What to look out for when buying jewellery at auction

More and more people are discovering the benefits of buying jewellery at auction. Free from high street mark-ups, ‘pre-loved' jewels by luxury designer names are priced at a fraction of the cost of buying a similar brand new item.

Diamond scarf clip by Cartier

This platinum and diamond scarf clip by Cartier from the early 20th century features a pierced double row of rose-cut diamonds. Coming to auction in a Cartier case, it sold for £1600 at Noonans in June 2022.

Many buyers are drawn to these pieces because they offer a sense of history, style, quality and the opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Before bidding at auction it pays to have a little knowledge of the jewellery terms used by auctioneers in their catalogues.

Key factors to look for

All gemstones are priced according the four ‘Cs’ – carat (weight), colour, clarity and cut. For example, the more carats, the higher the price; the clearer a diamond is, the greater the value and so on.

Always read the lot description carefully before bidding and feel free to contact the auction house to request a condition report or more photographs. If the auction house selling the item you are interested in is nearby, you can also attend a viewing day to inspect the lot in person.

Tiffany & Co ring sold at auction

This platinum Tiffany & Co ring set with a round brilliant cut diamond (0.51 carats, colour E and VS1 clarity) came to auction with a diamond certificate from the World Gemological Institute. It sold for £1600 at Plymouth Auction Rooms in April 2022.

An additional factor particularly important for coloured gemstones is the origin of the stone and any evidence of colour enhancement. For these reasons two stones that may look much the same to the naked eye can be valued very differently.

The highest-quality gems offered at auction have often, prior to sale, been submitted to a professional independent laboratory testing (a service provided by a number of different grading bodies). More self-confidence may be required when bidding for ungraded stones but most auctioneers, with a qualified gemologist as a specialist, will be happy to answer questions and offer advice.

However, gemstones are but one part of antique and vintage jewellery.

Fabergé amethyst and diamond lapel brooches

This pair of Fabergé amethyst and diamond lapel brooches with an assayer's mark for Ivan Sergeyevich Lebedkin (Moscow 1898-1914) came to auction at Gildings from the family of Albert and Nora McGill, a prominent British family living in 19th century Moscow. Offered as a single lot, they sold at £6000.

Antique jewellery

The value of older and collectable jewellery is based more on design and workmanship than the intrinsic value of their stones and metal content. It’s why an Art Nouveau pressed horn pendant, a Georgian cut steel necklace or a Fabergé enamelled brooch can be worth far more than a routine 21st century creation in yellow gold and diamonds.

Jewellery brands are naturally important – expect to pay a very significant premium for a piece by one of the great French or American workshops such as Cartier, Tiffany and Signet – and fashion undoubtedly plays a key role.

Pearl necklace by Boucheron

This three-row cultured pearl necklace by Boucheron is composed of three strands of graduated cultured pearls with the clasp set with small round brilliant-cut diamonds. It sold for £1100 at Lyon & Turnbull in June 2022.

Particularly popular in recent years has been the previously-neglected retro jewellery of the Swinging Sixties and Seventies.

Good intaglios (a design carved into or beneath the surface) and cameos (a design with a raised profile in relief) have also made a come-back after some years in the fashionable backwaters. 

Brooches have also become fashionable again as everyone from celebrities to TV newsreaders and Supreme Court judges have all been seen wearing them.

As most jewellery is relatively small and portable, delivery for items bought at auction can usually be arranged, via the auction house or a courier firm, at a relatively modest sum.

Bulgari earrings sold at auction

This pair of earrings by Bulgari is set with two rows of round brilliant-cut diamonds. It sold for £2000 at Woolley & Wallis in April 2022.

What to do next

Decide how much you’d like to spend and use the search facility on thesaleroom.com to find jewellery coming up for sale.

You can filter your search by, among other things, price and by location of the auction house to narrow down your selection.

To research recent prices at auction to see how much different silver items sold for you can also try out the Price Guide.

If you are new to bidding check out our guides to buying at auction – it’s easy once you know how.

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