Looking for a sign: the art of proving a jewel’s origins

Leah Meirovich

Maker’s marks, photos, and family testimonies are just some of the clues appraisers use to trace older pieces’ provenance and confirm authenticity.

Antique and vintage jewels have history, and that includes wear and tear that may rub off a signature, or alterations that make it hard to identify the piece as a specific designer’s work. Following the trail of a jewel to prove its famous provenance can take effort, but it ultimately adds to the piece’s value. As such, dealers will go to extraordinary lengths to unravel these mysteries and put a name to the rings, brooches, ear clips and other items that cross their paths.

There are multiple levels of provenance, says Jill Burgum, executive director of jewelry at Heritage Auctions. “You have provenance of a big design house like Van Cleef & Arpels, [or] provenance of a royal like Marie Antoinette, or someone important like Elizabeth Taylor. Then you’ve also got provenance for a lady who was prominent in Texas, and maybe nobody elsewhere knew who she was, but all the pieces belong to this consignor, and that helps sell the jewels particularly in regional markets where people would know her. And having that authenticated can help on a larger level, because certain buyers are interested in the story.”

Beyond a doubt

Having a story is all well and good, but when it comes to the value of estate jewelry, you need to have proof to back it up.

Me just saying, ‘This belonged to [former US First Lady] Jackie Kennedy,’ is not enough, because anyone can say that,” comments Gus Davis, cofounder of estate jewelry firm Camilla Dietz Bergeron. “Someone is paying a premium for signed jewelry or for celebrity provenance, so they would want peace of mind that it really is what you say it is. Yes, they’re enjoying the piece. Yes, they love it for the way it looks, but I can promise you they are not going to be happy if they find out it wasn’t really Van Cleef [after] they paid a Van Cleef price.

Establishing authenticity can help the dealer price the jewel properly to begin with. While a high-quality diamond ring may be valued at a certain price, it will sell for more if it’s a Tiffany & Co. ring by Jean Schlumberger, simply because of the name on the inside of the shank.

If the piece is not signed because a jeweler sized it and removed everything without realizing what they were doing, unfortunately, we can’t say the ring is whoever it is,” says Edward Lewand, owner of Consultant Appraisal Service and director of the Antique Jewelry Symposium. “Somebody called us and said they had a Harry Winston ring, but it’s no longer signed. They don’t have any paperwork, so we can’t call it a Harry Winston ring.”

The value of a story

Knowing a jewel’s history can also boost its potential at auction, maintains Burgum. “Usually the people I’m researching are no longer present, so I can’t ask them questions, but I can sit with relatives and say, ‘Tell me a story. Help me get to know who this individual was, what they did.’ And that really helps in promoting the piece, because if I can get my audience to connect with it, that makes a big difference in the ultimate successful sale of the piece.”

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Lip service

How two experts pegged a mouth-shaped brooch as a French sculptor’s work

Several years ago, Martine and Didier Haspeslagh of Didier Ltd. acquired a gold brooch shaped like a pair of lips. Purportedly the work of French sculptor Claude Lalanne, it bore his monogram and had the hallmarks of GianCarlo Montebello, whose GEM Montebello company helped artists turn their visions into wearable pieces. However, the brooch wasn’t marked like other jewels from GEM, and it was not on the Haspeslaghs’ list of jewelry Montebello had produced with other artists. But they knew from Montebello himself that he’d worked with creators like Lalanne outside of his GEM productions. Additionally, the Haspeslaghs had a necklace with a solid gold pair of lips that Montebello had cast for Lalanne in 1970, bearing the same hallmarks. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to establish the brooch’s origin for certain. So the search for proof began.

“We looked to see if we could find it published anywhere,” recounts Martine. “Our library of books and catalogs is extensive and has been built up over decades. We also have an archive of works that have come up for auction, whether we have purchased them or not, as well as a Dropbox full of photographs we found on the internet.” But none of that helped the two identify the piece. “We drew a blank for a very long time.”

Then Didier saw a blurred image of a Vogue article on Instagram, showing two body ornaments Lalanne had created using German fashion icon Veruschka as a model. The Haspeslaghs found the full text from the December 1969 article online, and the caption confirmed that Lalanne had created three pieces modeled off Veruschka — the third being a pair of lips. The Haspeslaghs returned to the library to search again. “Suddenly, eureka! There was…a black-and-white photograph of Claude Lalanne applying plaster to the mouth and chin of Veruschka — definitive proof,” declares Didier. “The evidence had been there all along, just waiting for us to recognize it.”