Jewelry Buying Tips

This series will focus primarily on online jewelry buying, with a heavy emphasis on vintage and antique. There are four broad categories of tips that I’m going to address, one at a time. When you’re buying vintage or antique jewelry online, you’re going to rely on four things: 

1. The photos

2. The description

3. The trustworthiness of the seller/website

4. Your own knowledge/experience


Part 1: Photos tell a whole story!

I’m someone who buys and sells a lot of jewelry online. I’m a graduate gemologist and I’ve worked in various facets (haha, always going to make this joke, sorry!) of the gem and jewelry industry for 15 years. For most of my 20s (before doing what I’m doing now) I found myself in a long spate of e-commerce and product photography gigs, including fine jewelry photography. All this is to say: I have strong opinions about jewelry, gemology and the photography of each! I’m sharing some of my thoughts and hard-won knowledge here in the hopes of helping other people become more educated and informed jewelry buyers (and therefore both more enthusiastic about building their jewelry collections and happier with those collections.)

A checklist to get you started when examining online photographs of jewelry:

-Is the piece well-lit? Does the color of the light seem bright and white or somewhat dim and yellow? Can you tell from photographs if the metal is silver or gold? Is the piece of jewelry clean?

Very yellow or dim lighting will make metals and gems appear different than they would in natural (or daylight-equivalent) lighting. Product photos shouldn’t be so dark as to prohibit getting a good idea of the hue, tone and saturation of the gemstones, the color of the metal or the condition of the jewel. 

Additionally, some gemstones with phenomena display best in certain lighting conditions. I will spare you photos of dirty jewelry, but oftentimes this will impact the visibility/clarity and color of gemstones. You can most often see dirt accumulation in the sides of jewels that are worn against the skin.

-Are the photographs in focus and taken close enough to the piece of jewelry that you can see the details of the jewel: any engravings, textures, dents and dings, plus the condition of the prongs and gemstones if it is set with gems? If there is a maker’s mark or fineness stamp noted by the seller and there are photographs of such, are they clear and legible?

If the photos aren’t in focus (I know this is super obvious,) then you can’t see what you’re looking at. Communicating with sellers is something I’ll have more to share about later in this series, but in my opinion, it is always worth it to send a message and ask for more photographs if you need them. Just know, if the best a seller could do initially was blurry and bad photographs, they might not be able to do much better in a second attempt. Not everyone is a pro at photography, and patience and empathy go a long way when trying to get more information from a seller.

-Is the background a solid color? Is it light or dark? Have the photos very clearly been edited/photoshopped?

Background color will impact how jewelry looks. There isn’t a “best” background. Some gemstones and jewels will appear better on light or dark backdrops. Years ago a mentor said to me, “if you ever go into a jewelry store and all the diamonds are displayed on navy blue, run!” (Dark blue will cause yellow-tinged clear gems to appear brighter and whiter.) 

Hyper professional-looking photographs aren’t always the best, either! If a piece of jewelry has seamless white “floating in space” photographs (most likely shot in a well-lit light box environment) be aware that these kinds of photos are more likely to have photo editing involved in their process. Sometimes (not always!) photo editing can be a bit heavy-handed and do more than it should. This can result in a jewel looking completely different than it does in real life. I’ve had this happen and it is a sore disappointment! It’s not always malicious on the part of the seller.

-Is there anything in the photographs to give you a sense of scale (how big the piece is?)

Jewelry nearly always looks bigger in photographs! If there are no photos of the piece you’re considering being worn or with something like a coin for scale, and the measurements aren’t thorough, always feel free to ask for more photos (or information.) As a buyer, I assume something is going to look a bit smaller when it arrives than it did in my mind or when I was looking at it on a screen. Fair warning, if you’re comparing the size of a piece of jewelry online to a measuring tape or a coin, have your own ruler and/or pocket change physically with you to compare when looking at the images. It really helps.


Now that the basics are covered, let’s go a little deeper.

Angles. Most sellers are going to include a picture of the piece of jewelry as it is seen when worn - the front or the top (obvious, yes.) Jewels are three dimensional, though, and when you’re trying to envision what something looks like from every angle based on two dimensional photographs, you need to see the other sides. Depth is really hard to visualize/understand with just a top-down image.

What does the back look like? What does it look like from the side or in profile? In addition to a front and a back, is there a top and a bottom? If so, what does the piece of jewelry look like when viewed from those angles?

Things to be aware of when you’re looking for all the angles: high vs low profile rings, shallow vs deep dimensions, carved out vs. solid gold ring galleries, three-dimensional vs. two-dimensional charms and pendants.

If it’s a dynamic jewel (reversible, earring with jackets, flip ring, spinner ring, day-to-night earrings, articulated charm or brooch with moveable parts or jewel where you can switch out gemstones) do the photographs show all variants, or at least enough that you have a good idea of how the piece is designed to work and be worn? Video can be very useful for this in particular! In absence of that, there have to be good, thorough photos. If a seller doesn’t have all the angles of a piece that you’d like to see and you’re curious, ask. If they decline or won’t accommodate you, it’s okay to move on in your search.

Condition. There are a few things to look for in regards to potential damage with gems set in metal. Even the best quality photographs can’t depict a loose gem, but they can show you whether prongs are damaged or broken and whether gems are scratched, cracked or abraded. You just need close-up images and a computer screen. These are all possible issues that become definitely your problem the moment you purchase a piece and decide to keep it.

-Has the gemstone been replaced? 

You can sometimes tell based on things like “was that gemstone mined at the time this piece was made?” For example, tanzanite wasn’t discovered until the 1970s. If you see a tanzanite gem in a genuine white gold filigree setting from the 1920s, the gem was replaced. Sometimes this is also visible by the shape of the gallery under the gem.

There isn’t a downside to this necessarily, unless a piece is being represented as all original and rare when it isn’t.

-Are there scratches or abrasion to gems or the metal? Are any of the gemstones chipped or cracked? Are there any nicks in the gems?

The first place you’re going to look for this is the facet junctions: the grid of lines between flat surfaces on the gemstone. Are they thin, crisp lines or have they been blurred or had a series of intersecting scratches laid across them? Does the gem have a good polish or does it look kind of scuffed? 

Abraded gemstones can sometimes be re-polished and/or re-faceted by a professional lapidary. Chips and cracks cannot be repaired or undone (and although some gems can be recut to remove damage, this will often render a gem too small for its original setting.)

-Are any prongs broken or missing? Are the prongs straight, do they line up in a pleasing way with any facets of the gems? Do any gems look like they’re about to fall out of the prongs?

Your jeweler can re-tip and re-build prongs for you. It’s worth it to cultivate a relationship with a jeweler who will review pieces you’re considering prior to their purchase and talk with you (based on photos and listing information) whether the changes and repairs you’d like to make are feasible and affordable.

-How thick is the shank at the back of the ring?

Oftentimes this portion at the bottom of the shank is deliberately thin for comfort, but it can also become worn down dangerously thin over the course of a lifetime of wear. This can be re-built or re-shanked by a jeweler to make it stronger.