How to Identify Vintage Costume Jewelry and Make Money From It
We have a task for you: go to your jewelry box. If you’re lucky, perhaps you have a jewelry armoire. Whatever your jewelry storage, we can guarantee one thing: you almost certainly have some costume jewelry pieces accumulated alongside the diamonds and opals, the silver and gold (OK, ok, that’s only if you’re lucky.)
Yes, we know costume jewelry sometimes gets a bad reputation when compared with precious stones and metals, but vintage jewelry sellers have learned to reap the benefits of this misconception. We’re here to fill you in on a little trade secret: costume jewelry actually has resale value, as long as the seller knows how to identify the right pieces.
Now, like anything in the fashion industry, styles come and go. The same is true for costume jewelry. While you may have parted ways with much of your collection, if you find yourself the beneficiary of an inherited set of tangled necklaces, rings and brooches or the recipient of a gift of faux pearls or rhinestones or even if you become a regular estate-sale-goer, learning the tricks of the costume jewelry resale trade may just lead to a big — or at least worthwhile — payout.
What Is Costume Jewelry?
Let’s get the standard first question out of the way: what’s the difference between costume jewelry and fine jewelry? The most important aspect, perhaps, is the material: fine jewelry is generally made of solid precious metals, like solid gold, solid sterling silver or solid platinum, per New York jeweler Ritani. Costume jewelry, on the other hand, is usually fashioned from base metals, like brass, aluminum or copper. It can also be plated with precious metal, like gold-plated jewelry.
Before the end of the 1920s, costume jewelry was not usually designed in the likeness of fine jewelry, according to jewelry historian Harrice Simons Miller. In that decade, high-level couturiers started to pair their dresses with costume jewelry, which launched the trend of luxury fashion houses like Chanel and Schiaparelli creating their own. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Kenneth Jay Lane, Balenciaga and Christian Dior also contributed notable pieces to costume jewelry in the 20th century that are still popular with buyers today.
It’s worth noting that costume jewelry by a designer like those named above will almost always have some value. If you spot something in Grandma’s closet marked with Chanel or Dior or even a name you don’t recognize, it makes sense to do a quick online search. Jewelry stamped with the manufacturer or designer’s name almost always goes for more than unsigned pieces.
Bakelite bangles, necklaces and pins are a good example of how costume jewelry has increased in value. Invented in 1907 by a chemist with the last name of Baekeland, Bakelite is considered the first synthetic plastic. The heat-resistant and lightweight material became known in particular for one unique style: the Bakelite bangle, stacked atop one another on one’s wrist. While that may not sound like anything special, the resale value on Bakelite these days makes the hunt worthwhile. One writer purchased for $5 a shoebox of bracelets that included Bakelite bangles—they were able to then resell three Bakelite bangles for $110.
12 Tips on How to Identify and Sell Vintage Costume Jewelry
Still, when faced with a crowded jewelry box and plenty of options, it’s hard to find meaning in any of it.
How do you know which pieces to keep and which ones it’s just time to toss? We interviewed two jewelry sellers who have turned a significant profit through their sales. Laura Clarice Webb, who runs UK-based Clarice Jewellery, once purchased a brooch for 22 pounds (about $26) and sold it for 700 pounds (about $850) that same day. While beginners probably won’t get that far immediately, there are some important standards to keep in mind on your journey, even if that’s just going through Grandma’s old jewelry cabinet.
Jennifer Ward owns vintage jewelry business Ward Vintage and is based in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and deals primarily with costume jewelry.
Keep in mind, what was in fashion back then sometimes comes around again and at a profit. So before you dump that 1950s hideous Rivoli costume pin that Grandpa got Grandma in the 1950s, know that someone might just pay almost $50 for it. Likewise the Monet earrings your best friend gave you as a gift for being a bridesmaid in her 1970s wedding.
Here are their 12 tips to determine if those prized jewels worn with pride are worth something and how to hawk them if they are.
1. If You See Something Nice, Double Check
First, while this post is about costume jewelry, we have an important caveat: If you have jewelry that could be made of precious metals and stones, check it out with a jeweler, Ward said.
Ward will sometimes work with buyers who leave a bulk jewelry collection to her. It’s grueling to go through pieces one by one, but diamonds in the rough — pardon the expression — do emerge. She once took a set of earrings to a jeweler and discovered that they were 14-karat gold. The jeweler said they wouldn’t sell them for less than $1,000.
Most local jewelers are willing to look at items for no or low cost, according to Ward. It’s worth forming that relationship now so you know where to go when you do have a question. And if you already know some of your antique jewelry is precious, here are our best tips for selling right away.
Sample Costume Jewelry Prices
1950s chunky bracelet
1940s teardrop earrings
Chanel Maison Gripoix Renaissance
“Jeweled” link bracelet
Red bib statement necklace
2. Do Research on Where to Sell Antique Jewelry
Both Ward and Webb couch their answers in qualifiers, but much of their online business happens on Instagram. Ward stages and posts some of her most eye-catching items on the social media platform, though many of the actual financial dealings happen off of the app.
Webb likes Instagram’s community-based atmosphere. With a few simple hashtags, like #vintagejewelry or #antiquerings, she can tap into a global community.
“Instagram is just so easy and a relaxed way of just sharing what you have,” she said. “I feel like if someone was starting and they had a range of jewelry, you can pick a few of the right hashtags and there are thousands willing to buy and share knowledge.”
3. Be Prepared to Sift Through Retro Pieces and Other Items
Part of the fun of going to a thrift store, flea market or estate sale is that it can feel like a bit of a jungle. Don’t expect to enter and find 30 things you want within the first 15 minutes. It takes some time — and a good eye — to find what you want, according to Ward. (Here are some great strategies for finding real gold at a flea market — and making $9,000 in profit from it.)
“You have to be willing to sift through a lot of junk,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to go in and get ten things.”
4. The Materials of Vintage Jewelry Matter
Don’t immediately discard costume jewelry that seems out of style or doesn’t instantly scream luxury. In fact, Webb is a big advocate of glass material items. You don’t have to find fine materials for a piece to be worth something.
“If someone finds something and it is glass, don’t be deterred,” she said. “Just because it’s glass doesn’t mean it’s worthless.”
5. Build Relationships With Sellers and Buyers
Both Ward and Webb have relationships with customers and dealers to get the best pieces out to the right people. Ward texts back and forth with dealers of vintage and costume jewelry. She has Zoom meetings to see the best pieces. Do I want this one or that one, she wonders.
If you are looking to unload family antique jewelry, this might not be as big of a concern for you, since it may be a one-time adventure. However, if you want to craft an antique jewelry business, relationship building is key.
Webb has met numerous people through her journeys to antiques fairs. While the business connections are important, it’s the passion that inspires her. These are good people to seek advice from when you’re first starting out.
“There are so many people who you can tell they’re not making a lot of money, but they just love what they do,” she said. “It keeps them going.”
6. Look for a Signature or Other Makers Mark
One no-fail bit of advice to find a piece that will earn at least a little money: spot the signature or the marked piece. It’s not just items by name-brand designers that attract buyers at top dollar — it’s recognizable American brands, like Monet and Napier. The key is to find things that represent certain time periods and may appeal to collectors.
Even if you don’t see a signature, meaning you have what you believe to be unsigned pieces or unsigned jewelry, look for a maker’s mark, says Webb. That could be a small animal or a symbol that explains the jewelry’s lineage.
“Even if it’s not precious metal or precious stone, it may still have a mark,” Webb said. “If you Google it, you’ll usually find someone somewhere who has done the research.”
7. Consult Costume Jewelry Collectors International
If you want a one-stop-shop database with practically all the information you need to know about costume jewelry, then Costume Jewelry Collectors International is the place for you. Not only are the organization and its website a great way to build up a sharp knowledge for costume jewelry, but it’s also a helpful way to meet other costume jewelry buffs.
Want to know how to identify a piece from World War II? You might start by learning that white metal was actually not allowed at the time, since it was needed to produce arms. Instead, unique materials like wood or even plastic were sometimes substituted.
If you have a penchant for certain designers, like Miriam Haskell or Kenneth Jay Lane, look no further than this interview with Lane himself and a synopsis of Haskell’s origin story (and whether she was the true designer of her eponymous jewelry).
If these little snippets of information aren’t nearly enough, then consider buying this book by Ginger Moro on some of the most famous European jewelry designers. You might even learn about a few more obscure artists.
8. If It Looks Quality, It Probably Is
Sometimes determining if a costume jewelry necklace or other piece is high-quality is as easy as picking them up.
“Good costume jewelry has a weight to it,” Webb said. Ask yourself, are they heavy for their size?
Many of the older pieces were triple-plated, according to Ward. Even costume jewelry that looks well-made is likely more valuable, she said.
9. Be Wary of Fakes
That said, the world of jewelry and jewelry identification is not without its risks. Webb knows this well: she will no longer purchase vintage costume jewelry by Chanel, because there are so many fakes. In fact, she once spent about $275 on a pair of earrings only to learn they were fake.
Some of the fakes, Webb said, “are of such a good standard that I don’t think I would be able to tell whether some of them are real or not.”
“It’s not worth investing the money because it’s too much of a risk.”
10. Understand Which Jewelry Pieces Are Good Sellers
When Ward scouts the shelves for good jewelry, there are certain things that always catch her eye. She is less focused on design and more focused on type which helps her determine value.
For example, so many vintage earrings are clip-ons, so when she finds vintage earrings on posts or with an earring clasp meant for pierced ears, she grabs those. That’s because so many people — about 83% — have pierced ears. If the earrings already have clasps, the buyer doesn’t have to take them to a jeweler to be altered. In other words, they are more likely to buy pierced vintage earrings.
Charm bracelets are ever popular, too — think Pandora but vintage jewelry. European designer jewelry made by Givenchy, Christian Dior and, yes, Chanel will always sell.
11. Know What Your Clients Want
Just as building relationships with vendors is key, so is building relationships with clients who shop for specific styles on vintage jewelry or costume jewelry collectors. Ward is at a point where she can identify certain pieces for certain clients. Sometimes, that means straying from purchasing things just based on what she would want to wear.
“I still buy what I like, but it’s not necessarily what I would wear,” she said.
12. Create a Brand and Internet Presence
If you want to be really successful in the vintage jewelry business, then the same thing holds true as with any other line of work: Build a personal brand. One way to keep clients coming back is to create a niche marketing tactic that always makes them think of you, particularly when it comes to packaging. Consider sending your jewelry with paper hang tags bearing the recipient’s name as a delicate touch.
Webb makes most of her sales through her website, and much of that is through her weekly newsletter. At the time of publication, that email chain had 600 subscribers and a whopping 70-80 percent click rate — the average for most newsletters is about 21 percent. Her subscribers are engaged and ready to peruse her newest listings. Most of her items go fast.
“The newsletter is my biggest achievement, because it’s all been through people choosing to sign up,” she said. “That’s the key to success.”
Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times.