Some of the best places to find great vintage costume jewelry are thrift shops. You’ve seen the big stores – Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers…and then there are the charity shops run by churches and non-profits. All of them receive donated jewelry, and I have found some amazing pieces in thrift shops. It seems to me that the larger chain shops have better prices than the smaller charity shops, but it really depends on who is pricing the jewelry when they put it out for sale. Some shop employees are very savvy about values, but some aren’t and they often price jewelry very low. Maybe they figure that if it isn’t real gold it isn’t worth much. Good for us!
Thrift shop shopping has lost the stigma of being just junk shops or places where the down-and-out shop.
A great tip is to become friendly with the staff of the shops that you visit. One clerk lets me rummage through the jewelry bins before she prices them and puts them out on the floor. Another lets me know when they get a large amount of jewelry donated.
Find out when the shop has their specials. One store in my town has a 30% Senior discount on Wednesdays. Guess which day is my shopping day!
Sometimes the shop management will put a large amount of jewelry in a plastic bag and sell the bag for a fixed price. If you find these, examine the bag as closely as you can – you won’t be allowed to open it, and there’s lots of junk in there, mostly stuff that didn’t sell, and often lots of plastic Mardi Gras beads. I bought these bags a few times, and it was fun sorting through everything, but I wound up donating most of it to a nursing home for crafts projects. I have found a few really nice pieces this way, but I don’t think it was really worth the time and trouble.
Most thrift shops have a glass case where they keep the better stuff. Ask to see pieces that interest you, and examine them closely. Look closely at the racks where they usually hang the cheaper stuff. I found a sterling silver Native American belt buckle, with a turquoise stone in it and signed by the artist, hanging in a zip lock bag on a rack. I bought it for $2.80 and sold it on eBay for $52! It was badly tarnished, but I polished it up and it was beautiful.
There always seem to be lots of watches in those cases. Beware of copies of famous makes, and buy only name brands that you recognize. Make sure the band is in good condition and that there are no scratches on the crystal. The watch probably won’t be working, so plan to spend $5 to $7 for a battery. If you’re buying for resale, be sure to include the cost of a battery to see if the watch is worth buying. You’re taking a chance there – it might not work even after a new battery is installed.
Whether you are buying jewelry for your own collection or for resale, there are several things to look for when examining thrift shop jewelry.
1. Condition, condition, condition: You are going to come across all kinds of jewelry in all kinds of condition. Look for broken clasps, missing stones, worn metal finishes, and any green material on gold tone jewelry. The green stuff is corrosion, and it can’t be cleaned off. Pass on that one. Check that stone settings are tight, and if they aren’t, be careful with the piece – you should be able to tighten them. If the piece is dirty you can clean it. Bring a jeweler’s loupe or strong magnifying glass so you can examine the piece closely.
2. Is the piece signed? The name on the back of a pin or earring, on the clasp of a necklace or bracelet, or on an earring clip is the “signature” of the designer. Signed pieces can be more valuable than unsigned, but there are also many many “unsigned beauties” out there. Look for the name, and if there is a copyright symbol ©, that means the piece was made after about 1955. No symbol – you probably have a real vintage piece. Look for the numbers 925 on silver jewelry – that means it’s sterling silver, and if the price is right, you’ve got a steal.
3. Price: It’s hard to put a price on thrift shop jewelry – the cheaper, the better, of course! I try not to spend more than $3 for a pin, bracelet, necklace or pair of earrings. You might come across something really spectacular that costs more, and if you think you can profit from it, or you want it for yourself, go ahead and buy it. A good rule of thumb when shopping thrift shops is this: If you like it but aren’t sure, set yourself a limit, say $5. If it turns out to be not so great, you’re not out that much. As mentioned, some thrift shop employees know more about jewelry, and will price some pieces too high for you to sell and make a profit. But there seems to be quite a bit of employee turnover in these shops, so the next person pricing jewelry might not be as knowledgeable.
After Christmas is a good time to pick up Christmas jewelry. Some shops will mark down holiday items to get rid of them, other shops just store them away for next year.
I love shopping at thrift shops – just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Every trip is a treasure hunt. Some days are slim pickin’s, but some days are very rewarding. Just yesterday I got 10 pieces for $15 – several are sterling silver, and one piece may be jade – I’m still not sure.
Be consistent in your thrift shop shopping. Try to go out every week, and find out when the shops have their special promotions. Most of the large chain shops put out new merchandise all day long, some other shops restock on certain days. Find out when those are, and get there early.
Read books about costume jewelry, and become knowledgeable, so when you shop the thrift shops you’ll be armed with information. Have fun with it, get to know the thrift shop staff, and you’ll come home with some fabulous jewelry at fabulous prices.