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Collecting Costume Jewelry: A Guide for Beginners

Posted by Laurie Zeiden on

Costume jewelry is a wonderful collectible for beginners. There is a great deal to choose from so everyone's tastes can be accommodated and you can start a collection with a modest budget.

Buy what you like. 

All the other rules are simply suggestions and guidelines.

For the purpose of this guide, when I speak of costume jewelry, I'm speaking of vintage costume jewelry. If it's available at a department store such as Macy's or a discount store such as TJ Maxx, it's still costume jewelry, but it's not the subject at hand.

Basically if it's from the 20th century, you can follow these guidelines.

Flea markets, used clothing stores, charity stores such as Goodwill, antiques & collectibles shows, antique malls, estate sales, auctions, and of course online.

Shopping for vintage jewelry is literally a few finger clicks away if you're an online shopper. You already know the sites: eBay, Ruby Lane, Etsy, Trocadero, 1st-Dibs and, of course, my shop World of Eccentricity & Charm. Before you buy, be sure to familiarize yourself with the way each site rates sellers so you'll know which are reputable. And after you know that, check the sellers' policies regarding returns and exchanges. It's hard to buy jewelry if you can't touch it and study it, so you'll want to have the opportunity to return it if it's not what you expected.

Speaking of expectations, the best tool the online seller has to show off the product is the photograph. You should be able to clearly see the details of the piece you're buying from every angle. And damage should be both obvious in the photos and noted in the description.

Examples of good photos
In these two photos you can see the front detail clearly from all angles

And here you see reverse details and the hallmark

Examples of average photos
Here you see most of the front detail and some of the back details, but there's no hallmark showing and this is a hallmarked piece.

Examples of bad photos
In this example the position of the brooch is such that you simply can't tell what it looks like from the front or the reverse. Also, there's no hallmark shot and like the other two pieces used in the examples, it's a hallmarked piece.

Be wary of photos with busy backgrounds and props. The seller may not realize it, but those photos distract from the object of the photo and make it difficult for a viewer to take in details.

Keep in mind that photos are there to show detail and often make the object appear larger or smaller than than it really is. Read the information in the listing. It should include measurements and condition information.


If you're on-site shopping, you have the chance to see everything clearly. Invest in a jeweler's loupe. They are not expensive. Find a local dealer (coin shops and cutlery shops often carry loupes) and test out several models. You have to hold the glass up to your eye and then bring the object toward the glass until it comes into focus. 

Loupes come in different magnifications and with or without a flashlight component. I use a 10X loupe without light. I buy them 4-6 at a time because I like one at my desk, one in my glove compartment, one in my shopping bag and one or more for back-up. They are a bit like pens, I'm always leaving them someplace and can't find one when I need it. And like pens; they are priced low enough that buying a couple at a time is affordable.



Your cell phone is an important shopping tool because with it you have access to search engines. If you're out shopping and see something of interest, you can quickly check online sites to see if the asking price of the piece you found is in line with the online asking price.

Hallmarks can stump beginners. A quick search will tell you what you need to know about the designer or company.

If you're at a big show, use the notes section to jot down what you saw and where you saw it, so you can come back to it if you need to. You'll want to remember where you saw the $40 blue pin when you see it in another booth for $85!

A tape measure isn't crucial, but I like to have one with me. Every so often, I'll want to measure a necklace length, or a pendant size. Or I'll see a bracelet which looks very short. A quick measure and I know whether it is or not.

When you are measuring necklaces and bracelets, be sure to measure the wearable length.

Don't measure tip to tip. That tab fits into the slot at the other end, and the length of this bracelet is approximately 7 3/8" not 7 3/4".

If you're starting a collection you'll want to get into the habit of studying condition. If you find a great looking piece, look at it carefully and ask these questions:

  • Does it need repair?
  • Are all the stones present?
  • Does it need cleaning? Can I do the work?
  • Do all the moving parts work properly; clasp, hinge?

Most of what you see will be vintage and as such it will probably not be pristine. Decide for yourself what constitutes acceptable condition. If you buy it, will you enjoy it?

Does it matter? If you're starting a collection, refer to Rule #1: Buy What You Like. If the piece you found is one you like, is in your budget and is something you'll enjoy, buy it.

Signed pieces are not necessarily more valuable than unsigned pieces. Older pieces are not necessarily more valuable than more recent pieces. Buy what you like.

Collectible costume jewelry is popular and collectible and so there are people who take advantage of buyers by selling fakes and counterfeits. 

Some of the more popularly counterfeited names are Tiffany, Schiaparelli, Gucci, Chanel, and early pieces by Boucher, Eisenberg, Coro and Trifari. That's a partial list but don't let it be distracting. Just be aware that fakes are out there. You've heard it before: if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't true.

If you want to read up on collectible costume jewelry, there are hundreds of books on all topics. They, like the jewelry, are available in all price ranges. The ones I'm going to recommend here are general information books. Each covers a wide range of topics and all include lots of photo examples. 

Note: many reference books include dollar value information. This should be taken with a grain of salt. The real dollar value may be different than when the book was published based on any number of factors including rarity of the piece and the economy.

The following four books are great for the basics:

  • Warman's Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide, 3rd Edition, Christie Romero
  • Costume Jewelry 101, Julia C. Carroll
  • Costume Jewelry 202, Julia C. Carroll
  • Costume Jewelry 203, Juila C. Carroll

For additional suggestions, visit my Pinterest board: Collector Reference Books

World of Eccentricity & Charm is stocked with vintage costume jewelry. Hope you'll visit and shop with me! It's a great place to start your collection!

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