be expected in today’s diamond market, whether the stones are old or new. According to investment manager Charles Stanley’s latest edition of The Quarterly Carat, there was unabated enthusiasm when the diamond market opened this year, with the rough diamond market seeing price rises of up to 35% in the first half of 2011.

The view is that “both the rough and polished-diamond markets should continue to enjoy stable rising prices over the medium to long term,” said the report. Investing in diamonds may be a developing area, but precious stones and metals continue to be sought as a safe haven from inflation and the financial crisis and have proved a top-performing investment over recent years.

Auction price records on the jewellery market are being smashed every year. However, at the peak of the financial crisis in December 2008, Christie’s London broke the world record for diamonds sold at auction, when a 17th-century, 35.56-carat Wittelsbach Diamond went for £16.4 million to Graff Diamonds.

Of course, it isn’t guaranteed an older item of jewellery will soar in value - but they can perform better as investment pieces than newer items. Jean Ghika, head of jewellery for the UK and Europe at auction house Bonhams, says: “Some people have a perception when they buy a piece of new jewellery that it will go up substantially in value over time, and they are disappointed when they find out that it hasn’t.

“In practice, it can take 30 years or so to get back the initial value when you come to sell. Pieces with designer labels attached, sometimes marketed as ‘limited edition’, are susceptible to erosion of value; you’re paying for the marketing as well as the other costs,” she says.

Buying secondhand, which normally means vintage or antique pieces, is a wiser move for investors. Secondhand jewellery is often less expensive than contemporary pieces. It doesn’t attract VAT and if you buy at auction, the commission, or buyer’s premium, is likely to be somewhere between 10% and 20%, compared to the 100% mark-up often seen at jewellery retailers.

Yet there are, of course, good reasons why some people still buy new: the condition and presentation will be immaculate and not everybody appreciates the history and character of an antique piece.

In general, collectors also covet signed pieces from any of the famous workshops – Tiffany, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron, the great jewellery makers. Top-quality signed jewellery from the
1960s and 1970s is also sought after as a store of wealth – makers to look out for include Andrew Grima, John Donald and Stuart Devlin, say dealers.

Ghika says: “Many clients tend to focus on high-quality signed and period pieces or certificated diamonds. There is no specific entry point in terms of pricing for these items, but they tend to be priced from £10,000 upwards.”

From that price, costs are as diverse as the periods from which the jewels originate, and can go up to several million for rare signed pieces from important houses such as Cartier.

Antique jewellery with royal provenance can also command high prices at auction. For example, Bonhams sold a pair of art deco diamond lorgnettes by Van Cleef & Arpels that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor in April for £12,500.

Period jewellery has recognisable characteristics dating from a definite design period. Some may be centuries old, but the pieces you are most likely to see are those dating from the Victorian period to the present.

Some eras are self-explanatory, such as Victorian, which signifies the period of Queen Victoria’s rule in England. Other periods are defined by their style – but all eras have a rich and wonderful history, which many people believe makes owning and wearing items particularly pleasurable compared to modern-day designs.

In general, pieces from the Victorian period are in plentiful supply, whereas Regency or Georgian pieces are becoming increasingly rare, and so constitute a sound investment.

As with any alternative investment, there are risks and trends at play that can be difficult to track if you are not an expert. Certain pieces and products may go out of fashion and, therefore, there could be a struggle to find a buyer in the future, while antique or period pieces can also fail to achieve their anticipated prices at auction.

Buyers need to bear in mind that jewellery sold at auction is subject to commissions that will be added to the hammer price, which can erode future profits. “Clients should also take note of shipping fees as well as importation taxes and duties for their respective countries if they are buying abroad,” says Lunel.

Buyers need to consider three things when assessing a piece: provenance, rarity and quality. Besides the value of the stones, if the previous owner is royal or famous, the pieces are likely to command higher prices. Documentation covering an item’s passage through several owners’ hands can also add to its selling price.

Use a jeweller’s magnifier to examine the gemstones for damage, missing stones and the quality of setting and mounting, and avoid pieces that have been significantly altered. Good stones from older jewellery have often been removed and reset in a new piece to maximise their value, which is one reason it is hard to find very old diamond rings, according to dealers.

Yet, condition is of paramount importance when looking to buy period and antique jewellery, and damage or repair can impact on the value of pieces considerably. Always check the stones are original and have not been replaced and the settings are secure. 

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