Secondhand Treasures Can Be Second To None

If you plan to give a special gift this holiday season, you might consider jewelry--say, gold cufflinks or a diamond bracelet. But instead of buying a new bauble, why not acquire a piece of estate jewelry?

Previously owned pieces offer unmatched value for the money in the moderate (under $15,000) price range. Even the most difficult-to-please recipients can find something to like--whether it's the intricate goldwork of 19th-century styles, the geometric designs of the Art Deco period, or the bold design of 1940s "cocktail" jewelry.

When compared with what's in most shop windows today, "estate jewelry sets the wearer apart in a way that contemporary jewelry can't," says Betty Scherer, co-owner of Small Pleasures, a New York jewelry gallery. Try to find a duplicate of Scherer's $10,500 white-and-yellow-gold bracelet from the 1960s: It coils around the wrist to meet a pair of sapphire and diamond clips that also double as pins. It's also virtually impossible to recreate today--at comparable prices--the quality of workmanship in Victorian, Art Deco, or Edwardian pieces, says Stephen Silver, president of estate- jewelry dealer S.H. Silver in Menlo Park, Calif. The colored stones, such as rubies, are also often superior to those available today.

You can buy estate jewelry from several sources. You might find pieces at an estate sale advertised in the classifieds. Most department stores and jewelry shops that carry such items guarantee their merchandise, sell en credit, and take back pieces. But department stores buy from dealers or sometimes take inventory on consignment. That, combined with overhead, can mean high markups. Recently, Macy's priced a Victorian Estruscan-revival bar pin at $1,000, while a dealer at the Manhattan Art & Antique center had an identical piece tagged $600.

MIXED MARKUPS. Dealer prices can also vary dramatically depending on how much the dealer paid, how long a dealer has had a piece, and markups, which can be as low as 10% or as high as 100% or more.

Auctions offer a superb selection of estate jewelry, says independent jewelry consultant Antoinette Matlins. The major auction houses, such as Skinner in Bolton, Mass., or Sotheby's and Christie's in New York, hold several jewelry sales a year. But retail buyers compete aggressively, so "competition often results in higher prices," says Matlins. Nor can you return a piece to an auction house.

No matter where you buy, be careful. "There's more fraud than ever," says Matlins. Victorian, Art Deco, and Edwardian reproductions are plentiful. So are pieces carrying bogus signatures from famous jewelry houses, such as Tiffany and Cartier. You also need to be on the lookout for older items that have been altered or have had colored stones replaced with new ones. To avoid getting taken, have any piece you plan to buy appraised independently. The appraisal may cost $100, but that's a modest fee to ensure that you're getting what you think you are. The American Society of Appraisers (703 478-2228) or the American Gem Society (702 255-6500) can provide names.

HOMEWORK. If you're a new buyer, you can take the pulse of the market by going to auctions and antique shows. Antique and Twentieth Century Jewelery by Vivienne Becker ($65.00, NAG Press) offers a comprehensive look at jewelry periods and design. Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide by Matlins ($16.95, Gemstone Press) provides the basics, including advice on how to gauge stone quality.

Unless you know the field, buy from someone who has a long, reputable track record. A good dealer will alert you to replaced stones or alterations and let you return the piece, usually within 30 days, for a refund. Make sure the seller writes down the facts about the piece on the bill: when it was made, style, materials, and weight of stones.

How do you decide to take the plunge? "Buy quality," advises Eric Bleiler of Eric Bleiler Jewelers in New Upper Falls, Mass. No matter what the period, such jewelry holds its value and is more likely to appreciate. A quality piece will be of pleasing design and in good condition, with no extensive repairs or major flaws in stones. The best pieces are unusual. And it's a plus if they are signed by a well-known jewelry house. Whatever you do, have fun. Buying estate jewelry should be more like treasure hunting than shopping.