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What’s old is new: Dressing a showcase with vintage gold

By Duncan Parker

1970s naturalistic brooch by Birks (left), and 1970s handmade brooch (right). Photos courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers
1970s naturalistic brooch by Birks (left), and 1970s handmade brooch (right).
Photos courtesy Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers

Gold has been used as a decorative material for nearly as long as people have used tools. Whether in Africa, Asia, the Americas, or Europe, people have discovered gold in a workable form, and it is often easily extracted and shaped. Further, as far as status goes, the metal remains in the vocabularies of the world as a token of beauty and success.

The word “noble” is applied to a small handful of metals—silver, the “platinum group,” and, of course, gold. Metals in this category are found in their workable state in nature, and are not readily corroded, rusted, or degraded under normal natural conditions. This means gold cannot only be found in usable form, but, if it has been made into something, it will remain in this state forever.

Gold is most commonly made into jewels or coins. Gold ornaments which were crafted as far back as Britain’s late Bronze Age could still be used (as long as no one minds you borrowing their 3000-year-old bracelet). The gold buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb more than 3300 years ago is still in near-perfect condition. If I were to drop a gold ring and an iron ring into the ocean, it would not take long for the iron to rust to an unrecognizable form; the gold, however, would remain fairly unchanged.

Indeed, we do not open Great-Grandmother’s jewellery box and discover gold jewels are falling apart. We may find costume jewellery has discoloured, glue has failed, plastic has degraded, and copper has greened, but gold will still be in great shape. Gems set in the metal are secure and the pieces are ready to wear.

What we may find, though, is Great-Grandmother’s jewels are simply not to our taste. An option may be for us, the owners, to bring undesired jewels to you—the jeweller, designer, goldsmith—to see about re-inventing Granny’s pieces into something more reflective of our own style.

Something old, something new

1940s “Retro” bracelet.
1940s “Retro” bracelet.

Gold is not going anywhere. It can be recycled over and over, generation after generation. There is a genuine appetite for the recycling of gold these days. My great-grandchildren will no doubt recycle and repurpose the “awful” jewels I once loved.

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Gems can also be re-used—and, while gold might be sent to the refiner for recycling and purification, Granny’s ruby or diamond will most often be introduced directly into newly designed jewellery. The heirloom brooch transforms into a bracelet or ring, and I will particularly value it because I’m still wearing gems which have been in my family for generations.

I may, however, hesitate at the idea of breaking up Great-Grandma’s brooch, even if the piece is, admittingly, “just not me.” Indeed, if a jewel is particularly well-made and beautiful (and steeped in genealogy, to boot), we might find ourselves reluctant to melt it. Further, when we inherit a piece and know it was very special to a lost relative, this carries a heavy weight. There is a lot of emotion tied up in jewels. Even if it leaves my family, I might prefer the idea of someone else loving Granny’s brooch as much as she did.

‘Is it vintage?’

“Vintage” is a term used rather broadly to imply an item of some age. While “some age” may simply mean “not new,” the designation more commonly refers to a specific time period. If we describe something as, say, “vintage art deco,” this implies an item of art deco design that is from the period we associate with the style (i.e. the 1920s to ‘30s). By comparison, a jewel with an art deco design that was made in the ‘80s is best not called “vintage art deco.”

In auction, there is a real interest in vintage gold items. After all, we know gold jewels tend to last. Apart from the obvious factor that the metal does not rust, jewels made of gold are precious and, as such, are typically well-made. An item made to last will usually find a new owner, eager to enjoy it.

Indeed, there is a very strong market for “vintage” jewels. Certain styles are constantly in demand, while others come and go. The re-selling of jewels is very popular for many reasons. Among these is the belief that it would be a shame to destroy something which may be an important piece of history (personal or global). Some styles have a way of taking us back to times gone by.

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Pieces of yesteryear

Necklace (circa 1980s) by Aldo Cipullo.

Gold jewels made in the ‘60s and early ‘70s were designed with less consciousness of the metal’s price. This trend is largely because, until 1971, the price of gold was set at a fixed $35 per ounce. These days, jewels from this period—large, heavy pieces, often emulating forms from nature—are very popular, allowing the use of authentic period jewels to accompany current fashion designs inspired by the era.

Meanwhile, “Retro Jewels,” dating from the period immediately after World War II, embrace the extensive use of amounts of gold that had been strongly limited for the duration of the war. Featuring large, polished planes of gold and scroll forms, these bracelets, brooches, and necklaces are frequently of substantial size and capable of making a powerful statement. Like other vintage gold pieces, they are very popular with today’s crowd.

Hand-crafted jewels have always held a special place for collectors. Manufacturing methods change and evolve over time, and we all seem to have a fascination for what we can no longer get. A gold cluster ring made in the ‘50s or ‘60s, for example, may have been made with every wire and claw hand-formed and applied. Few customers could afford to pay for the cost of labour necessary for today’s jewellers to create a ring such as this at present. Of course, we can still produce a ring with a similar look (3D modelling, printing, and casting helps keep costs down); however, there remains a fascination with jewels made “the old way.”

In the 19th century, gold was the primary precious metal used for crafting jewellery. With the industrial revolution, there was lots of experimentation in making jewels with a substantial look, but at modest cost. Jewellers developed methods of building pieces that were hollow, which allowed the growing middle-class to sport a “big look” in this noble metal without the price the nobility might have to pay. The heavy appearance and light weight of Victorian jewels makes them a good fit for today’s buyer, where the price of gold is high. 

Finally, while it may not seem that long ago (to this columnist, anyway), the ‘80s are at least three decades back, and the auction market is seeing a real growth in interest for jewels of this time. The beginning of this decade saw a surge in the price of gold. As such, throughout the ‘80s, gold served largely as a symbol of success. Mr. T (star of The A-Team) wore what was stated as more than 30 lbs (13.6 kg) of gold chains around his neck. Designers went big in the ‘80s—shoulder pads, teased hair, and yellow-gold jewels were all the rage. These days, yellow gold is definitely seeing a resurgence, and jewels of the ‘80s have a strong re-sale market.

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A lasting legacy

Gold is here to stay, and it will last forever. While the precious metal may be melted for re-use at times, there is a strong market for vintage gold pieces in the secondary market, whether offered through the estate department of your jewellery store or in the auction market.

Clients often struggle with what to do with unwanted gold jewellery. Given that jewels take little space and are fairly easy to store, these pieces, sadly, are often put away and forgotten about for decades. For jewellers, the offer of helping find a new home for a client’s once-loved jewels has a far greater appeal to the emotional heartstrings than the proposition of breaking the pieces up and melting them. Indeed, it is warming to know someone else will enjoy (and wear) jewels which have been sitting in storage for years.

The market for vintage gold is robust and it has a strong buyer base. Selling vintage gold provides clients with a more comfortable market for their unwanted jewels, generally with a better return than melt. It also brings in buyers with an eye for the unusual and unique—and an attractive price.

Duncan Parker, FGA, FCGmA, CAP-CJA, is vice-president of Dupuis Fine Jewellery Auctioneers, based in Toronto. He has worked as a gemmologist and jewellery specialist, appraiser, and consultant for nearly 35 years. Parker is an educator and lecturer on jewellery subjects, and has been a speaker at international conferences with a focus on jewellery history. He has served as president of the Canadian Gemmological Association (CGA) and Jewellers Vigilance Canada (JVC). Parker can be reached at

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