Could your vintage jewellery collection be worth more than your house? Bonhams believe it's worth hunting out hidden gems

Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her love of jewellery
Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her love of expensive jewellery Credit: Reginald Davis/REX/Shutterstock

Dust off your old jewellery boxes and open-up the family vault because you might just be sitting on a fortune. That’s the message from London auctioneer Bonhams this week, as they announced new figures showing the soaring value of vintage jewels.

Bonhams say the value of antique and period jewellery has increased by over 80% in the last decade - outdoing average house prices in England, which increased by 47% over the same period. Estimates have been abandoned on auction days, as items have been fetching double, sometimes triple, their predictions amid fierce bidding wars. And it’s prompted the auctioneer to launch a campaign urging the public to seek valuations for any forgotten gems they might have stashed away.

“An Art Deco Cartier emerald and diamond bracelet that we sold in December was estimated at £80,000-£100,000 and it made £210,000,” says Jean Ghika, head of jewellery at Bonhams UK and Europe. “These types of instances are our key indicators of a gain in momentum. It’s the quality of craftsmanship that is resonating with buyers, the types of stones that were used back then, compared to a modern piece, are special.”

The Cartier necklace recently sold at Bonhams

Vogue’s jewellery editor Carol Woolton isn’t surprised by the jewellery market’s strength in the current economic climate. “There are so few investments that are reliable right now - stocks are in a state of insecurity, but gold and diamonds will never be a risky purchase for a rich person trying to maintain their wealth,” she says. “There are limited resources in the world, mines will run out and there is a finite number of precious stones - that’s what gives it a rarity value.”

Even if you haven’t got a spare Cartier brooch in the attic to auction off, it’s worth noting that the trend described extends beyond designer names, and applies to specific stones, metals and eras, too. If the catwalks are revisiting silhouettes from a particular decade, the interest will echo through the jewellery world. “Signed items from the Art Deco period and antiques over 100 years old will always be in demand,” says Ghika. “But we’re now seeing post-war period, 1950s jewellery, as well as pieces from the 1960s and 1970s really performing well too.”

The Chanel Twist necklace

The thing that often prevents people from having their jewellery valued is the assumption that family heirlooms have been set aside because they’re no longer fashionable won’t be worth anything. “People often look at their items without understanding their importance in the context of jewellery history,” says Ghika. “We recently discovered a wonderful and rare Chanel Twist necklace, which a client had brought to a valuation day, but had thought it was just a piece of costume jewellery. But Chanel did make real jewellery as well as pieces in non-precious materials.” This 1950s necklace had a discreet engraving on the inside, indicating that it was actually designed by Coco herself, and it subsequently smashed its estimate of £6,000, fetching £68,500 on auction day.

So how can you tell if something is valuable when digging through an old jewellery stash? Start with the logos and hallmarks, suggests Ghika, noting that the big names (Cartier, Tiffany, Bulgari, Boucheron and Van Cleef and Arpels) will always be winners, but that key names from modern eras (like Andrew Grima of the 1960s, or John Donald of the 1970s) will have equally held their value. Next you should assess the piece’s construction; do the stones have rough edges, are they generously packed in, or was its maker trying to scrimp by using more metal, less diamonds?

Even the battered and broken is not entirely beyond hope. “It’s not necessarily the end of the world if something has had some damage,” says Ghika. “Professional repairs, if done well, can be discreet. We have had items come into us in two pieces before and, after it is mended, it hasn’t greatly impacted on the value.”   

The best way to truly know what something might be worth is, of course, to get it valued by a professional. Because it is unlikely that you will be able to tell that the sapphires in granny’s heirloom ring were super-desirable specimens from the Kashmir region or the product of a rare mining community that was only operational for a ten years at the end of the 19th Century. “The Bonhams website offers the option to submit photos if you want to get an initial impression from our experts, then we hold regular valuation days all over the UK,” advises Ghika.

What you can do for yourself, though, is take care of the stocks you’ve got - whether you’re ready to sell them or not. “If you ever think you might sell jewellery on, then you must keep the boxes,” urges Woolton. “The boxes and the paperwork for stones will really add to their value and save a lot of confusion as to what something is when you sell.”

The worst thing you can do is to let your old jewellery rattle around in a disorganised box. “Don’t over-clean old pieces,” Ghika also warns. “Part of the history is the pattern that it has and if it’s stripped off then it lacks some of its soul.” Other expert tips include not keeping hard and soft stones together to prevent erosion, wiping pearls with a cloth after every wear to remove any oils or perfume, and even splitting pairs of earrings into individual soft pouches so that they don’t rub together.

Lustres Versailles Dior joaillerie

A photo posted by Victoire de Castellane 💎 (@victoiredecastellane) on

If you’re keen to run with 'gems over property’ as your new investment mantra, the experts say you may have to wait a while for the dividends if you choose more recent pieces. “Jewellery takes a long time to appreciate,” says Ghika, who suggests buying classics distinct to particular makers, like Cartier’s Panthère collection. Woolton, meanwhile, tips Dior’s fine jeweller Victoire de Castellane as one who will create the “masterpieces of our time.”

One thing all experts agree on however, is that primarily jewellery should be worn and enjoyed, with any increase in value seen as an added bonus. “It’s all very well owning these wonderful things,” says Woolton. “But if investors lock them away and don’t wear them then you have to ask; where’s the fun in that?”

How to keep your jewellery safe

Hotel Tessellation Jewellery box, £50, johnlewis.com

Brass elephant ring bowl, £88, uk.jonathanadler.com

Palm Tree jewellery stand, £26 oliverbonas.com

Travel jewellery roll, £120 aspinaloflondon.com

Panama small square trinket tray, £125, smythson.com