Your Guide To Buying Vintage Jewellery

Vintage jewellery is something that lies in the interesting realm between art and investment. Pieces that come with design or historical significance can fetch extremely high prices, but you are getting so much more than an investment when you buy a piece of vintage jewellery. Carefully curated vintage jewellery boasts a level of creativity, craftsmanship and quality as well as a charm, history and sense of romance that may be hard to find in most firsthand pieces.

But how do you go about selecting, acquiring and then caring for your pieces? Is a good piece of vintage jewellery even within your grasp? We headed down to Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects to speak with owner Brenda Kang, and to touch and see the pieces for ourselves. Kang is one of the few antique and vintage jewellery specialists based in Asia and honed her craft as a senior jewellery specialist in Christie’s where she worked for 15 years. In her by-appointment-only showroom, you’ll find rare pieces from both current and past high jewellery maisons as well as a good selection of reference books on notable jewellers including Pierre Sterlé and Suzanne Belperron. 

Kang is passionate about vintage jewellery and says that conditions in the past were completely different from that of today, making the resulting designs of a superior quality. “I find there’s a certain sensibility about making and designing jewellery that’s hard to do today because of KPIs. Most stores will have to think what can they make in the shortest amount of time, with the best results without spending so much money. That becomes different from how they did it in the past, which was the other way around.” Here’s what else we’ve learnt from our talk with Kang. 

Photograph by Vivian Li.

Know the market and the product

As with any purchase you make, you have to do your research. You wouldn’t buy a second hand car without looking into the specs, prices and the general market value, so in the same way, don’t dive into a purchase without research.  “Do your research and look at as much vintage jewellery as you can before you make that decision. Don’t rule something out if it’s not signed. Vintage pieces in the secondary market can be of very good value,” says Kang. “Look at it, touch it and feel it and try to understand as much of it as you can. It’s very much like buying an art piece — you try to know the artist, browse around and I often recommend those who want to start collecting vintage jewels to read “Understanding jewellery” by David Bennett and Daniella Mascetti as a good book to buy to start learning about the various styles and periods. It’s a good reference book,” explains Kang.

A Verdura target brooch. Image Courtesy of Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects.

Marked jewellery is usually more valuable, but you can still overpay for it

Pieces that are signed and from established jewellery houses are always in demand and do sell for more. “Those are pieces that are sought after by clients. They have value because of their place in the history of that particular maison, and if they are an iconic identifiable piece,” explains Kang. However, whether they make a good ‘investment’ or not depends on how much you paid for them, and when/if you would need to sell it. 

Hallmarks can help you place a piece’s provenance and age

“Hallmarks are very important as they can sometimes help you identify the age of a piece. French jewellers were only allowed to make their fine jewellery in 18K gold, unlike the English or Americans who could make it in 14K, 12K or even 10K,” says Kang. And it’s the quality of a piece that gives it its value. “The French had a strict standard and that helps to elevate the value of a piece. When you see that is French made and bears the French hallmark — for 18K gold it’s the eagle’s head — it brings a certain value because you know that French really took pride in what they did and were often ahead of the others in terms of jewellery innovation and sense of style and design” says Kang. However, a hallmark is only one indicator of a piece’s provenance and value. “The hallmarks help point you in a certain direction, but it’s not the only thing that signifies it worth,” says Kang.

Photograph by Vivian Li.

The Art Deco period is a good start for novices

“I would say the more popular pieces tend to be Art Deco jewellery, set with diamonds and platinum. It’s very easy for a person who might be new to vintage to understand and wear the geometric design of these periods — such as the Art Deco  periods — and that’s where I find a lot of new collectors tend to gravitate,” says Kang. They are also good investments as they are easier to fit into a modern context. “They are classic and evergreen in terms of the style, and are easy to wear with today’s fashion. explains Kang. 

Buy what you love 

Ultimately jewellery is about celebrating beauty, design and craft. A good piece should elevate a particular outfit or style and you should feel comfortable in it. If your jewellery buys appreciate with time, that is a bonus but should not be your central focus. “I try not to use the word investment too much. Buy what you love and buy to commemorate special or significant milestones in your life and buy the best your budget can afford,” says Kang. Personally, Kang takes the same approach when purchasing jewellery for herself. “I buy things that I like and that I would be able to wear from day to day or may need for a special occasion Being able to get good mileage out of your jewellery or to mark an occasion for me adds great value to your collection ” she says.

Photograph by Vivian Li.

Look for big names that may not necessarily be well known

Many famous vintage jewellers designed for houses and brands that you may not be familiar with, but were highly influential in their field because of their distinctive style and innovation. “I love looking at details and at signatures of a piece that will allow you to identify a designer which I think is so lacking today. You can look at a lot of jewellery and they all look the same — you can’t really identify a brand,” says Kang.

Kang points to French designers like Suzanne Belperron and Pierre Sterlé as significant ones. “Belperron was a French designer who started work for René Boivin. She was one of the top jewellery designers who was found by the Duchess of Windsor. Karl Largerfeld was actually a big fan of hers. She made things that were so amazing. She had a certain style such that she didn’t sign any of her jewellery because she as she once said ‘My style is my signature’”. Belperron became famous because she was worn by the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland, who was working in Vogue at that time, featured a lot of her pieces. “She used a lot of unconventional materials, but her style was very distinctive. The brand was relaunched last year by Verdura in the US,” says Kang.

Pierre Sterlé brooch. Image courtesy of Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects

Another jeweller to look out for is Pierre Sterlé. “At the height of his career in the 1950’s and 60’s he was making jewellery for royalty. The brand was bought over by Chaumet in the 1970’s so you have to find his jewels from estates from auctions. “Sterlé had a distinctive style, he was known especially for his creations of abstract wings and birds. All  very unique and  and mostly one of a kind pieces There was a lot of details, 3D and movement to it that is lacking in a lot of today’s jewellery. Designs today tend to be very ‘flat’ as it’s just easier to do,” says Kang.

Know the limits of restoration

Because it doesn’t have as long a history as more mature markets, Singapore doesn’t have jewellers who really specialise in the restoration of vintage jewellery. You might need to take this into account if buying a piece that needs serious work. “We [Revival] tend to buy things that are in very good condition. If something needs to be restored or fixed in Singapore, it’s limited in terms of the people who can restore vintage and keep the essence of the pieces. I tend to do a lot of my repairs for valuable, rare or difficult pieces in Hong Kong where they have the finesse and sensibility,” she explains. If you find your jewellery in need of repair work, Kang feels that Singapore jewellers should be able to do simple jobs, but for more challenging ones you might have to go to the Europe or Hong Kong. 

Photograph by Vivian Li

Buy online at your own risk

If you want to buy jewellery online, whether from 1stDibs.com or Instagram resellers, be prepared that you might not get what you asked for. “The hardest part is not being able to see the items and really feel it,” says Kang. Fakes or misrepresented products are ubiquitous even in the vintage realm, and it’s always best to understand the store or site’s return policy and expertise just to be safe. If you buy from trusted auction houses or resellers like Kang, who have had the experience of dealing with hundreds and thousands of vintage jewellery piece, then you are likely to have a fair assessment of an item’s actual value.

Vintage jewellery comes at all price points

Don’t be mistaken into thinking that only serious investors can afford these vintage treasures. In Revival you can get a signed gold and gem-set pillbox or a simple onyx and coral pendant for around US$2000, and even vintage watches from well-known brands for around US$4000-$5000. “For under $10,000 you can get a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings and even a pair of platinum and diamond earrings from the 1950s for US$7000. For that price you can get statement earrings with lovely workmanship and something that is different from the mass-produced things you would get from the market today,” says Kang. 

Don’t overclean your pieces

Kang says that some clients have asked their jewellers to plate vintage pieces with white gold, which is not necessary. “If it’s diamond and platinum, you can clean it with just soapy water and give it a good brush with your toothbrush and rinse it. With gold pieces you can use a light chamois for a little polish.  Don’t overdo it — but polish just enough to take out the perfume and lotions that might have accumulated,” says Kang. 

However for emeralds and other softer gemstones she advises bringing them back to the original jeweller as they can be very soft and should never be soaked or placed in an ultrasonic cleanser. Finally, keep your vintage pieces in their original boxes, as far as possible, as this will increase their value and rarity.

Revival Vintage Jewels & Objects is at #04-05B Wheelock Place, 6635-1735. By appointment only.