When people are deciding which movie to see or which restaurant to visit, they can turn to professional reviews in newspapers and magazines. Purchasers of antique jewelry don’t have it so easy. Collectors and dealers alike must rely on their own connoisseurship. Frequently in a matter of minutes, they must decide what is good, better, or best.
But reaching a decision is much more than a matter of intuition, no matter how experienced the buyer. Connoisseurs draw upon a knowledge of the field, and this knowledge is based on a fairly standard set of criteria.
How rare is the jewelry? The first of these criteria is rarity. Even among rarities, however, there can be rare, rarer, and rarest. For example, let’s examine three centuries-old rings. A rare and lovely 18th-century ring is shown in Figure 1. Connoisseurs know it as a “Giardinetti” ring. It takes the form of a basket, with tiny, multicolored gems in the shape of flowers. Its name comes from the Italian for “flower basket.”
A rarer piece, known as a “Posy” ring, is shown in Figure 2. In the 17th century, small poems, or poesys, were engraved into the inside of a gold band. They were usually composed by a lover or fiancé and given as a token of affection. The engraving is in script, and the spelling is in Old English. Over time, “poesy” was shortened to “posy.” Examples of poems inscribed in such posy rings are:
“I joy to finde
A constant minde”
“I love and lyke
Because at first glance a posy ring appears to be just an ordinary gold wedding band, it can easily be missed, even by connoisseurs.
An even more rare ring is the Renaissance ring in Figure 3. It’s the oldest of the three, dating from the 16th century; moreover, its form is hardly ever seen. It’s two separate rings worn as one. The smaller ring is meant to be worn on the ring finger. The other one, a bit larger, fits the middle finger. They are joined at the center by a green paste stone.
Was the piece signed? When connoisseurs judge an item, in addition to its age and rarity, they consider whether it’s signed. Just as the fame of the artist is a deciding factor in assessing the worth of a painting, the signature of the craftsman can affect the value of a piece of jewelry. This doesn’t mean that a signature automatically guarantees it’s better than an unsigned article. But if everything else is equal, signed jewelry is usually more valuable. In general, designers who were proud enough of their work to sign it produced superior jewelry. They were discriminating in their choice of materials and meticulous in the execution of their designs.
One of the most famous jewelers of the 19th century is Carl Fabergé. Almost all of his jewelry was signed, either with the mark of the House of Fabergé or with the initials of his various workmasters. Figure 4 shows a group of good, signed Fabergé small objects: a brooch, a pair of cufflinks, a ring, and five miniature Easter eggs. Unfortunately, within the past decade, a cloud has fallen over small Fabergé jewels. So many reproductions have flooded the market that connoisseurs are reluctant to purchase them, despite the popularity of the Fabergé name.
An example of better 19th-century signed jewelry is Figure 5. Here we have a pair of Etruscan Revival earrings by Pierret. Their face-front hoop form combines the subtlety of the white micromosaic center with the boldness of the Etruscan-style granulated gold work. Pierret worked in France at the same time that his more famous contemporary, Castellani, worked in England. Because Pierret was not as prolific as Castellani, Pierret jewels surface less frequently, and usually only connoisseurs recognize their true worth.
The best of the signed jewels is Figure 6 – an Art Nouveau brooch by Masriera. The body of the lady is enamel on 18k gold. The top portion of the jewel is enhanced by delicate plique à jour (transparent enamel) flowers with rose diamond accents. Masriera, a Spanish jeweler, was influenced by René Lalique. The Spaniard, like his French counterpart, glorified the female face and form. This impressive jewel is the embodiment of the grace and beauty synonymous with the Art Nouveau movement.
Was there a famous owner? In some instances, the value of a jewel is determined not by its rarity or by who made it, but by who owned it. While provenance must always be given careful consideration, if there is a celebrity involved in a piece’s past, prices can soar. In that situation, all of the usual criteria by which jewelry is judged go out the window. Values seem to be commensurate with the popularity of the celebrity.
Were valuable materials used? When rarity, period, provenance, and signature are not an issue, there is another factor to be considered. The intrinsic value of the materials used to make a piece can be the guide to determining its worth. Let’s examine three bangle bracelets made in the 19th century, all unsigned.
The piece in Figure 7 is a good bangle bracelet. It’s made of Victorian pyrope garnets and 9k gold. The center section lifts up to reveal a place for a picture. While 9k isn’t popular in the United States today, it’s more valuable than the silver or silver-gilt metals usually found in the ordinary garnet jewelry of this period.
A better bangle bracelet, shown in Figure 8, is made of 18k gold. Its center section is composed of fine-quality opals, surrounded by rose diamonds. The gems are all set into a blue enamel background.
The best of the three bangles, in Figure 9, is also made of 18k gold. The large center section is an agate cameo depicting Cupid and Psyche. The entire bracelet is interspersed with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, forming a pattern that alternates with enameled leaves and flowers.
Is the piece well-designed? A major consideration in establishing the worth of any piece of antique jewelry is the quality of its design. An innovative form can be the reason it’s judged exceptional. Even if the design isn’t original, it can be considered an exciting work if it treats a standard motif in an unusual way.
A factor that enhances the quality of a design is the amount of attention paid to details. The tiniest section of an outstanding piece of antique jewelry will be executed as skillfully as its major or central portions. The back or other subordinate parts will be as carefully crafted as the front or more visible sections.
In judging the quality of any design, we cannot ignore uniqueness of function. A brooch that can come apart and be worn as a pair of dress clips or a necklace that turns around and becomes a tiara rates higher than pieces that can be worn only one way. The cameo bangle bracelet (Figure 9) is a good example of a dual-purpose design. The entire cameo section, along with its enamel border, lifts out of the center of the bangle and can be worn as a brooch. The most popular form of 19th-century multipurpose jewelry was the matching suite or parure.
An example of a good necklace with matching earrings is the Georgian suite in Figure 10. It’s made of 18k gold and cabochon garnets. The elaborate center of the necklace is removable and can be replaced by a small section that matches the plain links at its back. Now it can be worn as a choker.
The necklace and matching earrings shown in Figure 11 are a better Georgian suite, made of 18k gold and emeralds. The bottom piece of the necklace can be unhooked and worn as a brooch. It now becomes a three-piece suite: necklace, brooch, and matching earrings. Additionally, the intrinsic value of the emeralds is far greater than the worth of the garnets seen in Figure 10.
The best 19th-century parure, shown in Figure 12, is a necklace, brooch, earrings, pair of bracelets, and hair comb in 18k gold and aquamarines. Because of the multipurpose construction, these five components can become eight. The bottom piece of the necklace is detachable, wearable as a pendant. The pair of bracelets hook together and become a choker. The top of the hair comb can be removed and worn as a large spray brooch. And it all goes into the original fitted leather box!
How pretty is it? Many of the criteria we have examined can be measured objectively. However, a vital factor – aesthetic appeal – is primarily subjective. What one person sees as attractive, another may not find so at all. For some people, attracted by the sparkle of modern jewelry, no early jewelry is appealing. Connoisseurs try to avoid personal prejudices and preconceived attitudes about beauty.
As antique jewelry collectors and dealers, we may not see ourselves in the same light as we see the gentleman who gently sips vintage wine and then judges its quality. Nor are we comparable to the lady who dines in a different restaurant each night and reports on her gastronomic experiences in the morning newspaper. But we are critics just the same. We pass judgment on what is to be bought or sold by what we consider to be good, better, or best!
Edith Weber, president of the Edith Weber & Co. antique jewelry gallery in New York, specializes in 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century jewelry.