Episode 218 Part 2: 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 second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com.

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. Welcome back.

If you become a certain kind of appraiser, let’s say real estate or antique jewelry or I’ll call it regular jewelry, how do you continue your education in those areas? What do you do if you’re a real estate appraiser and you want to be an expert, or an antique expert? What would you do to continue education in that area?

Gina: You mentioned real estate. So, you mean you’re appraising houses and all of a sudden you want to appraise antique jewelry?

Sharon: No, if you’re in a particular area, is what I mean. You work in jewelry. What do you do to further your education besides going to the conferences, handling the jewelry? Are there other things you can do to further your education in those areas? In that area, I should say.

Gina: If you’re working in jewelry, you’re basically filling all the educational holes that you might have. When you say you work in jewelry, if you work for a contemporary jeweler, then you need to have more exposure to vintage jewelry. If it’s vice versa, maybe you’re working with antique and estate jewelry and you’re not as exposed to what present day Tiffany and Company and Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels are doing, then you have to self-educate and gain more exposure to that kind of jewelry.

As a jewelry appraiser, anything can cross your desk. Quite often, I might receive a collection that belongs to somebody, and she may have something that she bought last week and she may have something that her great-grandmother owned and she has inherited. You need to be able to recognize and evaluate and appraise both pieces. So, you do need a very well-rounded education.

Sharon: You raised the point of Cartier and David Webb and the high-end pieces that designers make, but not everything you see is going to be that. As you said, there’s the piece that the grandmother passes down. Heritage, I presume, isn’t all Cartier. What do you do then? What do you do if a piece comes across your desk and it’s not a Cartier or it’s not a David Webb? Do you look at a David Webb as the benchmark and then go from there?

Gina: No, you don’t, because a piece that has no stamp or signature doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a fine piece. That’s where having an understanding of jewelry manufacturing is critical. You do need to gain an education on how a piece of jewelry is made. GIA is teaching a class called jewelry forensics. In that class, they teach appraisers and other members of the industry how to look at a piece and recognize how it was fabricated. Was it made entirely by hand? Was it made by carving a wax and casting it? Was it made via CAD/CAM design and 3D printing? Was made by using a die struck method? These are all different methods of producing a piece of jewelry, and as an appraiser you need to have an education in that so when you’re holding that piece of jewelry in your hand, A) you recognize how it was made, and B) you recognize the quality of the workmanship. That plays into the value of the piece.

For example, you might have a piece of jewelry, and you recognize that it was made entirely by hand. A great deal of time and effort has gone into making it, and the workmanship is excellent. Flawless, in fact. That is going to inform you as to what it would cost to replace that piece if your client wants to insure it for another piece that has been made entirely by hand.

Or, you might look at a piece that is mass produced using CAD/CAM and 3D printing, but it’s a piece that’s not finished very well. It’s poorly made, and the setting work is very poor, too. In fact, some of the stones are a little bit loose because they weren’t set properly, or perhaps they’re not straight in the piece. That’s going to tell you that it’s a mass-produced piece. If it’s not signed, you’re going to be looking at other mass-produced pieces of the same type of lower quality in order to determine what it would cost to replace that piece. Understanding production is really important.

Sharon: Can you be an appraiser without having this background of manufacturing and that sort of thing? Could you be an appraiser?

Gina: You can. I’m really sad to say that there is no licensing of jewelry appraisers. There is no regulation, no government regulation. We self-regulate. That’s why if you want to become a professional appraiser and you want to be the best appraiser you can be, you should join an organization that gives you excellent education and network with other very experienced appraisers who can help guide you in the right direction to get the education that you need.

Unfortunately, anybody can appraise jewelry and nobody can stop you. As a consumer, it’s best to look for an appraiser that has reached the highest level they can possibly attain within an appraisal organization that requires their members to requalify every five years. The International Society of Appraisers has a requalification program. So does the American Society of Appraisers. They do require their members to requalify every five years. Then you have the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers that have different strata of membership, different tiers of membership, so look for an appraiser within that organization that has successfully completed the Certified Master Appraiser program, the CMA, and at the very least is a certified appraiser. Someone who has sat for the exams.

Sharon: What is requalification? Is that a test on paper or a computer, or is it just that you came to class?

Gina: It varies. It depends on which organization. I failed to mention the American Gem Society, I apologize. They also have an Independent Gemologist Appraiser program. For requalification, you have to attend a minimum amount of education every year. You have to prove you have done that. There is also an exam you have to take as well.

Sharon: You answered one of the questions I had, which is what you would ask somebody you want to be an appraiser for you. What would you ask them to know if they’re good or not? What should I ask? What would somebody in the public ask if they’re looking for an appraiser?

Gina: Yes. Everything that I just told you. Make sure that they have reached the highest designation they can within those appraisal organizations.

Sharon: I took some antique jewelry to an appraiser not knowing that they did all kinds of jewelry, but they weren’t an expert in antiques. Was there any way to suss that out in advance?

Gina: That’s a great question, Sharon. That’s tricky. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that it’s difficult to get a formal education in jewelry history today, so you are getting it piecemeal from wherever you can, which is why I developed my courses. There is no way to look at an appraiser and have them prove to you that they are a specialist in antique and period jewelry. Unfortunately, that’s something that comes by way of reputation. You may have to ask, “How did you become proficient?” You may have to just ask them to explain that to you. It’s a tricky one. As a consumer, I’m not quite sure how that could be proven.

Sharon: What would you suggest the public ask if you want to know if an appraiser is credentialed, a credible appraiser?

Gina: You ask them what level of certification, what designation, they have achieved within their appraisal organization. Are they a member of the ASA, the NAJA, the ISA, the AGS? If they are a member—you could be a member and not attain any education. You could be a candidate member, or you could just simply be a member. Ask them, “What education have you completed with these organizations? Are you designated? What is your designation? What is your experience with antique and period jewelry? Are you proficient with that type of jewelry?” Just outright ask them to show you what their education and designation is.

Most appraisers who have achieved this level of education and designation have spent a great deal of time attaining it and are proud of what they’ve achieved, and they usually put up on their website for everybody to see. But if they haven’t done that, you can ask them for their professional profiles so you can read through what they’ve achieved, and you can even check it. You can call those appraisal organizations to see if the information you’ve been provided is true and accurate.

Sharon: I’m thinking about something you said earlier. If somebody says to me, “I don’t have a formal education in this, but I’ve handled a million and one pieces in this era, and I can tell right away if it’s fake or not and who made it,” what do you say to that?

Gina: That’s quite possible. Absolutely. Then that makes them a connoisseur and a specialist in antique and period jewelry. But are they an appraiser? Do they have an education in appraisal report writing? Can they write that appraisal report for you? That’s the other part. That’s the other side of the coin. That’s the other thing they have to have to be an appraiser. Otherwise, they’re an expert in that period of jewelry, but they’re not necessarily an appraiser.

Sharon: That’s interesting. When I thought about being an appraiser myself, it was the report writing that scared me off. That’s very detailed and very scientific in a way. Very precise.

Gina: Yes, and that education is something that you can study.

Sharon: Okay. I think I’ll pass.

Gina: You almost looked like you were considering it, Sharon.

Sharon: No, I think I’ve heard too much about the classes for the report writing and how they’re pretty onerous, in a in a good way.

Gina: They’re fascinating. I highly recommend it. Anyone out there who is writing appraisal reports and doesn’t have a foundation in appraisal report writing from one of the major organizations, I really suggest that you go out and get that education. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn. It’s going to make you even better at what you do.

Sharon: Why would you say it makes you better at what you do?

Gina: This education is written by appraisers, not just one appraiser, but collaborative groups of appraisers who have been immersed in that profession for many, many years. They have learned the best approaches and the pitfalls. They have studied the government requirements. They may have had a lot of experience in appraising for litigation, and this collective information has been formally put into a course. It’s only going to help you as an appraiser. It’s going to help you avoid ending up in court or possibly being disqualified as an appraiser for the IRS because you did not follow the proper procedures. If you know what pitfalls to avoid and how to arrive at a more informed opinion of value, it’s only going to make your appraisal a better product for the person that’s using it.

Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. I keep going back to Antiques Roadshow. They talk about the auction value and the retail value and the insurance value. It drives me crazy because you see the glassy-eyed look in somebody’s eyes. I want to say, “Didn’t you hear what they said?”

Gina: As an appraiser and as a specialist for an auction house, this is the biggest problem. This is the biggest obstacle for a private individual, understanding that there is not just one value. There are multiple values for the same piece of jewelry. It just depends on the market. It depends on whether it’s the auction market, whether it is the liquidation market, or whether it is the retail market or whether it is the antique and estate jewelry market. Is it being sold as a brand-new piece? Is it being sold as a pre-owned piece in a retail scenario? Is it a custom-made designer piece? The same piece of jewelry could have various values depending on what you need that information for.

Sharon: I wonder, you talked about this handmade piece. Is there a replacement? Yes, there’s an insurance value, but could you find a replacement somewhere in the market?

Gina: That’s a great question. You know what? Appraisal organizations, we all have forums, email chat groups where we ask each other questions and use the collaborative brain trust of your peers to help you solve a problem, and a problem came up today. There was a photograph of a bracelet that was posted by a professional appraiser. This appraiser recognized the designer. The designer and the manufacturer—they are one in the same—was a French designer called Georges Lenfant. He was a manufacturer of chains, particularly beautifully constructed chains and bracelets, and he manufactured for all the major jewelry houses, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, goodness me, so many of them. He was very active in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s. He had his own trademark that he would put inside a piece, but he didn’t sign it. The piece was often signed with the jewelry house, Cartier, and then it had the Georges Lenfant stamp inside the piece. He was a French maker.

I tell you all of this to explain that today, when pieces of jewelry come to market made by this particular maker, there is an extra layer of interest and value because these pieces are so beautifully made. This appraiser posted a piece of jewelry by this maker. This is one of those pieces that wasn’t signed by a major jewelry house, but the appraiser was very good and was able to recognize that it was the Georges Lenfant trademark and posed the question, “Can anybody tell me where I can find examples of this piece so I can arrive at an opinion of replacement value?” It was a 1970s bracelet made by this French maker. Where would you replace a 1970s piece made by this maker? It would be with somebody who typically sells vintage jewelry, high-end vintage jewelry. That should have been the answer to this question.

Unfortunately, one of the answers provided was, “Contact the manufacturer and ask them what they would charge you to make it today.” It’s not being made today, not that particular piece. It’s a vintage piece by a collectible maker. I guess that’s a very long example to your question. You need to determine, is this a piece that’s typically being made today, or is this a vintage piece that has collectible value? Do you recognize who the maker is? Is there a stamp inside there? Is there some way you can look this up? If you can’t look it up, who do you go to? How do you find out? You need to know to ask all these questions. All this happens by networking with your peers, by attending appraisal conferences, by self-educating, and by handling a lot of this jewelry.

Sharon: Do you have a favorite period that you like to appraise, or a favorite stone that you are more partial to?

Gina: Oh, boy. Gosh. Well, my focus is 20th century jewelry. I have no favorites. I love all periods of jewelry, but because I am very much immersed these days in jewelry from 1930 to 2000, which I feel is an area of education that is not being covered enough, I tend to focus on 20th century jewelry and preferably the latter half.

Sharon: I can understand. How do you bring the jewelry in, and what do you do with it once you have it?

Gina: A typical day as a consignment director at Heritage Auctions. Well, that varies from day to day, but if you’re talking about the consignment process, I could be going to visit with a client. It could be in his or her home. I could be looking at the jewelry and studying the jewelry and learning about the history behind the piece from the owner. Based on that information and based on the collection, I could be coming up with estimate ranges of what the piece of jewelry may sell for at auction. At that point, the owner of the jewelry may consign it to the auction house, at which point I take the jewelry with me and it goes through the auction process.

It gets shipped to headquarters, where it is professionally photographed. If there are any repairs that need to be done, it’s done at that point. If lab reports need to be obtained, they are submitted to the labs for grading reports or gem origin identification reports. Then they go through the cataloging process, where the pieces are tested, gemstones are measured, and weight estimates are provided and entered into the system. Then all this information is compiled into the digital online catalog. If it’s a signature sale, it also goes into the printed catalog and it goes to print. Those catalogs are distributed to all the bidders.

Then the marketing begins. Biographies are written and researched. Anything that will assist in helping to provide more information to a potential bidder is entered. Then the publicity begins and the public previews begin. The pieces are shipped and sent off to our major satellite offices where they are set up in jewelry showcases, and they are available for public preview. Sometimes special events are planned around these previews, and the planning behind those special events takes place as well. Once all of that is complete, then the pieces are offered up on auction day. When the pieces have successfully sold at auction, then they are packaged up again, money is collected, and the pieces are shipped to the new owners.

Sharon: Do you ever have repeat clients or repeat people who call you and say, “Gina, I have something I want to show you,” because you’ve developed a relationship?

Gina: Yes, definitely. I have regular consignors and I have regular buyers, and sometimes they are one in the same. There are people that are constantly refining their jewelry collections, so sometimes they’ll sell a piece that they no longer need, but they’re also collecting pieces that are more to their evolving tastes. We have collectors. Then we also have repeat consignors. I have many clients who have accumulated lovely jewelry collections over the years, and they’re very slowly thinning the collection or letting each piece go once they’re ready to sell it.

Sharon: Is that because they’re aging out, let’s say, or they get tired of a piece?

Gina: It could be either. If you’re a collector and you’re refining your collection, then yes, you’re refining it and you’re selling pieces that no longer fit in with your style that is evolving. If you’re downsizing, you could be downsizing everything in your life, including your home, your clothes and your jewelry collection. Sometimes lifestyle. Especially today, lifestyles change. We no longer wear the jewelry we used to wear, and it’s just sitting around. Maybe it’s time to sell those pieces to put it into something else. Maybe you want to start a college fund for your child, and that jewelry you’re no longer wearing anymore is going to go into that fund. There are all kinds of reasons why people sell their jewelry. Sometimes it’s a divorce settlement. Sometimes it’s by court order. We’ve had many sales that have been by court order. The government wants to collect their taxes and it’s a liquidation. Jewelry is going up for sale because it’s by court order.

Sharon: It’s certainly true that lifestyles change very fast and what you wore. I think, “Well, you’re a middle-aged woman now. Am I going to wear what I wore when I was 20?” It’s very different.

Gina, thank you very much for being here. I learned a lot. It was great to talk with you and I hope you will come back soon.

Gina: Thank you so much, Sharon. It was such a pleasure to talk to you as well.

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