Tales From the Backside

The art deco platinum bracelet features old European cut diamonds as well as baguettes. The dealer tells you it dates from 1928; at first glance the date seems authentic, and the price is right. You admire the piece’s clean lines and simple geometry, and you know that one of your best customers-the dot-com whiz kid who loves art deco jewelry-will swoon over it. Fortuitously, that customer’s anniversary is just weeks away.

But wait a minute. Have you flipped the bracelet over and taken a good look? That clump over there looks suspiciously like white gold solder, doesn’t it? That means the piece has been repaired. And check out those hinges; they look too new to date from 1928. Isn’t that evidence of glue around some of those baguettes? That means some of the original stones have been replaced. How much did that dealer say he wanted for the piece?

Just as you wouldn’t buy a used car without first checking under the hood, you shouldn’t consider purchasing estate jewelry without inspecting the back as well as the front. “The front will tell you about the aesthetics of the piece; the back will tell you the construction-the alterations, marriages, or repairs that have been made,” says Joyce Jonas, director of the 22nd annual Antique & Period Jewelry and Gemstone Conference.

“The more you look at a piece, the more it will tell you; it’s just a matter of knowing the language,” says Peter Shemonsky, director of fine jewelry and timepieces at Butterfields, San Francisco. Examining the backside of a piece can enable you to determine the techniques used in creating it, which can help you to circa-date it. A look at the underside of the findings (components such as joints and catches) can help solve the mystery of whether the piece is original to the period, has been modified, or is a reproduction. “From the front, all you’re going to read is style,” Shemonsky says.

The characteristics you observe on the reverse side of a piece have a dramatic effect on price, Jonas notes. “Many people make the mistake of asking, ‘What are the diamonds worth?’ and ‘What is the gold worth?’ and thinking that’s the only value in the piece,” she says.

Dating tips. How old is the piece? And is it really that old? Studying the back can help you answer those questions.

Shemonsky recalls a platinum and diamond ring set with three round cabochon garnets that was posted on Butterfield’s Web site. The mounting was consistent with turn-of-the-20th-century style, but cabochon-cut garnets are not consistent with Edwardian pieces. “It was a good look; it just wasn’t the right look,” he says. A trained observer examining the underside of the ring would have been able to tell that the stones weren’t set properly into the mounting, he notes.

1800s: If the piece was made before 1850 and was owned by an American, chances are it was altered somewhere along the line, says Jonas. It was common for stones to be removed and reset when mountings went out of style because consumers couldn’t foresee the long-term benefits of keeping their jewelry intact. “We weren’t a luxury-minded country; we were busy becoming a country,” she notes.

Prior to 1800, jewelers used a closed-back setting with foil underneath the gems to enhance the stones’ color. Pieces produced after 1800 are marked by intricate à jour work-an open setting that exposes the underside of the stone, with as much metal as possible removed from the back.

The cut of the diamond should be consistent with the era of the piece. The old mine cut dates from before 1870; after 1870, the old European cut was prevalent. Until the late 1800s, jewelry was either all silver or silver on top with a gold back.

1900-1915: Pieces made during this period were tooled, pierced, and set with stones in sections-all by hand-then assembled. Reproductions, on the other hand, are generally cast and molded, says Neil Lane of Neil Lane Estate Jewelry, Los Angeles. Edwardian pieces (1901-1910) were platinum on top with a gold back. All-platinum pieces came on the scene by about 1906. Platinum pieces made in this period are light and airy, with nice detail work. “Newer galleries tend to be heavy-handed,” says Shemonsky. “They lack finesse and grace-they’re not cleaned up.”

1915-1920: More brightly colored stones are seen; designs become more exotic and linear.

ca. 1925: A Paris exposition in 1925 presented the style now known as art deco. The pieces were luxurious and set with expensively cut stones. Designs were very eclectic; the most popular were Oriental and geometric.

1925-1930: With the stock market crash of 1929, designs changed. There was a move away from ornate colored stone jewelry. Monochromatic (all-white) and bichromatic looks became popular.

1930s-1950s: Many European jewelers stopped producing jewelry in the late 1930s, Lane says. When they resumed work in the early 1950s, their pieces were still made “in the spirit and vein of the late 1930s.” Because of platinum’s strategic importance to the war effort, its use in jewelry making was suspended during World War II, as it had been during World War I. Pink, yellow, or green gold or palladium was used instead.

Reality check. In general, the observer will find handmade period pieces to be more skillfully crafted, with more intricate detail work, compared with much of today’s mass-produced jewelry. “The detail work in the back is a clue to how well-made the piece is,” Jonas explains. “It shouldn’t be rough or uneven; it should be polished.”

The à jour work should be cut out in a clean, distinct way; if it appears muddled or exhibits telltale signs of being cast instead of cut out, it’s likely white gold made in Hong Kong rather than an authentic platinum piece, Lane says.

The workmanship should be consistent, he notes: “The piece should be as beautiful from the back as it is from the front. All the work is done on the back in terms of construction. If it isn’t made right, it won’t move right, and the stones won’t shine right.”

Filigree galleries (strips of metal for making stone settings) of period pieces should be open and airy, with good detail work. Van Cleef & Arpels’s invisibly set jewelry featured walls of platinum into which each stone was fit. “Every stone had its own ‘house,'” Lane explains. From the top, “you don’t see any metal because all the work is done on the bottom.” In modern-day reproductions, the stones are simply glued in a row. “It looks good on top, but nothing is holding the individual stone; that’s why they all fall out today,” Lane says.

“Most older pieces are constructed very, very carefully, and this is obvious by flipping them over,” says Diana Singer of D & E Singer Inc., an estate jewelry specialist in New York. But there are exceptions, Singer cautions. An estate piece that was originally designed for the mass market of its time, for example, may be inferior in quality to some well-made contemporary jewelry.

Likewise, although “signs of wear are usually instructive in determining if something is original or a reproduction,” the absence of such signs alone doesn’t brand a piece as a copy, Singer says. “A lot of reproductions these days are knocked around before being put on the market” to mimic the ravages of time, she points out. “Conversely, a lot of original pieces have been put in a safe and not worn for 70 years,” and therefore may not look as old as they really are.

Because anomalies can exist, “you have to be a little bit of a Sherlock Holmes when you’re looking at estate jewelry,” she advises. Savvy estate jewelers assess three parameters: whether the design of the piece is appropriate to its purported period, presence of signs of wear, and quality of the workmanship. “I have rarely seen a reproduction that satisfies all three requirements,” Singer says.

Pieces that raise a red flag exhibit “too much of a good thing,” she adds. “The earrings are too long, the piece is too stone-intensive, or something in the design concept is inappropriate. You’re immediately aware that the balance is off.”

Disastrous ‘repairs.’ Repairs to estate jewelry executed by inexperienced jewelers will be evident on the back of the piece. “Unfortunately, many jewelers today don’t know how to repair estate jewelry,” laments Jonas. “Fixes” such as the addition of a 14k gold fitting to an 18k gold item or the use of lead solder on a piece of gold jewelry can dramatically lower the value of the piece. “This happens every day, everywhere, hundreds of times,” says Jonas.

You’ll find evidence of repair in the form of unsightly gray lead solder at the clasp, hook, or pin back. A piece with two different colors of metal on the back should raise questions, as should a piece that looks unfinished or broken. Use your sense of touch as well as sight, Jonas advises; if your finger gets caught on a bezel setting, it’s a signal that the original, snugly fitting stone has been changed. Try on the jewelry to see how it feels. “The back is what you feel with your body,” Lane explains. “If it feels strange, something’s wrong.”

Look at all the gemstones in the piece. Have older-cut diamonds been replaced with modern-cut stones? Is there evidence that replacement stones have been glued in? Calibre-cut gems (square or rectangular shapes used as accents) should fit in their own little boxes, with separate enclosures for each stone. Is there evidence of glue underneath the stones? “When people don’t know how to put them back right, they just glue them back in,” Lane points out.

If the piece contains a pearl, examine its setting. Until the 1930s, natural pearls were set in platinum cups. If the pearl in the item you’re holding is set in an opening rather than a cup, it’s a clue that the piece originally contained a diamond, which was removed and replaced with a less valuable cultured pearl. “If it doesn’t have the right back for the pearl to sit in, you know the pearl isn’t original,” Lane says.

Assess whether the contour of the stone on top fits the cutout on the back. If a ring features a marquise or pear-shaped diamond, for example, the setting should be marquise- or pear-shaped underneath. If you see openwork to fit a round stone underneath the ring, you should see a round stone on top. “The back should make sense with the front. If not, something is wrong,” Lane warns.

“If the quality of the workmanship in one area of the piece doesn’t match the quality of the workmanship in other areas of the piece, it’s been adulterated, and you should price it accordingly,” Singer cautions.

Checking the back will also yield signs of needed repairs that haven’t been done. If the piece is enameled, investigate whether the enamel is chipped. If it’s a chain, run your finger over it to find snags that may be invisible to the eye.

Mixed marriages. Be on the lookout for “marriages”-the attaching of a component of one piece to another, such as a cufflink soldered onto a ring shank. Sections of the jewelry that aren’t integral to the makeup of the piece are telltale signs, Lane notes. “Something is just stuck in; in the back, you can see that it’s inconsistent. It doesn’t make any sense.”

As an example, he cites an art deco platinum and diamond bracelet with a large emerald or amethyst in the center. “A lot of these diamond bracelets were originally watches,” he says. Watch faces also may have been replaced with plaques or art deco pins. On the back of such pieces, you will see beautiful à jour work behind the platinum and diamond area of the bracelet-then the à jour work stops beneath the plaque.

Also be on the lookout for items that are missing some of their original components. In the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the early decades of the 20th, jewelry was made to be convertible-for example, a part of a bracelet could be unscrewed to attach to a necklace. A “brooch” with a screw on the back should raise questions, Jonas says. “No piece of jewelry is going to be made with a screw on the back for no reason. It means that it was meant to be part of something else. It’s valuable as a brooch, but it’s less valuable than it would be if it were together with all the pieces of the suite.” Likewise, a bolt on the back of an enamel piece could indicate that the item was on top of a small box in a former life. “A nicely made piece of jewelry doesn’t have a bolt on the back,” she says.

If you don’t know, ask. When something bothers you about a piece, don’t hesitate to pose a question to the dealer, Jonas urges. “Ask, ‘Is this a repair?’ Try to get honest answers from dealers if you can. If they say it’s been repaired, get them to put that on the receipt.”

Singer advises estate jewelry novices to study auction catalogs and acquire a library of antique and estate jewelry reference books to develop a feel for the way pieces should look in the back. Taking courses on distinguishing between period and reproduction jewelry can also help you build your knowledge base. Another way to protect yourself is to do business only with suppliers who guarantee the authenticity of their merchandise.

Above all, never rely on your first impression of an estate piece, Singer cautions. “You really need to put the pieces together. Never use just one criterion to make your decision” about a purchase.

“It’s like falling in love with somebody just because of how they look. You have to see what they’re like inside before settling down with them.”