Valuing the Invaluable

Valuing the Invaluable

The art and science of jewellery appraisal—part one

By Anne Neumann

In a series over the next several columns I will explain both the art and the science of jewellery appraisal as I see it, and provide a few stories about my own experiences in the field. I hope you find the articles interesting, and they help to demonstrate that good appraisal is so much more than meets the eye—no pun intended. In fact, in appraisal there is more to be learned about how not to do the job than there is about doing it.

The art of an appraisal involves examining an item of jewellery to analyze its design, the maker’s craftsmanship and the component parts; to seek comparable items to serve as a guide for pricing and then to take these elements and calculate a value for replacement.

The piece of jewellery might be a mass-produced 10K gold synthetic birthstone ring for $100, or a platinum art deco bracelet encrusted with diamonds, handmade in France in 1928 and recently sold for $125,000. Whatever the item, the bare bones of the procedure are the same. Skilled analysis and thorough examination are necessary to reach a final conclusion and are essential to the process.

In the dark ages when I began this journey my first teacher scared me by drilling into my head this rule: that nothing is to be done casually. Every item is important and should be appraised as if that item’s appraisal would have to be defended in court. Most importantly, every item of jewellery being appraised should be treated with respect because it is important to someone.

Therefore, the first element of appraisal is something on which a value can simply not be placed. It is sentiment.

For millennia humans have embellished themselves, whether for religious or decorative purposes. The Neolithic shaman with the stone bead and shell necklace is a direct
ancestor of the young woman who has been given her grandmother’s pearls. Both cherish their items, either for the magical power or the power of remembrance, and the appraiser should appreciate this.

Good appraisers have an appreciation of jewellery and understand how important something can be to its owner. The piece does not have to be hugely expensive to be important; the owner’s sentiment adds immeasurably to his or her opinion of the value of an item. We cannot always account for that sentiment in calculating a value for replacement, but we can handle the item as though it is as valuable to us as it is to the owner.

I remember a time when I forgot the importance of sentiment. A customer submitted a pocket watch for appraisal that had belonged to her immigrant grandfather and had been the first purchase that he had made in his new country. His pride of ownership had radiated down through his family who came to regard this watch as being almost priceless.

The watch was a chrome-case well-worn Ingersoll pin lever dollar watch, not in running order. When I informed the client that the watch had no value, I was not as careful as I should have been in my explanation and she became both upset and irate, accusing me of not knowing what I was doing and of insulting her grandfather and all of her family.

Perhaps I had insulted them—not intentionally surely, but by not considering and accounting for their sentiments toward the watch. Taking the time to explain verbally the reason for not being able to put a value on this piece might have gone a long way toward helping her understand what she had, and to retain her business in future. I have never forgotten that hard lesson and have tried ever since to be aware of sentiment and to be careful of that value.

As I said earlier, the first element of a good appraisal is something that cannot be appraised. As professionals we must appreciate what we are dealing with and how we can relate to the customer with that appreciation.