Episode 218 Part 1: Gina D’Onofrio’s Tips for Choosing a Qualified Independent Appraiser

Episode 218

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • What questions to ask appraisers and auction houses before selling your jewelry.
  • What education and networking opportunities an aspiring appraiser should seek out.
  • Why an appraisal includes multiple values, and why those values will change depending on the reason for the appraisal.
  • What the process of selling jewelry with an auction house is like, and why you might choose an auction house over selling online or to a store.
  • What a qualified appraiser will look for while inspecting a piece of jewelry.

About Gina D’Onofrio

With work in the retail, auction and manufacturing sectors of the jewelry industry since 1989, Gina D’Onofrio’s experience encompasses jewelry design and production, appraisals, buying and selling of contemporary, antique and period jewelry, sales and management.

Gina operates an independent gemological laboratory, appraisal service and consulting firm and has been catering to private individuals, banks, trusts, non-profit organizations, insurance companies, legal firms and the jewelry trade in the greater Los Angeles area.

Gina received her Master Gemologist Appraiser® designation, upon completion of appraisal studies, written and practical examinations and peer appraisal report review with the American Society of Appraisers. In addition, she was awarded the Certified Master Appraiser designation with the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers.

In 2013 Gina received Los Angeles Magazine’s coveted “Best in LA” award for her Jewelry Appraisal Services.

She conducts presentations and entertaining speeches about appraisal and jewelry related topics to private and corporate groups in Los Angeles and throughout the USA.


Additional Resources:


Auctions, appraisals, and the professionals who perform them are some of the most misunderstood elements of the jewelry industry. That’s exactly why Gina D’Onofrio, independent appraiser and Co-Director of Fine Jewelry at Heritage Auctions, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast. She discussed what a consigner can expect when selling jewelry with an auction house; how appraisers come up with values (and why they might change); and how consumers can protect themselves by asking their appraiser the right questions. Read the episode transcript here:

Welcome to the Jewelry Journey, exploring the hidden world of art around you. Because every piece of art has a story, and jewelry is no exception.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week.

Today, I am glad to welcome back Gina D’Onofrio, an appraiser who just returned from being an independent appraiser. She returned to the auction house Heritage as co-director of jewelry. She was also on the podcast in the very beginning, and it’s good to have her on again.

I got to know Gina when she was head of the western arm of the Association of Jewelry Historians, a volunteer position. I got to know her further when she was an independent appraiser. She recently returned to Heritage Auction House as co-director of the jewelry department. Why did she return to Heritage? That’s one of the things she’ll be sharing with us as she tells her story. Gina will also be describing why she chose to become an appraiser and what the job entails on a day-to-day basis. She’ll tell us how she deals with the dual challenges of not only bringing in jewelry to appraise, but nurturing relationships that make clients keep coming back to her with jewelry. Gina, welcome to the podcast.

Gina: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be back, Sharon. Great to talk to you again.

Sharon: I’m so glad that you are on the show again. Now, my first question is if I describe to you a piece of jewelry and you’ve never held it or seen it or anything, but I tell you it’s this many years old and it’s these stones, if it has stones, can you tell me how much you think it would be worth?

Gina: Well, appraising a piece of jewelry that I can’t actually see and evaluate and hold in my hand to determine the different value characteristics it might have, it would be flippant of me to give you a value. I think it would be unfair, because you may describe it to me based on your knowledge of the piece or based on what somebody has told you about the piece. If I hold it in my hand, I might see something totally different. I may have a different opinion.

For example, you may say that someone told you it was an Art Deco brooch, that it was 1920s, and it was a sapphire and diamond piece. If I had a chance to look at it, I might determine that the sapphire was laboratory grown rather than natural, because they were producing sapphires in a lab in the 1920s. You may not have that piece of information. You may have part of it, that it’s a sapphire, but you may not have the rest. So, for me to arrive at a value based on your description, it’s just incomplete. It wouldn’t be fair.

Sharon: Could you tell if a sapphire was lab grown or if it was natural if you just looked at it without a loupe or without a microscope?

Gina: No, not without a loupe. Definitely not. Sometimes I can determine with a loupe, depending on the sapphire and the nature of the inclusions it may or may not have. But I would have to say that nine times out of 10, I need that microscope to separate the lab grown from the natural. In fact, I was doing a lot of that today. I have a collection of pieces from a dealer, and they need me to tell them if it’s laboratory grown or natural. Most of the pieces they have provided to me are circa 1920 through to 1940, and about 70% of them are lab grown.

Sharon: That’s interesting. One would think that they’re mostly all the same. They’re all lab grown or they’re all natural, or most of them are one or the other.

Gina: Yes, one would think. In fact, one of the pieces had both in the one piece. It had square calibre cut sapphires in the piece, and some of them were natural and some of them were lab grown. They were selected not for the value of the sapphires. They were selected so that they were all uniform in color. At the time, I have no doubt that those lab-grown sapphires were much more expensive than they are today, just like I imagine lab-grown diamonds will be 20 years from now. Right now, they are falling rapidly in price. I imagine in the future we’ll be looking at those lab-grown diamonds just like we’re looking at lab-grown sapphires that were produced in the early 20th century.

Sharon: That’s interesting. Like this dealer, if I have several pieces of jewelry that I want to sell or I want to auction off, should I make the rounds of auctioneers and see what the best deal is, or should I choose the one I like, the auctioneer that I jibe with the most?

Gina: That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of depends there. It depends on the piece that you have. Some auction houses will only take a certain price point and above in order for them to bring your piece to a successful sale. So, already, your piece may or may not be suitable for some auction houses.

The second part of your question, I think, is very important because the market is going to do what it’s going to do. If the auction house is one of the more reputable, top-tier auction houses—Heritage Auctions is definitely one of them. If they are going to be putting the proper marketing behind your piece, professional photography, if they have an international bidding audience, then after that, it’s going to be important to know that you have a comfortable relationship with the representative of that auction house and that they are going to be your advocate, because it’s not just the estimate. In fact, the estimate is probably the very least important thing about your piece if you were going to be selling it at auction.

What’s more important is what are they going to do for you? Are they going to represent your piece properly? Do they have the right audience for your piece? How many photographs of the piece are going to be taken? Is it going to be up for a public preview? Is it a traveling preview that your piece is going to be placed in? There are many aspects to this that need to be discussed with you as the consignor. Then also, what fees are you going to be charged? There’s a lot of ifs. I wish I could give you a more direct answer, but if you were going to me, for example, at Heritage Auctions, I’m going to be exploring all those options with you so that you can make an informed decision.

Sharon: On the Antiques Roadshow, they say very often, “In a well-marketed auction, this would be X-Y-Z price.” To me, a well-marketed auction is one that has to advertise. I’d see ads. That’s it. What would you consider a well-marketed auction piece or auction?

Gina: Well, Sharon, coming from you, I think that’s an excellent question since you are a marketing extraordinaire. These days, marketing is very different, isn’t it? We’re looking at more the digital aspect of marketing, because so many of us are online now, just like you and I are right now. Being online for marketing is what type of social media presence do you have? What type of email marketing do you have? Also, what is your bidding audience for marketing? How are you able to reach them? Through email, or are you just relying on more conventional forms of auction marketing, be it print advertising or be it public previews? I think in this present market, it’s good to have a balance of both. But I am finding that digital marketing is becoming more and more critical.

Sharon: I would believe that. I’m curious, what are the fees involved? Is it the buyer who pays the fees or the auction house that pays the fees to the buyer? I never understood that.

Gina: Again, it depends. As far as the consignor goes, if you have the Hope Diamond, then I imagine that the buyer will have no fees to pay. It is such a highly coveted piece that everybody would be very competitive to have that on the cover of their auction catalog. But in the auction world, with most auction houses, both the buyer and the seller are paying fees. This is how the auction house survives. The fees are going to vary depending on the consignment. How many pieces are you consigning? What is the value of the pieces that you’re consigning? That is going to vary.

On the buyer end, the fees are very much locked in. I have to tell you, I don’t join Heritage Auctions again for another two weeks, so I don’t have the most current buyer’s fees. But I believe that it is around 25%, give or take, up until a certain amount. Above that, the buyer’s premium starts to go down in price. It’s tiered depending on the value of the piece, the hammer price of the piece that you are purchasing.

Sharon: Can you negotiate? Let’s say you do have the Hope Diamond. What is negotiable? How many pieces you are putting in, but how much you’re getting for each piece or reserved prices?

Gina: As a consignor?

Sharon: Yes.

Gina: Fees can be negotiable if you have something important. If it’s a lot of work to sell a piece, and by that I mean if you have 100 pieces that are probably going to auction for $1,000 or less, then you will probably pay the full rate because it’s a lot of work to sell all those individual pieces for the amount of money that the auction house will receive. It really depends on what you have. But if you have something very important with important provenance like the Hope Diamond, then that’s definitely negotiable.

As far as reserves go, reserves are something that the specialist should really set for you. That is something they will suggest to you. You may or may not agree with them, but at the end of the day, once you arrive at an agreed reserve, then that goes into your contract. That is contractual.

Sharon: Can you explain to everybody to make sure we’re all on the same page, what is the reserve, what’s a consigner, and what’s the opposite?

Gina: Yes, the language. The consignor is the person that owns the jewelry. They are the person that is loaning the jewelry to the auction house to give them the opportunity to sell it on behalf of the consignor. So, the consignor owns the piece.

The reserve is the absolute minimum that the piece will hammer for, and hammer means the final bid, the highest bid that someone will pay for at auction. That is the absolute minimum that it will go for at auction. That is the reserve. It is also the opening bid for Heritage Auctions. For example, let’s say a piece has an auction estimate of $1,500 to $2,500, and I may suggest to you that the reserve for that piece should be $1,000. The opening bid, the minimum is $1,000, so the bidding begins at that amount. If nobody else bids on that piece except for one person who has bid the reserve, $1,000, that is the price it will hammer for. That is the final sale. Does that make sense?

Sharon: It makes sense. I was wondering how long somebody has to pull the piece back, as they say. If they have the feeling they won’t like what the hammer price is, can they pull it back?

Gina: The reserve, that $1,000 for that piece is in their written contract. And in the written contract, they have agreed to allow the auction house to take it through to completion. By the time it is photographed, cataloged, shipped, insured, marketed, the auction house has invested a certain amount of money in that piece. So, if there is a contract, if there is an agreement for the auction house to try and sell this on behalf of the consignor, they have to be allowed to take it through to completion. That is why it is in the contract, because the auction house is investing money in the piece.

Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. Jumping subjects, in jewelry you can do a lot of different things. Why did you decide to become an appraiser? You could have done a lot of things with a GIA, a gemological degree. Why did you decide to become an appraiser?

Gina: That’s a great question. For me, I didn’t initially plan on becoming an appraiser. I worked in different areas of the jewelry industry. I got my Gemological Diploma. I graduated in 1992. I got my FGA. I worked in retail and then I worked in design. At the time, I was also doing appraisals in Australia. We call them valuations. I was a valuer, but that was something that I did part time. I did what was required at the time. Then I worked for an antiques dealer and was involved in buying and selling of antique and estate jewelry. Then I worked for a manufacturer assisting in the production of jewelry. I worked in different areas of the jewelry industry.

Many years later I decided to open my own business, and that business was going to be doing custom design work because I was able to draw, do renderings and was very good with production. The other half of my business was going to be appraisals. I was doing both, and the business pretty much decided for me what I was going to do full time. After I was established, I realized that there was such a demand for an independent appraiser that I had to stop jewelry designing and just focus on the appraisal aspect of it.

Sharon: Why an independent appraiser? I would think that if you go to an auction house, I would like to think it’s an independent appraisal. If the appraiser works for the auction house, whether or not they do, it would still be an independent appraisal. Is that true or not?

Gina: Well, to answer that question, we probably need to back up a little bit and define what an appraisal is. An appraisal is a researched opinion of value. In order for me to arrive at a researched opinion of value, I need to know what you, the client, want to do with the information. Are you purchasing insurance for your piece? If that’s the case, we need to appraise your piece for what it would cost for you to walk into a store that typically sells that piece of jewelry. We research that market. We research all the stores that typically sell your jewelry. The most common price is what I would appraise it for.

If you are selling that exact same piece of jewelry, that ends up being a different value. So, I have to understand what you want to do with that information. If you, as a private individual, want to sell your piece of jewelry, your options are to sell it at auction, to sell it directly to a dealer or a store that sells pre-owned jewelry, or you could put it online on eBay or one of the online auction platforms yourself as a private individual. In all cases, there is a cost to selling that we have to factor in, and we also have to research what pieces like yours have recently sold at auction. We look at the most common price to arrive at an opinion of resale value. That value is going to be different to what you would pay for it in a retail store.

Sharon: You reminded me that earlier today I happened to be looking at an estate jewelry site and they said, “You can consign your jewelry with us.” I thought that was interesting. I wonder, do they pay more for it? Where would we get the most for it? Is there a rule of thumb?

Gina: Well, again, it depends. What type of marketing, what type of audience do they have, what type of track record do they have? I really can’t speak to the online vendor you’re referring to because I don’t know who it is. But basically, you want to sell your jewelry with the company or the platform that has the biggest audience and the best track record, and the ones that are going to do the most in the form of marketing for your piece. And then also you have to look at the cost of selling and take all that into consideration. Who is going to represent your piece in the best possible way?

Sharon: What was the process that you had to go through to become an appraiser once you decided that’s what you wanted to do, plus the rendering and the custom design? What did you have to do?

Gina: For me, my skill set is a culmination of having worked in different areas of the industry. Everything that I had done up until the point where I started to appraise independently assisted me in being able to evaluate a piece. Aside from that, having a Gemological Diploma, having experience in different areas of the jewelry industry, having handled thousands and thousands of antique and period pieces of jewelry, having worked for a manufacturer and understanding the process of manufacturing jewelry, understanding the difference between a handmade piece versus a cast, mass produced piece. My past experience helped me with all of that. That’s one side of appraisal education, hands-on experience.

The other side is understanding how to write an appraisal report and appraisal theory, which is some of what I was trying to describe to you earlier with some of the questions you posed. For example, understanding the difference between resale value, liquidation value, fair market value, writing an appraisal for the IRS, writing an appraisal as an expert witness for settling a dispute in court. This is all education that you can gain by attending classes with an appraisal organization. Reputable appraisal organizations have what we call principles of value. They teach classes on writing appraisal reports for different reasons.

You also need to have a solid foundation in jewelry history. Unfortunately, there’s no one path to gaining education in jewelry history. It’s something that you acquire through various appraisal conferences and appraisal organizations. It is ongoing. I myself found that there was a serious need for education in jewelry history, so I have developed my own courses and I have been teaching them. I’ve been teaching 20th century jewelry history to various organizations and also in shorter form for jewelry seminars. This is something that a jewelry appraiser really needs a solid foundation in.

The other part of being an independent jewelry appraiser is not just knowing jewelry history, jewelry theory, jewelry appraisal report writing and jewelry manufacturing, but they also need to understand who all the major jewelry designers are. They need to self-educate by going to those jewelry houses. Cartier, Tiffany and Company, David Webb, Chopard, all the major jewelry designers. Learn who they all are. Learn what is typical of their design. Start handling more and more pieces from these major jewelry designers at auction previews. Attend as many auction previews as you can. Attend as many conferences as you can, as many jewelry shows as you can. The more exposure that an appraiser has, the better an appraiser they will become.

Sharon: So, there’s no license or something you can get that teaches you all this, like how to write the reports and the history and whatever else there is involved, which is a lot.

Gina: Yes, it’s a lot. It’s ongoing. I’ve been doing this for 35 years now. I’m still learning. I teach it and I’m still learning, and that’s why I love it. It’s never ending. You can learn the theory of appraisal report writing with an appraisal organization such as the ASA, the American Society of Appraisers, or the NAJA, National Association of Jewelry Appraisers or the ISA. I’m mentioning them all because I’m not showing favoritism for one over another. They all have their strengths. I’m a member of all three, but they all have education they can provide for appraisers.

Then there are organizations like the Accredited Gemologists Association, which I believe is a must because they provide education for the cutting edge of gemology, the latest treatments and techniques that you need to learn. They have conferences twice a year and also online education. Then you should join the American Society of Jewelry Historians so that you can network with other people who are trying to self-educate on jewelry history and become privy to some of the education that they provide.

There are also two major antique jewelry shows that you can attend in the US. One of them is the Miami Antiques Show that is in January, and the other one is the Jewelry Antique Show in Las Vegas at the end of May, early June. I attend the one in Las Vegas every single year. I attend as many jewelry previews as I can and visit many estate jewelry retailers, too. The more that you handle, the more that you inspect, the better you are going to be as an appraiser.

Sharon: What do you look for when you’re inspecting and handling these pieces? What do you look for?

Gina: You’re training your eye. I’m training my eye. I’m becoming a connoisseur. You can see behind me there are a lot of books there. I do read a lot of books on jewelry design, jewelry designers and jewelry history. Then I go out and look at jewelry from those particular designers, and I look for consistency in how a piece is being made. I look at how that piece has been found. I look at consistency in the design.

For example, if I am looking at pieces of jewelry by an American designer, David Webb, David Webb was very active in the 60s and 70s. He died, I believe, in the late 70s, but his jewelry designs are still being made today from his catalog of designs. He was a very active designer with an enormous collection of renderings. His pieces are still being made, and there’s a consistency to how he liked to design his jewelry. His jewelry designs were always very big and bold. They were colorful, or they were very black and white chromatic. He had a way of signing his jewelry. He had certain influences that informed how he designed that jewelry. There was a consistency in all of that.

David Webb always liked to work in yellow gold and platinum. You don’t typically see jewelry by David Webb that is white gold and platinum or white gold and yellow gold. It’s platinum and yellow gold. That was his choice of metals. So, if you see something that’s white gold and yellow gold, already, that’s a red flag. But you wouldn’t know to look for that unless you’re handling a lot of pieces by that particular designer.

Cartier, for example, their jewelry was manufactured in Paris, but also some of the jewelry is manufactured in the US. They sign their jewelry in a particular way. They have certain collections that they designed over the decades. Until you start handling more and more pieces by that jewelry house, you would not know how to recognize it unless you’re reading the books and cross-referencing. Sharon, I am giving you very long answers to these questions. I hope that it’s helping.

Sharon: No, it’s interesting. It’s making me think of other questions. For instance, you talked about the replicas from David Webb. They’re still doing things from the catalog. Would that be worth as much as an original David Webb, as when he was alive, if you had a replica?

Gina: Well, when you say replica, you mean a newer David Webb piece versus an older David Webb piece, right? Because a replica means somebody who is not David Webb has replicated it, has copied it, and that’s a different thing. I’m just clarifying for the audience.

Sharon: No, please.

Gina: We’re talking about a newer David Webb piece made from the back catalog. I guess it depends on the piece. There are collectors of David Webb jewelry who like to think that they’re buying an earlier piece of David Webb jewelry when David Webb was active. But newer David Webb jewelry is still collectible and still very desirable.

Sharon: That’s interesting.

We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman