I am often asked, "How can I get started and learn all you know so I can do what you do?" Of course, watching PBS's Antiques Roadshow, and streaming past episodes at pbs.org/antiques is a great education, but it's only a beginning. It is also important to seek out other sources of knowledge if you are to become not only an educated but a savvy collector. Collecting antique and estate jewelry can be a wonderful experience, plus you can usually get a better-made piece of jewelry for less than it would cost to reproduce it in today's retail market. If that's not reason enough, you get to wear a piece of history.
I usually tell people that what you need to start with is a passion for learning, an inquisitive mind, knowing how to ask the right questions, a good visual memory, patience and some money.
Get the Right Books
Today, there is a plethora of books that specialize in antique and estate jewelry. Some are general, some are maker-specific and some are just nice coffee-table books. What a beginning collector needs is a book with sound historical knowledge and corresponding images to study. The two books that I always recommend are Understanding Jewelry by David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti and Warman's Jewelry, 3rd Edition by Christie Romero. Both books are filled with invaluable historical information and images, and the latter with prices (this edition is a few years old, so values have changed, but it will give you a general yardstick by which to measure the market).
From these books, I recommend learning your timelines and styles so that you will be able to know what you are looking at in terms of period pieces and to help determine what you respond to in terms of antique and estate jewelry. I also advise investing in a Triplet 10X magnifying loupe, as this will become invaluable tool as well.
Start Handling Jewelry and Asking Questions
The next step is educating yourself in what I call the "The Hands-On Phase." As the name implies, it requires getting out in the field and handling jewelry. Here is where you start putting your book knowledge together with your eyes, brain and fingertips.
If you are in an area that has an auction house that offers jewelry, this is an invaluable resource, since they will have a constantly changing inventory to inspect and ask questions about. I would advise getting friendly with one of the jewelry specialists and to inquire about the pieces you are interested in, even if you may not be at the point where you're ready to buy. The same holds true if you frequent local antique shows, trade shows or flea markets: The point is to be where the jewelry is. There are many knowledgeable vendors who take part in these types of events. I would scout out an event a few times and find those people who have items you are interested in and start some conversations. Vendors want to establish relationships with their repeat clients as it is beneficial to their business to take the time to answer your questions and give you guidance. If they don't want to help, then push on till you find someone who does.
Local jewelers are another great resource. Some have antique and estate jewelry departments and are also interested in building a relationship with you as a client.
The most important questions you should always ask when looking at a prospective purchase are: "Is it authentic and is it in original condition?"
Think With Your Eyes
The third most important thing to do is to turn the piece over and examine the back of the piece. Why, you may ask? This is where you will typically find the signature if it is signed. Also, this is where it is stamped to indicate metal content. In time, you will also become familiar with the types of clasps and closures that the pieces should have, so if they are different, it would indicate they may have been altered. The back is also where most jewelers will perform a repair so that it is not visible from the front. At the time that these pieces were made, labor costs were low and the level of craftsmanship was very high, so the back of a piece should be reflective of the same level of craftsmanship as the front. Nowadays, there are many reproductions in the market. It is easy to copy style, but copying craftsmanship is very expensive and not cost-effective in today's market. So think with your eyes and compare with your brain.
In the beginning, never assume the item you are looking at is the rarest piece you have ever seen (it may be, but only to you). Remember, there is a great deal of jewelry out there and everyone from every era wore jewelry. Humans are creatures of habit -- we tend to wear what is considered acceptable -- so chances are if it was a popular item from a specific period, it means there are probably more of them somewhere. Along the same lines is what I call the "trickle-down effect," which happens frequently in jewelry. This is where the high-end jewelry sets the style of the period, and from there every social stratum below makes similar items. The only thing that changes is the material, but the essence of the design stays the same, so a diamond and platinum brooch could have a similar glass and brass cousin from the same period. This is a good thing, because one version can be in a collector's pocketbook range and still typify the period.
There is no right or wrong way to go about collecting, just be sure to arm yourself with the knowledge to help offset any mistakes that you may make. Believe me, we all make them and you will too, either by not looking carefully at a piece or thinking it is something that it is not. If you make a mistake or overpay for something, chalk it up to being part of your educational expense. (Hopefully it will still be less than sending your kids to college.)