One of the first things I bought when I started acquiring old jewelry was a loupe.
A loupe is a small lens used to magnify (typically 10x); most come with a handy case to keep the lens clean and unscratched. A loupe can reveal many details on a piece of jewelry. Even if you have 20/20 vision you should still have this small device. A loupe suitable for jewelry costs between $12 and $40.
What do I look for with my loupe? The first thing I look for are markings. The initial markings I am interested in are those which identify the metal used in the piece. Such markings tell me what karat of gold or percentage of silver or platinum was used. Or, if the item is gold filled, I’ll find the percentage of gold on pot metal or on sterling silver. This is expressed as “1/20 12 K Gold Filled” or “1/20 12KGF on Sterling” for vermeil.
The next thing I look for would be marks identifying the company or jeweler who made the piece. Most of these markings are difficult or impossible to read with the naked eye. Sometimes I find a date or a country; for example, the date was always marked on jewelry made by Hollycraft. Sometimes rings or bracelets are inscribed with a message in honor of the recipient’s birthday, wedding, or anniversary. This might include a date, name or sentiment. During the Victorian era (1850 to 1905) it was popular to wear mourning jewelry. Rings or lockets might have a compartment to place a lock of the deceased person’s hair as well as the birth date and passage date.
Some jewelry was inscribed with the place it was made. “Siam Sterling” was the mark on the back of pieces made in what is now Thailand. Sometimes the company name included a location as with “Accessocraft NY” or “Kramer of NY”. The markings on English silver and fine metals can require extensive knowledge or reference materials to identify. They used symbols to identify the metal, place of origin and time of manufacture. Many pieces made in the US will have patent numbers. These can be used to identify the designer of a piece of jewelry or the inventor of a particular kind of jewelry mechanism such as clip earring hardware.
There are many markings found on jewelry; a loupe is simply necessary to find and read such markings. Sometimes markings are extremely small. Sometimes they have been worn down with wear or were poorly stamped. And once in a while the marks were placed in odd locations and cannot be found easily.
There are other good uses for a loupe. In order to judge the quality of the workmanship of a piece or to assess the amount of wear and tear an item has been subjected to, a loupe is necessary. Fine crazing or cracking, scratches, chips and other damage are made visible with magnification. A loupe can also be helpful in identifying the material an item is made of. Distinguishing bone from ivory or lucite often requires magnification.
To be able to tell jet from black onyx or black glass generally requires magnification as well. Amber can be easy to identify with a loupe. Natural materials within the amber identify the material whereas bubbles within the piece identify it as man-made lucite or glass. How about the ability to identify the technique with which a piece of jewelry is made: repousse or cast silver or cut versus molded glass? How many other uses for a loupe in discovering important info about vintage and antique jewelry can you think of?
Debra Lowenstein is the owner of the vintage shop Mrs. Beadsley. The shop is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Saturday. She can be reached at 505.795.6395. The shop is at 2101 Trinity Drive, Suite G, in Los Alamos.