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Feature Article

Value Guide Books: Worth Buying or Not?

Dateline: 02/20/02

Seen any good jewelry value guide books lately? Perhaps you indulged in a few new acquisitions during the holidays or were lucky enough to get one or two as gifts?
The most fun we can have with these books is to locate something we already own and check the book value. Not that we actually believe its purported "worth," but we can feel smug anyway, especially if we didn't pay anywhere near the book-listed price.

Why shouldn't we believe book values?

There are many reasons, some to follow here. But, first, suffice it to state that many great books have been written on costume jewelry collecting, with fine photos, excellent descriptions.

Often they include a socalled value guide, sometimes updated in newer printings, so that we should be able to gauge values of our collections.

Books are an excellent investment for studying styles, learning to tell quality from junk, the rare from the common, and being able to spot good things when out and about shopping for more collectible finds.

The trouble with some of the older books, especially those published a dozen years or more ago, although great for recognizing styles and identifying names, is that the values listed in them have nothing to do with today's market values.

Want to know why we can't rely on these old book "values?"

Because they were often obtained by the authors from the owner-collectors themselves, not from an actual sold-for price or a clubdown price at an auction, or any averaged market price for the particular item or style.

A price guide author would often ask a collector,

How much is your brooch worth?
But the collector had no idea. She had perhaps received the brooch as a gift, or bought it reasonably at a local sale, flea market, many many years ago. It was not considered valuable by any means at that time, but now it is collectible.

So the author may have rephrased the question thusly,

What would you sell it for today?
But, again, the owner wouldn't know that either. Furthermore, he or she may not have been interested in selling it at all.

The author needs an approximate value to list in the book, thus tries again to get some kind of value answer to enter:

But, if you were to sell it, how much would you want for it?
Aha. The answer could now be:
A lot!

Which is why the same jewelry piece may appear in different value guides at wildly ranging values, anywhere from $35. to $3,500., as an extreme example.

Parure in faux aventurine rhinestones by Kramer, c:a 1960s*

How do we know which is the real value?

Honestly? We really don't. It's well to remember that there is no such thing as a real value in collectible costume jewelry.

There is only one type of value, a perceived value:

How Much Someone Is Willing To Pay At One Given Time in One Individual Instance.
A once-sold-for price is not enough to determine individual value. Similar pieces selling for similar amounts narrow the range to approximate asking prices.

Condition, availability in one market vs. another market, and collector desirability, individual customer profiles, influence asking and selling prices regardless of what one piece sold for at one time, not to mention the differences in pricing between wholesale and retail.

Today's going market prices are what dealers use for price guides, adjusting for the criteria just mentioned, often adjusting several times over any given period or season.

Experienced sellers definitely do not rely on outdated value guide books where listed pieces are "evaluated" by owner-collectors who are not interested in selling, or have a vested interest in realizing top dollar for minimum investment. They often grab sky-high figures from the top of their heads when asked how much, in the smug knowledge that their jewelry will now be "in the book" with its listed "value" appearing as a benchmark in black and white for all to read and quote.

If books "values" are so unreliable, why would we need the books, you asked?

For the first reasons: Identification, recognition, education.

So, please, buy books. Read them, educate yourself to all the wonderful jewelry shown in them, but never put total stock in the socalled values listed.

If you do, and then try to apply these values to your collection in collector circles, you will immediately be recognized as an amateur collector and perhaps feel uncomfortable around more seasoned collectors as your lack of study shows. You therefore need the books but also need to continually study the prevalent market for jewelry similar to yours so you will have a realistic grasp of current prices.

So as not to disrespect all value guide books, older or not, it must be noted that all books are not alike. Some list very market-sensible values, often in ranges, from-to, good for a general idea. And not all authors asked the collectors "what's it worth to you" questions either. They did thorough market research, are often collectors and/or dealers themselves, with a good grip on the fluctuating market pulse.

If their values are still a little on the "high side" in your considered judgment, do bear in mind that the values listed are often averaged from high to low market prices.

If, f.ex., New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles are considered high-priced markets, then Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Rhode Island (where costume jewelry is made and plentiful) markets can be considered on the lower end of the value scale.

An average value is thus set, either by calculating one or shown as a from-to range.


1. Always buy the newest books. Their value guides are the most reliable for approximate market values, usually averaged out among many markets. This tip doesn't mean that you should disregard older books entirely. They contain much good information about styles, eras, often pictures, of great historical and research interest. Just don't trust the socalled values noted in them.

2. Compare one book with another. Their authors may have looked at similar pieces at different times, in different geographical areas, even different type markets, such as a big city fine antiques/collectibles shop vs. a small fleamarket style mall in the countryside. Their research sources are reflected in the evaluations. There will still be a wide value range, but perhaps you can arrive at a general evaluation that seems reasonable for your area, clientel, type shop or other selling venue.

3. If you are selling, you may want to start with your own best evaluation based on what you have studied. If your jewelry sold immediately, you were either very very lucky or too reasonable on the price. If you start too high, and find no customers, you may either not have found the very collector who loves what you have (at that price) or you may never find him or her. You can then lower your price to the price resistance level for that type of jewelry for your area and type customer. A few sales later, you will know how it works.

Happy Studies!

For lots of practical advice on evaluating your jewelry, check out the articles linked in:

Buy and Sell Tips

and jewelry reference books of all types:

Jewelry Bookstore Online

*The bracelet only is pictured in Costume Jewelers--The Golden Age of Design, by Joanne Dubbs Ball, Schiffer Publs., 1990, p. 149, bottom. Bracelet book value: $100-145. Entire parure as shown above was sold in 1996 for retail price of $235.00, in excellent condition. Only the necklace was signed KRAMER of NY, the other pieces were not.

Photos by Liz Bryman or as credited.

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