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Grandma's jewels a hit the second time around

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2001

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.

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"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.

What's popular

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.