What makes a piece of jewelry worthy of being called “heirloom-quality” and what is meant by the term? Simply speaking, heirloom jewelry is recognized as jewelry that is passed down through generations, where as a “heirloom-quality” piece may or may not be passed down but exhibits several principle qualities that one should expect from jewelry meant to withstand many many years of wear. An heirloom-quality piece is best described as high-end jewelry exhibiting quality materials, precise craftsmanship and solid construction. The most precious heirloom jewelry also exhibits unique design, special treatment and sentimental value. This two-part article will help readers distinguish between precious pieces meant to be treasured for a lifetime and pieces that are less valuable.
The most obvious characteristic of heirloom-quality jewelry is that it is constructed with quality materials. Such materials may include but are not limited to high-karat gold, fine and sterling silver, platinum, precious and semi-precious stones, and organic gems.
The precious metals gold, silver and platinum, are valued for their rarity and beauty. Although they are malleable, these metals are remarkably resistant to corrosion, which makes them highly desirable for jewelry making.
Pure gold is measured as 24-karat and is generally considered too soft to be worn as jewelry, therefore it is commonly alloyed with other metals such as copper, silver and titanium to strengthen it. The result is gold of varying karats and shades, and generally the higher the gold content the more precious the piece is considered to be. In the U.S., 14-karat gold is predominant. In Europe, 18 karat is most common, and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, 22- or 24-karat gold is the standard. On high-end jewelry, the karat content is usually stamped on the piece.
Silver is the most plentiful of all precious metals, and when given a high polish, its reflective properties are unrivaled. It has been perhaps the most sought-after precious metal throughout the ages, likely due to its durability in combination with its beauty. One of the secrets of silver is that it easily flatters all skin tones. Though it is more durable than pure gold, like gold, pure silver on its own is too soft to be worn as jewelry. Sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. This combination strengthens silver while retaining its precious metal properties.
Platinum’s popularity as high-end jewelry began more than 2,000 years ago in South American Indian cultures and like silver, it is prized for its highly reflective color. Another defining feature of platinum is its durability, which is unsurpassed by any of the other precious metals. Even the most delicate of styles fashioned with platinum permanently retain their shape; this allows jewelry artists extensive creative freedom when forming intricate pieces. Most platinum jewelry is manufactured with at least 85 percent pure platinum. Palladium, ruthenium and iridium, which are also members of the platinum family, are often alloyed with platinum to enhance its brilliance and durability.
Beside metal, heirloom-quality jewelry can feature a variety of skillfully set stones and organic materials. These materials can range from the very expensive and rare to the semi-precious and lusciously colored. What is most important is how well these materials are incorporated into the overall design and how securely they are set into the piece. Just because a 5-karat diamond is slapped into an 18-karat gold ring does not mean it qualifies as heirloom-quality.
Expensive gems such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires represent precious stones. Although diamonds enjoy instant recognition as being rare and precious, sapphires are theoretically four times as rare as diamonds. Sapphires are very durable, second only to diamonds in hardness and sometimes come in rarer colors than blue, called “fancies” or “party colors. Treasured by the ancient Inca and Aztecs, emeralds are the most valuable precious stone in the world – by weight. Colombian emeralds are among the world’s most beautiful, prized for their undiluted pristine green. Incredibly deep red luster is the signature of the gorgeous ruby with the finest and rarest being referred to as “pigeons blood” due to their unsurpassed intense red color.
Semi-precious stones are by definition more plentiful than their higher priced relatives and are primarily valued for their beauty. Examples of semiprecious stones include turquoise, amethyst, bloodstone, cubic zirconia, garnet, onyx and opal. Although coral and pearl aren’t technically stones, they are considered semi-precious as well.
Other materials considered semi-precious include amber, ivory, fossils and exotic woods. These materials are often referred to as “organic gems” and present a unique and unusual treatment for jewelry of distinction. Amber is fossilized pine tree sap, most of which comes from the Baltic states of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Ivory can come from a variety of animals including prehistoric mammoths, but for centuries elephant ivory was the most prized. In an effort to conserve species decimated by the ivory trade, international bans on ivory were enacted making it a criminal offense to slaughter an animal simply for it’s tusks. Of course, caches of ivory taken before the initiation of world-wide bans still exists, this is referred to as “pre-ban ivory” and while its use is legal many scrupulous jewelers opt to use ivory alternatives instead. One such alternative is the hard fruit of the Ivory Nut Palm, which has a remarkable resemblance to mammal ivory.
In part two of this article we will examine the importance of high-end craftsmanship, sentimental value and the proper care for a highly treasured piece.