As a longtime dealer in fine arts, Richard Brodney has watched trends in antique jewelry come and go. Ask him what is popular these days, and he pulls out a tray of dazzling engagement rings. More than a dozen old European-cut diamonds nest in filigreed platinum settings, some surrounded by clusters of smaller diamonds.
"They're very hot at the moment," says Mr. Brodney, president of Brodney Gallery of Fine Arts in Boston, as he holds an Edwardian-style filigreed mounting to the light. "Everybody wants Grandma's engagement ring."
Other jewelers across the country echo that theme. But rings are not the only items from Grandma's jewelry box currently catching the fancy of thoroughly modern women. From earrings and necklaces to pins and bracelets, designs from earlier periods - Art Deco, Victorian, Retro - are "really hot," as Lori Mesa, owner of The Old Jewelry Shop in St. Charles, Ill., puts it.
So hot that keeping display cases stocked to keep pace with customers' demands has become a challenge. One New York jeweler even ran a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times recently, hoping to tease out pieces tucked away in drawers and safe-deposit boxes.
"The hue and cry among dealers and collectors these days is that there's so little to be found," says Christie Romero, director of the Center for Jewelry Studies in Anaheim, Calif. She notes that PBS's "Antiques Road Show" and the online auction site eBay have generated interest and curiosity in estate jewelry.
"People who would have otherwise had pieces just stashed away that they inherited or accumulated, who didn't know what it was and didn't know it had value and didn't care, now think, 'Oh, what I have is valuable,' " Ms. Romero says.
"In the past, people didn't think that, especially about costume jewelry.' They thought, 'It's not gold, it's not diamonds.' That's not true anymore."
Although jewelry does have intrinsic value, such as a gold weight and a diamond weight, age does not automatically bestow added value. "If something is truly undesirable, it's not going to be worth more just because it's old," says Andrew Fabrikant, president of Fabrikant Fine Diamonds Inc. in New York.
For buyers disenchanted with mass-produced pieces, the quality and originality of older jewelry can hold irresistible appeal. "You get beautiful workmanship that you just don't see in other pieces," Ms. Mesa says. "You get a lot of value for your dollar."
Some buyers prefer simpler designs that they can enjoy every day. Others like more elaborate pieces to wear in the evening or to add to a collection. Collectors often search for signed pieces from Tiffany and Cartier, even if they never wear them.
Although platinum settings remain the most sought after, Mesa sees more customers asking for yellow gold. Diamonds continue to lead the list of favorite gems, with sapphires a strong second. Emeralds, Brodney says, "happen to be a stone that is down at the moment."
Although genuine antique mountings are increasingly rare, a large number of manufacturers now make platinum mountings identical to ones made 75 years ago, according to Michael Finn, manager of E.B. Horn jewelers in Boston.
In the past, Mr. Finn says, many jewelers would recut old stones into modern cuts, which have more brilliance. Today, the old European cuts are valued as they are.
For men, pocket watches remain a popular gift, even if a recipient does not actually use it. When Brodney's son received his PhD, Brodney and his wife gave him a beautiful pocket watch. "He'll have it as something to hand down to his children."
In its strictest usage, "antique" refers to jewelry more than 100 years old. That definition has blurred over time, says Romero, a jewelry historian. Today, anything made before World War I is considered antique, although some people stretch the meaning to include pieces less than 50 years old.
"When we start getting into the 20th century, it becomes 'period' jewelry," Romero explains. "Vintage" has a vaguer meaning, implying nonprecious materials and typically referring to costume jewelry of a period.
What prompts owners to part with jewelry? Some sell to simplify their lives or reduce insurance premiums, Fabrikant says. Others may want to buy a retirement home or a vacation home, help their children, or start a new business.
"The most common thing is that they know they're not going to be wearing their jewelry, and it's just going to sit there," Fabrikant says. "They've come to a very intelligent conclusion on what is sometimes an emotional decision."
Emotional, indeed. Noting how difficult it is for some people to part with favorite pieces, Brodney says, "Many a tear has been shed over this counter."
Other sellers take a more pragmatic approach. They come into a store, Finn says, and act as though the jewelry "was given to them by a stranger." That, he says, "makes for a very interesting transaction."
What he calls the "painful part of the business" involves forced sales, when people need money.
Equally difficult for some families are disputes involving favorite pieces. Fabrikant gently suggests that it is prudent for jewelry owners "to settle their matters" before they pass on, deciding who will get what. "You can't split a diamond three ways if you have three children," he says.
He offers a true cautionary tale to show what can happen when families wrangle over heirlooms. Two sisters who live in different states inherited a pair of earrings from their mother. "One sister has one half and the other the other half, and never the twain shall meet," he says. "They don't get along. They don't want one to buy the other half and have Mom's jewelry." He estimates that he would have paid them about $40,000 for the pair, or $15,000 for each half.
Even when pieces command impressive sums like these, Fabrikant cautions that jewelry, however pleasurable, is not an investment. Although diamonds in- crease an average of 2 percent a year at wholesale prices, he says, "that doesn't even beat inflation. They may be investments in your marriage or your sweetheart, but they're not [financial] investments."
For those wanting to sell old pieces, finding a jeweler with a good reputation is paramount, Brodney says.
Mesa, whose grandfather started the business in the 1930s, recommends having jewelry appraised by an appraiser who not only is a graduate gemologist but also a certified member of an accredited appraisal society, such as the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers or the American Society of Appraisers.
"You need someone who not only can identify what's in the piece and authenticate the piece, but who knows how to write an appraisal," she says.
"You need to arm yourself with information, and then don't be greedy. Find out what your piece is worth first. Do your research. But don't expect to get top dollar for what you have." A dealer must have room for a markup.
Sometimes prospective sellers can even arrange a trade. As Brodney describes it, "They come in, see a piece they like, and say, 'I have my grandmother's diamond pin that I don't wear. Could I trade that toward a diamond ring?' "
For prospective buyers hunting for a special piece, Finn offers this advice: "If you're looking for something under $1,000, the main thing is finding something you like. If it speaks to you, you buy it. If it's more expensive, you need to do a little research or know who you're buying it from."
Romero adds, "Buy what you like and forget about trends. People should educate and train their eye to know what quality is all about. Once they're educated about what's out there, they should follow their heart."