Episode 221 Part 1: Suzanne Martinez’s Tips for Finding the Best Quality Antique Jewelry

Episode 221

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How to use Antique Jewelry University to identify maker’s marks and find out when your jewelry was made.
  • Why access to more (and better) information has made interest in antique jewelry explode.
  • What characteristics Suzanne looks for when evaluating antique jewelry.
  • Why buyers should beware of lab-grown diamonds in vintage jewelry.
  • Why modern diamonds and manufacturing techniques can’t compare to the materials and skills used by jewelers in the past.

About Suzanne Martinez

Suzanne Martinez is the co-owner of Lang Antiques, a San Francisco-based shop that offers the largest collection of fine vintage engagement rings and antique jewels to be found under one roof. She is a highly credentialed senior gemologist, jewelry appraiser, jewelry historian and the curator for Lang’s collection. She actively buys from sellers all over the world. Suzanne is also the founder of Lang’s Antique Jewelry University.

Suzanne started collecting rocks and minerals as a child, and by the time she was 13 knew that the jewelry world was her passion. For fun she makes enameled jewelry and studies natural history and Latin American cultural anthropology.

Images courtesy of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry:

Lang Vintage Engagement Rings

Lang Victorian Star Sapphire Necklace

Retro Bracelet Stacks

Gemstone Rings

AJU Tiara Jewelry History

Additional resources:

Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry is the prime destination for vintage jewelry lovers, but you don’t have to be in San Francisco to take advantage of the store’s services. Lang ships jewelry globally and offers Antique Jewelry University, a completely free online guide to maker’s marks and jewelry history. Jewelry historian and Lang co-owner Suzanne Martinez joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how Lang curates its huge collection of antique engagement rings; the history of Antique Jewelry University; and what she looks for when evaluating an antique piece. Read the episode transcript here.

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, we’re talking with Suzanne Martinez of Lang Antiques in San Francisco. I should say that’s where the brick and mortar is, but they sell all over the world. Lang Antiques is the country’s, if not the world’s, largest purveyor of vintage engagement rings. They have an unparalleled collection.

Suzanne herself is a jewelry historian, among other things. Lang Antiques has developed an online Antique Jewelry University. Researchers from all over the world use this as a resource to research the history of a piece of jewelry. If you’re interested in jewelry, then this makes a very good read. I was looking at it last night again, and I didn’t have any piece of jewelry in mind, but it was very interesting to read.

I’ve heard Suzanne give a talk at ASJRA, another major jewelry organization, and I’ve heard Suzanne give talks identifying a piece of jewelry, and she goes into tremendous detail. There’s no way that you could not look at a piece of jewelry and know what you should be looking for. She’ll tell us more about Antique Jewelry University. She’ll also tell us how over the years, the store has become world renowned. They have done this by developing an unparalleled collection of jewelry, a reputation for professional expertise, and the longevity of this jewelry store. Suzanne, welcome to the program.

Suzanne: I’m happy to be here. Good morning.

Sharon: Can you tell us where the Lang in Lang Antiques and Estate Jewelry comes from?

Suzanne: We bought the store from Jarmilla Lang in 1991. She was the original owner of the store and a jewelry historian herself way before her time. She had worked in Europe in museums, so she had this breadth of knowledge of decorative arts and jewelry that she brought to San Francisco with her when she opened this store.

Sharon: Wow. There aren’t any certificates as a jewelry historian. It’s just knowledge, right? Knowledge and other people saying, “Well, you’re a jewelry historian.” I presume you’re a gemologist also. You look at so many rings. That’s very interesting.

What do you say to those who would never buy a piece of jewelry online because they have to feel it and see it and all of that?

Suzanne: Like you said, I am a gemologist and I have been for 45 years. Part of the gemological training is learning how to be forensic with what you’re looking at. Whether it’s a gemstone or a piece of jewelry, if you are buying from someone who is knowledgeable enough to understand what they’re looking at and share that information with you, that gives a huge degree of trust. I think that’s one thing that stands out for Lang. We have a really good understanding of whether it’s a real piece of antique jewelry. How is it made? Why is this design important? Who else made this design popular over time and why? We like to give tidbits of history with every piece we sell.

I do call myself a jewelry historian, but by no means do I know everything. I have a library. I haven’t read every single book in my library. However, if a piece comes in and I look at it, I know which book to look for to find a reference about it. And there are many jewelry historians that I look up to. It’s a community.

Sharon: If I see a piece of jewelry on your website and I want to know more about it, or I want to know if I can trust this outfit If I don’t know it, do I call you or send you the piece? Can you explain the process?

Suzanne: If you want to know more about your own piece of jewelry, that’s why we have Antique Jewelry University. It’s a place where you can do your own research. We have a huge database of hallmarks because one thing that we probably get the most inquiries about is, “Who made this piece of jewelry? Here’s the mark I have.” We refer them to this database we have because it’s pretty impressive.

Auction houses and appraisers and people all over use that database. Every piece of jewelry we have with a maker’s mark, we do our best to research it. It’s not always easy. It’s not always possible. Then we photograph it, and we include it on our website. We try and add a little snippet about who the jeweler was, where they were located, and what years they did their manufacturing.

You have to match when a piece was made because some there are false marks, too. If a piece of jewelry is marked 585, which is the percentage for 14-karat gold, it was not made in the 19th century. They didn’t mark jewelry like that. There is that forensic bit, too. Hopefully we can help people down that path. We call it the jewelry journey. We do. It’s finding out when their jewelry was made.

If they want to find out more about a piece of jewelry we have on our website that they might be interested in buying, we invite inquiries. We talk to them over the phone or by email, whatever they’re comfortable with, and try and satisfy all their questions about it and add information as well.

Sharon: Did you develop the online Antique Jewelry University yourself?

Suzanne: When we started our website, that was back in 1998. We were kind of early adapters. There were no e-commerce platforms at that time, so we developed our own e-commerce platform. By the early 2000s, we were actually selling online. When we launched our website, Antique Jewelry University was a 1000-word glossary.

I had been collecting terms. Christie Romero was an incredible jewelry historian. She was here in Southern California, and she taught jewelry history. I don’t remember which college it was down there, but she would put on symposiums and bring speakers in. Anyway, incredible woman. She started a glossary of terms and a timeline that, when she passed—unfortunately, she’s no longer with us—she gifted to Antique Jewelry University. So, between her information and my glossary of terms, we started Antique Jewelry University and just built upon it.

Sharon: Do you continue to build upon it if you see a new term or something you haven’t included before?

Suzanne: Absolutely. We are always researching. We have a woman who does a lot of our writing. Her name is Mary Borchert, and that is her job, just doing research. We have quite a library of reference books, so everything that we put on Antique Jewelry University is fully referenced. We notate that at the bottom of all our articles as well. We’re not just copying it from somewhere else on the internet, which a lot of people do, and a lot of people copy Antique Jewelry University. That can be a compliment, but at the same time, we do all of our own work.

Sharon: That’s impressive, considering how in-depth it is. Just look at it online. Why do you think that the interest in antique jewelry has grown so much in the past few years?

Suzanne: I think there’s a lot of transparency. A lot of people are able to access information because of the advent of social media. Just think of all the people that are sharing their own personal information. We are on all the different social media channels as well, and I’ve seen them grow. If you have an interest in a particular type, like Art Nouveau jewelry, you can find Art Nouveau jewelers that have Instagram or Pinterest and look at beautiful jewelry and learn about it. In the past, when I started as a jeweler, if you didn’t have a library, there was no place to go. You went to a museum, and that’s where you found your information. Now I think it’s a rich time for people to access information.

I think we also visually see antique and vintage jewelry worn on the red carpet, at the Met Gala, and we see jewelry that is inspired by antique jewelry. You have famous houses. Everybody knows who Cartier is. You have the most beautiful antique Cartier jewelry, and then you have people that have copied it. That’s a big tribute, but you don’t always know if it’s a Cartier or it isn’t. That’s why it’s important who you buy it from. But at the same time, it’s permeated everything, antique and vintage styles. Whether it’s somebody creating something new with a nod to something vintage or it’s truly vintage, I think it’s just what people see today. It’s massive.

Sharon: Your selection of engagement rings is massive. Have you seen that grow in the past few years, the interest and the couples coming in and wanting to see your vintage only?

Suzanne: Because that’s what we specialize in—we specialize in antique diamonds, so our vintage and antique jewelry is why people come to buy from us. They understand that it’s socially responsible, it’s recycled. That’s one of the reasons they buy it. They also want a little bit of history. They want something that no one else has, something very unique. They want something that has a beautiful design and is executed in a way that jewelry isn’t executed today. You get a beautiful Edwardian jewel, no one can make a piece of jewelry like that in today’s world. They just don’t. The jewelry today is made on CAD. Very few jewelers are hand fabricators or can fabricate something that delicate. If you want the real deal, you’re going to shop at a store like Lang.

Sharon: What happens if you get a call from somebody outside of the U.S. or even on the other side of the U.S. that wants a piece? They want a vintage engagement ring, but they can’t come to the store. What do you do?

Suzanne: Actually, more of our customers are outside of our store and shop just online because we have jewelry that no one else has. Where are they going to find it if they don’t find it from a store like Lang? We have a very large selection. It’s not unusual for a customer to narrow their choice down to two or three. Sometimes we just send them all three and they can try them on in the comfort of their own home. They have a period of time which they can return them. We make it work.

Sharon: I thought it was really interesting that you had that, the one, two, three. Maybe it’s the person who writes about the antique jewelry. The one, two, three of what you look for to know more about a piece of jewelry. That was like first looking at the hallmarks. I looked at it last night but I don’t remember what’s next.

Suzanne: For a private individual, when they’re trying to identify their own jewelry, style is really important. But for an individual, if you have family history and you know that piece was your grandmother’s, at least you have a date within which to start. If you’re just out in the world and you identify a piece of jewelry that you love but you don’t really know how old it is, that’s a little more difficult. How do you know it doesn’t match the type of manufacturing techniques that were done when, say, an Art Nouveau piece of jewelry was made, versus something that is made today in the Art Nouveau style? That is something that’s a little harder. That’s why you need to rely on an appraiser, someone to help you with that.

But when I personally look at a piece of jewelry, how I select a piece of jewelry for our store, style is really important. Good design is always good design. Bad design is obvious, and it just doesn’t make a great piece of jewelry. The techniques of manufacture have to be right. It has to be in excellent condition. There’s a lot of things that I look at that go in the background, that not everybody sees when they look at a piece. They see a beautiful piece of jewelry when they’re shopping, but the backstory is it has to be in excellent condition. It has to be correct.

Lang is very careful about letting people know when, for example, cufflinks have been out of style for quite some time, and a lot of the cufflinks that were made circa 1900 to 1930 are small. They’re very small. They’re really too small for men to wear. Men don’t wear them, and they’re very delicate. What we do is convert them to earrings. We make the most beautiful earrings out of these cufflinks that otherwise would lose their livelihood, and we’ve been very successful with doing that. But we tell people these were converted from a pair of earrings, whether it’s Art Nouveau or an Art Deco cuff link. Those are the kinds of things that if we make a change, we tell people about it.

Sharon: If somebody wants to sell jewelry to you or to another place, let’s say they take their family collection and show it to you, or they take it out of the safe deposit box and decide they want the jewelry to be out in the world, what do you say? Have you ever turned people away?

Suzanne: Absolutely. What if something was made in the last 25 years and its value is gold? It’s something that is mass produced and there’s lots and lots of them made and it’s not in style anymore. It deserves to be recycled into something more beautiful again. In all pieces, it’s back to that design, quality, authenticity and condition. Those are the things that I look for.

I wish I could say I could buy every single piece that comes through my door, but realistically we have a large collection. Let’s say right now I have 30 hardstone cameos. If someone brought me a hardstone cameo today, I would have to make sure that it exceeded my current collection to add it to my collection, or it has to be something that I feel customers are buying right now.

The market goes up and down. Retro is a little soft right now. I like it. It’s beautiful. The designs are gorgeous, but I’m not adding to our retro collection because we have a pretty extensive retro collection right now. Those are the kinds of things where sometimes I will say no. But usually individual, one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry, that’s what we’re looking for.

Sharon: Can you recognize if something is one of a kind when it’s presented to you? I know you think about things and what you have, but do you research the piece? Do you look at it under the microscope?

Suzanne: Some pieces definitely need to be researched, but most pieces are jewelry where maybe more than one of them has been made. In our diamond ring collection, for example, during the 1920s and 1930s, a lot of those rings were die struck. They were made in a die and many of them were made, but very few survive. In all my years of buying and selling vintage engagement rings and antique engagement rings, maybe I’ve seen a handful that were the same as one I had already seen.

That’s because the piece may be struck on a die, but then its hand pierced, its hand finished. There may be a garland or small milgrain, or it may have small diamonds added to it and this one doesn’t have diamonds added to it. Each one has a handprint of a person on it, the work master or the person that does the engraving or the setter. Each one has its own imprint, so they still tend to look one of a kind. But knowing the underlying structure of something is still one of the ways we determine when it was made. You know when you see a die struck ring, that’s the period of time within which it was made.

Sharon: Do people bring lab-grown diamonds in? I know they’re not vintage, but do you ever see lab-grown diamonds?

Suzanne: I think the secondary market for lab grown diamonds hasn’t really hit yet because they’ve only been super popular in the marketplace for three years. That’s about it. And their prices have already plummeted on the retail marketplace. It’s not something we would ever buy because they’re not old, but it is something that we have to be careful of, and I think people have to be careful of. I have heard of jewelers that are buying low quality synthetic diamonds. They’re buying a round brilliant and they’re recutting it to European standard because they have inclusions and might have some off color, then they’re putting them in an old mounting. People that buy scrap end up with lots and lots of mountings, and sometimes they just resell them on the secondary market through dealers. So, here you have the possibility of someone setting a synthetic diamond recut as an antique diamond into an old mounting, so buyer beware.

That’s one of my dilemmas, too, that I have to be very careful about. I would never want to buy that. That’s when the microscope comes in handy, and that’s when we use outside laboratories like the Gemological Institute of America to check the stones before we buy them, just to make sure they are correct. In our laboratory, we don’t have all the equipment necessary to confirm that it is 100% synthetic or not. We have separation techniques, but a larger laboratory is able to do a lot more than we can.

Sharon: A lot of these lab-grown diamonds have inscriptions and numbers or something that identifies it. Do you look for anything like that?

Suzanne: If the GIA has looked at that diamond, they always inscribe them. But a diamond cutter can polish that off in a matter of 10 minutes. If you do see it, great, but it’s not something that we’ve even seen. We don’t buy round brilliant-cut diamonds. We’ve never bought round brilliant-cut diamonds. That’s not what we buy and sell. Because we specialize in the older ones, like I said, I’m very careful about what I buy and I’m on the lookout for these supposed recuts.

We know they’re out there for smaller diamonds because we see them in reproductions, the European cuts and single cuts. Primarily the European cuts are cut with what we call an open culet. Instead of coming to a point on the bottom, they have a facet there, and the facets in the contemporary cuts for small diamonds have a really big open facet. That’s a generalization, but it’s one of those things. If you see all the other characteristics that make you think it’s not an old ring and you see those stones and they’re perfectly calibrated, you can kind of say, “Yes, that’s a reproduction, and this is why.”

Sharon: Do you or people who work at the store go out to trade shows or antique jewelry shows and look for merchandise to resell?

Suzanne: That’s one of the things I do. Most of the jewelry that we buy and sell comes right in our door. People send me a picture of it and we strike up a conversation, and they mail it to us or send it FedEx or however we decide they’re going to ship it for our consideration so we can see it in person. I do not buy anything unless I see it in person.

Another really good reason to go to trade shows is to do price research. I go to Tucson Gem and Mineral Show every year because the prices and availability of different gems change. It changes from year to year, and if you’re buying a beautiful old sapphire, you want to make sure you’re paying the right price for it, especially today as prices have gone up significantly, especially in emeralds, rubies and sapphires.

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