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How To Restore Vintage Designer Jewelry

Annabelle / April 1, 2020

Lover of all things David Yurman? Have a passion for all things Chanel? If you’re a collector or a reseller, chances are you’ve been able to snag some lovingly used brand-name pieces at a good bargain. Here’s how to restore vintage designer jewelry back to its original condition.

Different Types of  Designer Jewelry

Designer jewelry is a broad term that applies to any jewelry made by a major fashion house or brand. As such, the materials used to make that jewelry can range from fine metals to costume jewelry. This is important to keep in mind, because repairing costume jewelry is a far more convoluted and tricky process due to the unpredictability of the materials. 

To further differentiate between the two, fine jewelry is usually made from sterling silver, gold, or platinum. The stones can be either lab-created or genuine gemstones. Costume designer jewelry is made from metals such as copper, brass, bronze, pewter, or even unknown alloys that are a mixture of various metals. These metals are difficult to heat up and solder, and some may not even take to any metalworking process used in repair. The stones range from plastic and glass to affordable gemstones such as turquoise or pearl. Because of their material, these faux stones are prone to damage in the repair process. 

So how can you restore vintage designer jewelry the right way? Here’s how to get started.

Restoring Vintage Designer Jewelry

1. Identify the jewelry type: A quick trip or send-in to a jeweler will help you determine if the piece is fine or costume jewelry. Jewelers can draw upon their own experience with jewelry and examine the item to check its materials. A quick scratch test or blip with a laser machine at a small area on the design can also reveal if the material is workable. 

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These Chanel earrings are made from an alloy.

2. Figure out the best method for restoration: Once the jeweler has determined the nature of the piece, they examine the item’s condition and refer to the original design of the item. What needs repair? What should the piece look like? These are all questions that the jeweler has to take into consideration when restoring a designer piece.
For instance, David Yurman items are mostly made out of sterling silver. This is a fine metal that can darken over time due to oxidation, requiring polishing. Many of their designs for earrings include a yellow gold earring post, in contrast to the sterling silver. A jeweler will clean up the appearance of the silver, and ensure that any replacement earring posts match the design’s specifications.

If the item is costume jewelry, the jeweler needs to figure out what can and cannot be done. By laser testing it, they can tell if the metal can be worked with. If it doesn’t react well to the process, they will not be able to repair any structural damage to the piece. It’s also important to note that many costume designer jewelry pieces are plated; there is a thin layer of gold on the top of the metal. Repair work may remove that, and the jeweler will have to replate the item after the process. Any faux stones will react badly to heat and cleaning, so the jeweler may have to remove them, replace them, or avoid cleaning them. Given the materials used to make costume jewelry, the jeweler will inform you of what they can do in order to restore it to the best possible condition.

3. Repair the item: Repairs vary from piece to piece, but we’ve compiled a list of common repairs and services for your reference below:

  • Ring sizing: You can’t wear a ring unless it’s adjustable, or the right size! The jeweler can usually size a ring 2 sizes up and 2 sizes down with no issues. This can be done by cutting the ring open at a blank area at the back, and adding or removing metal. If the item is made out of a costume jewelry material that does not react to metalworking processes such as soldering, it cannot be sized. Eternity rings, hollow rings, and rings with heat-sensitive stones are sized on a case-by-case basis; some are doable, some are not.
  • Stone repair and replacement: Stones in vintage pieces can be scratched, chipped, or entirely missing. To restore genuine or glass stones with surface damage, a jeweler can polish it. Keep in mind that this will not remove any deep cracks in the stone.
    If the stone is missing or damaged beyond repair, the jeweler will source a new stone. The setting is measured to get the dimensions and the new stone is cut to fit the item. This process is only available for genuine stones; faux gems such as rhinestones and Swarovski crystals have to be sourced from a vendor. It’s also important to note that you may not be able to replace specific faux stones in costume designer jewelry, as certain stones were created for particular designs and may no longer be in production.

    melee-stone-replacement

    A small diamond ring before and after stone replacement

  • Prong repair: The little strips of metal that hold your stones securely will wear or break off over time. A jeweler repairs this damage by adding a bit of wire, soldering it so that it fuses to the base of the setting and forming a new prong. This process can be performed on most stones, but for heat-sensitive items such as pearls or plastic, the jeweler will have to remove the stone before work and reset it after work. 
  • Refurbishing: Refurbishing refers to the general restoration of the item’s metal. This includes any processes such as plating, polishing, and detailing work that is used to restore vintage designer jewelry.
    • Gold Plating: To replate an item, the jeweler has to remove all of the original plating on the item via polishing. Once the surface is clean and smooth, the item is placed into a tank filled with a solution containing gold. Electricity runs through the tank and attaches the gold to the surface of the item. This process normally does not affect stones, as the plating process is a magnetic procedure that makes the gold stick to metal, but some stones may need to be removed before plating and reset afterwards. Some costume jewelry pieces requires more work to plate, as their base metal is chemically incompatible with the typical plating process, and may need additional treatment such as nickel or palladium plating before gold plating.

      restore-vintage-designer-jewelry

      A designer bangle before gold plating.

    • Enamel: This “jewelry paint” is used by designers to create colorful designs, or highlight specific details. A skilled jeweler removes any existing enamel, and then carefully reapplies the new enamel. The item is then placed into a kiln to cure the enamel at very high temperatures, causing it to harden. 
    • Oxidation: This chemical process naturally occurs with sterling silver; chemicals from the air and your skin causes the metal to darken into a deep, gunmetal gray. Oxidation can be intentionally used as part of a design for detailing purposes, or as an overall aesthetic. The item is exposed to chemicals that mimic the same natural process, but at a much faster rate in order to achieve an even, dark gray look. 
    • Polishing: Scratches, rust, and scuffing will occur over time, and in order to fix the surface of your item you’ll need to have it polished. A jeweler goes over the item with a polishing wheel made from abrasive material to take a very thin layer of the surface off, revealing clean, unblemished metal underneath. 
    • Appraisal: The value of designer jewelry is based on its materials, rarity, and authenticity. A trained gemologist can provide an assessment of value by examining the materials, stones, and stamps on the interior of the item. By getting your item appraised, you can use this document provided by the gemologist to get a sense of retail value, provide an additional component to your product if you’re a reseller, or use it for insurance purposes. 

Now you’re all set on how to restore vintage designer jewelry! If you have any questions on how to get started with some items, comment below and we’ll help you out. 

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