Vintage Jewelry 101

Featured products from left to right (all available for purchase online): Valentino Sapphire Blue and Pearl Dangle EarringsIradj Moini Giant Stag Beetle Pin with Semi Precious StonesVictorian Snake Necklace with Jeweled HeadOscar de la Renta Turquoise and Faux Jasper EarringsRialto Lucite Lace Handbag.

It’s hard not to notice that all things vintage are having a renaissance at the moment. One of the biggest headliners is “couture jewelry,” otherwise known as high-end costume jewelry. But the pursuit of these pieces can be tricky to navigate. That’s why we turned to Brett Benson, of D. Brett Benson Inc. in the Palm Beach, Florida Antique Row District, who has been on expert on this pre-war jewelry style for more than 35 years. Here, he educates us on how to suss out and care for these gems.

Trust your instincts. “The number one rule in shopping vintage is to buy from the heart,” Benson shares. “Jewelry is such a personal and individual statement. You have to trust your instincts.” If something draws you to particular design or color, go for it. “You will be one wearing it, so as long as you love it, nothing else matters.”

Look for quality. When shopping vintage, you can almost always find stellar pieces at reputable vintage jewelry stores, but you can also cast the net far and wide. Exploring estate sales and all manner or resale and antique stores can turn up pieces of value, but it helps to know what you’re looking for. “You can identify a quality piece from the front with a if it has a prong or diamond set,” Benson advises. But the key to a superior piece is on the back. “If you flip over the jewelry and find it’s just as pretty as the front, with just as much detail, you can tell there is pride in the work.” You never want to buy a piece that has rough metal or globs, as that’s a sign of inferior craftsmanship. And when it comes to stones, look for radiance and elegance. That’s a big sign of quality.  

Seek out rhodium plating. The best quality couture jewelry pieces were rhodium plated. “Rhodium is a durable metal in the platinum family and it has a silver or white gold look,” Benson says. Rhodium plated pieces were expensive in their day, but even more so in their second life. Benson says the best way to identify rhodium jewelry is by a hefty price tag paired with a look similar to platinum that is untarnished and quite shiny.

Don’t be afraid to go with an unmarked piece. It’s true that there were many impressive names during the couture period—Trifari, Chanel and Dior, to name a few— but you’ll be missing some great finds if you’re only willing to buy marked jewelry. “Early Chanel was not marked, similar to a lot of great designers from the period,” Benson notes. “Also, there might have once been a small hang tag that has now gone missing.” So don’t discount a piece if it doesn’t have a notable mark. Take a closer look at the quality and judge its weight. “Better pieces have a little more heft,” Benson says.

Clean with caution. Once you’ve invested in some quality pieces, you want to be gentle in your cleaning, always keeping in mind that these pieces are antiques. “As a general rule, you never want to get them wet,” Benson advises.Rhinestones and other gems are often foil-backed and this will deteriorate with harsh chemicals.” Often you can simply brush your pieces lightly with a soft toothbrush to remove dust and dirt. If you have to clean metal, Benson recommends using a soft paste on a cloth. Be sure to test a small area first; anything but a mild cleaner can remove gold-plating.

TSG Tip 270 from Brett Benson, of D. Brett Benson Inc. in the Palm Beach, Florida. Brett Benson Inc. is featured in the The Scout Guide Palm Beach.