4 Tips for Spotting Knockoff Vintage Costume Jewelry

We live in a world of knockoffs. Fake designer goods are everywhere: street corners, online, estate sales, even bricks-and-mortar shops. Some fakes “inspired by” originals are legally sold. Others are fraudulently passed as genuine.

Worldwide, knockoffs are a $500 billion dollar per year business. Designers struggle to protect their brands, but defending copyrights is an uphill battle. Amazon and eBay regularly combat sellers of counterfeit goods. Chinese retail giant Alibaba is infamous for selling fakes; so bad, in fact, that according to the online magazine, Slate,  Alibaba was placed on the “Notorious Markets List” of the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative. 

When it comes to buying designer costume (a.k.a. fashion) jewelry, “buyer beware” is the rule of the day. Even seemingly well-curated jewelry collections can be peppered with fakes. You’re on your own when inspecting jewelry, and what you don’t know can hurt you. Sometimes, estate sale operators, auctioneers, and antique dealers might not even know that an item is fake.

If you saw a lovely fashion brooch at a jewelry-heavy estate sale or auction, would you be able to tell if the item was authentic? This vintage over-dyed bakelite monkey brooch tested positive for bakelite with Simichrome Polish and sold for $1650 in November 2016.

If you saw a lovely fashion brooch at a jewelry-heavy estate sale or auction, would you be able to tell if the item was authentic? In this article, I’ll offer a few tools for spotting fakes.

Before I go any further, let me differentiate between costume jewelry and fine jewelry so we share common ground. Typically, fine jewelry is made using gemstones and precious metals. Fine jewelry materials – gold, platinum, diamonds, etc. – have intrinsic value. Costume jewelry is made with a variety of substances, which may or may not include gemstones or precious metals. Costume jewelry materials generally have no intrinsic value; the value of costume jewelry lies in the artfulness of the design and the craftsmanship of the execution.

In some instances, costume jewelry created by famous designers may exceed the value of fine jewelry. Rare and collectible pieces by Trifari, Miriam Haskell, Christian Dior, Chanel, and Hattie Carnegie may sell for thousands of dollars. Curious costume jewelry collectors are advised to build a library of jewelry handbooks, bookmark relevant websites, and subscribe to valuation databases like WorthPoint’s Worthopedia

In some instances, costume jewelry created by famous designers may exceed the value of fine jewelry. This Coppola E. Toppo necklace in the shape of a cocktail tie sold for $1240 in October 2014.

In the meantime, here are four tips for spotting knockoff “vintage” costume jewelry. Your inspection toolkit should include a good magnet, a hand-held ultraviolet light (blacklight) and a magnifying glass.

Here’s what to check for:

  1. Vintage jewelry will show wear on surfaces that come into regular contact with skin or clothing. Generally, metals used to make the jewelry are plated, and plating may wear through, chip, or discolor. Hold the item under a bright light, as if you are wearing it: rings against a finger, necklaces held near your neck. Natural wear marks will show on the inside surfaces of rings and the backs of necklaces. Natural plating rub-through will have soft, feathered edges. Plating chips may be accompanied by a dent. Artificially applied wear marks will have sharper edges and appear in places that shouldn’t be worn.
  2. Clasps and hardware will be consistent with the period. Stones will be set using prongs and/or solder, whereas knockoff stones are generally glued into place. A black light can reveal glued stones that appear to be held in place by prongs. The vintage jewelry blog My Classic Jewelry has several instructive articles on identifying vintage jewelry hardware. 
  3. Is the piece signed? If so, is the designer name cast, die stamped, or engraved? Most authentic vintage marks are die stamped; modern costume jewelry will likely be engraved. Names and marks on knockoff jewelry are often molded into a new piece when it is cast. How do you tell the difference? Cast marks typically show a box or a bar surrounding the name; stamped marks have sharper edges, and engraving resembles a signature. This is one inspection point where a reference book is invaluable; it will show not only what a manufacturer’s mark looks like, but how it was applied. A good reference book for this is Warman’s Costume Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide.
  4. Is it gold or not? Jewelry sellers love to harp on the quality of the gold in their jewelry. If you don’t know the difference between Bonded Gold, Gold Clad, Gold Wash, Gold Filled, and the (roughly) two-dozen other ways of describing gold jewelry, then you will find the magnet test helpful. Gold is a very soft metal, so it is usually mixed with small amounts of other metals to make jewelry, or plated to give the appearance of gold. If a piece can be picked up by a magnet it is certainly plated. Plated jewelry isn’t necessarily of poor quality; remember, the value in vintage costume jewelry is in the design and craftsmanship of the piece, not in the intrinsic value of the materials.

If your purpose in buying vintage costume jewelry is to wear it, and you like the piece, it doesn’t matter if it’s fake or not. If the price is right, buy it, wear it, and enjoy it.


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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