x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

View from Here: think before melting jewellery for cash

The value of your bauble depends on not only what it's made of; it also comes down to whether it can be called a piece of art.

Antique jewellery can be worth more than its weight in gold.
Antique jewellery can be worth more than its weight in gold.

The prices of gold and its poorer cousin silver continue to go north.

So is it time to take granny's old wedding ring and melt it down?

This depends on who you ask. The value of your bauble depends on not only what it's made of; it also comes down to whether it can be called a piece of art. The difference between art and trinket is as wide as that between the meat patty Damien Hirst has for lunch and the carved-up cow he sells to art collectors for millions.

Figuring out the difference can be tricky. Elkan Wijnberg, who describes himself an "antique jewellery addict", is a man of expensive tastes. He runs a dealership in Antwerp, Belgium, and was kind enough to chat over the phone about the issue.

Anyone who can reach into a drawer and pull out a handful of rings, none of which cost less than US$20,000 (Dh73,460) is worth listening to. He owns pieces that date to the time when our ancestors thought the moon was a really large lump of cheese in the sky, so he knows what he is talking about.

His job, he says, is to try to rescue as much old fine jewellery as possible. It's a race against time.

"It's understandable that people want to turn jewellery into money," he says. "You can't be a museum and if you need the money, you need the money."

Jewellery, he says, is valued in two ways: according to the worth of its materials and by its craftsmanship. While figuring out how many carats are in a piece is not especially challenging, placing a value on the artwork is an entirely different story.

Unfortunately, many jewellers don't bother. They settle for liberating the gold and silver from its earthly form, happy to close a deal.

But it's also not the case that everything shiny can be called "art". Much of what is available in the souqs is really just fashioned gold, says Mr Wijnberg. People buy it for investment value and expect to melt it down, sooner or later.

As a result, the work is rudimentary and not of especially high quality, he sniffs. But if you are unsure, take it to a reputable dealer, who can judge the aesthetics of the piece.

Someone who would agree is Andrew Geoghegan, a jeweller in London, whose works are worn by the kind of gal who might find herself on the arm of a football star.

"One period of jewellery and art which continues to inspire me no end is art deco," he says. Indeed, the style, developed in Paris in the 1920s, has stood the test of time.

Today, many jewellers look to that era for inspiration.

But it was only in the 1960s that art deco came to be truly appreciated.

So who is to say that modern jewellery is not a deco-in-waiting? Much of what is now being chucked into the smelters' pot could be worth preserving.

"A piece of jewellery, in my opinion, is not just about how it looks on the finger. It becomes a sculptural form and a testament to the skill of the designer, goldsmith and stone setter," says Mr Geoghegan. He hopes, a touch optimistically, that pawnbrokers and dealers distinguish between art and bling before consigning jewellery to the flames.

The Bedouin produced jewellery for centuries, but hardly a craftsman is left these days and much of what they bequeathed us has been destroyed. Often, these items are melted down and remade into something more in keeping with modern taste. This is a shame.

One collector, who specialises in Soviet-era jewellery, says finding quality pieces from that era is now almost impossible because much of it had been melted down and exchanged for consumer goods over the past couple of decades.

I'd guess that most people, like me, did not even know the austere Communists had a jewellery tradition. They did, but its legacy is rapidly being traded in for iPods and BMWs.

And it's not just jewellery; tens of thousands of old US gold coins have been melted down in recent years, dealers complain. The famous Morgan silver dollar, minted by the millions in the late 19th century, is now virtually nonexistent. Today, you'd have to pay about $700 for one - truly, bang for a buck.

It may be that choker sitting under a pile of old clothes in your drawer is worthless. And it could make sense to have it melted down and turned into cash. But first, ask someone who knows. You never know.


Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.