Monday, January 25, 2010

Researching… Costume Jewelry

My wife and I visit in excess of 4000 garage sales, estate sales, auctions, and homesteads every year. Multiply that by the 31 dealers currently at A Classy Flea and you can imagine that we come across a myriad of interesting finds. Fortunately, one of the biggest joys I receive from working at A Classy Flea is that I love to research the more interesting things that I come across. I am lucky that I have the ability to remember much of what I have researched and am able to apply that knowledge when I come across similar items later. The other dealers in our shop know they can use me as a resource for identifying and assisting in valuing their finds. Lately, they have been bugging me to share my secrets so they can research their items without taking my time, so that is what is prompting this weekly blog.

costume jewelry Shelley and I have just become interested in jewelry over the last 2 to 3 years. It is so much fun to rummage through old jewelry boxes looking for that special find. It is a real treat for us when we are able to purchase an entire collection, just so we can go through it, cleaning them to their original glory, imagining the places they have been, and discovering when they were made and by whom. Jewelry

There are 2 things that I first look for when trying to place a value on jewelry; fine metal marks and maker’s marks. Fine metal marks have become mostly standardized throughout the world. If the item is silver in color, the ‘good’ marks are “800”, “925” and “Sterling”. Metal in its pure state is much too soft to be used in jewelry. It would get dented and misshapen too easily during normal use and would quickly lose its beautiful appearance. “Sterling” is the common term for an alloy made up of silver and another metal to give it more strength. Sterling silver is commonly considered to be made of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of another metal. This also relates to the “925” mark. The “800” mark simply shows the item is made of an alloy that is 80% silver and 20% another metal and is usually found on older, European items. (For more information on silver marks see next week’s blog!)

Gold Jewelry Most of you are aware that pure gold is considered 24 karats and is referred to as 24K. Again, pure gold is much too soft to be used in jewelry and is most often used in gold plating. You will usually find ‘real’ gold jewelry marked 22K, 18K, 14K, or 10K. These, again, are alloys of pure gold and another metal. For example, a ring marked 18K is actually 75% gold (18 divided by 24). You may also find a gold ring marked “750” which is identical to 18K. Using the same logic, 22K=917, 14K=583, and 10K=417.

Earrings There are other gold marks to be wary of. I have seen many dealers get excited when they find a ring marked 18K-RGP. A similar mark that is often overlooked is something similar to
14K-GF. It’s easy to see the 18K or 14K and think you have just made a great find. “RGP” stands for “Rolled Gold Plate” and “GF” stands for “Gold Filled”. An item that is marked RGP has less than 1/60th of it’s weight made up of the marked gold. So an item marked 18K-RGP is only 1.25% pure gold! An item marked “GF” actually has a thicker layer of gold over the base metal and must be at least 10% of the total weight of the metal. Even so, an item marked 14K-GF is still less than 6% real gold.
Another special case you may find is gold jewelry, usually bracelets, that are marked “925”. This is commonly called vermeil and is made of a base of sterling silver with a very fine plating of 10K or 14K gold on top. The amount of actual gold is insignificant and we usually price these items as if they were sterling – which they are!

costume jewelry Obviously, the majority of the jewelry we come across is loosely referred to as Costume Jewelry. This is jewelry that was typically made in the 1940’s – 1970’s that was low on cost but high on show. Though they were low cost, many of the older designers were high style and actually very high quality. The collectability, and therefore the value, of a specific piece is a combination of colors, design, maker and age. A lot of this is subjective, but it is necessary to know who made the piece and when. Most of this can be derived from the maker’s mark on the piece.

Though there are many websites dedicated to the identifying of costume jewelry, there is only one that I have come to rely on: “Researching Costume Jewelry” at Illusions Jewels:

The ladies at Illusion Jewels have created and identification guide that looks exactly how I would have asked for one to be designed! Just scroll down the main page a little way and you will find an index to the first letter of the maker’s mark:

And what kind of information can you expect to find on their site? Here’s an example of one maker, Schiaparelli: (click on the picture to see a larger version)rcj3

The information includes the years the company was in business, the different marks they used, and most importantly, the approximate dates the individual marks were used.

Here is my calendar of future “Researching…” blogs:
February 1: Silver and Silver Plate
February 8: English Pottery
February 15: US Pottery
February 22: German Pottery
March 1: Chinese Pottery
March 8: General Web Research
March 15: Resource Books?
Please let me know if there are other types of collectables you would like information about researching!


  1. This is wonderful!! I have tons of old jewelry and have always wanted to know more about them. I will definitely be here often, especially in February and March.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
    Ladybug Creek

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  3. Awesome! It seems that you've collected a lot of interesting finds this time. I've known a lot of people collecting different kinds of jewelries, beads, nickel alloys, crafts made of aluminum and other great finds. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing those awesome photos, Classy Flea!

  4. I have recently come into a collection of vintage costume jewelry that belonged to my mother. Any tips for cleaning the items? I am tempted to use good old-fashioned dish soap and warm water, but some are delicate and I am concerned about removing the finish.

    Also, have found some delicate gold-toned filigree butterflies and a bracelet that are stamped 79 GE and 800. I figured out that the GE means gold-electroplated, but what about the 79 and the 800? Could the 800 mean the piece is gold-electroplated over silver? Maybe the 79 is the year it was made? Any insight would be appreciated. Thank you!

  5. I found you while researching maker's marks. I am trying to find out who made the brooches with the crown and fish symbol. Do you know?
    I will be watching here for info.
    Evette rice