When someone dies and leaves you jewelry, there may be sentimental value attached to it. You might be entrusted to safeguard family heirlooms for future generations or expected to divide them up for the estate of the deceased. Perhaps you want to hold onto some as keepsakes. Alternatively, the jewelry may have been left to you as a valuable resource that can help with, say, the down payment on your first home.

Of course, just because a piece is old doesn't necessarily mean it's valuable in a financial sense. It might be a coveted collector’s item today, or it may have fallen out of style, diminishing its worth. Other factors, such as today’s gemstone and precious metal prices, quality of workmanship, and the particular manufacturer or designer will also figure into its value. And don’t dismiss costume jewelry; some pieces are worth more than you might think.

Regardless of what you plan to do with the inherited jewelry, one of your first priorities should be to determine its value, in part so you can insure it for the proper amount, if necessary. That means getting a professional appraisal.

Key Takeaways

  • If you've inherited potentially valuable jewelry, one of your first priorities should be having it appraised.
  • To find an appraiser, contact one or more of the major associations that require their members to meet certain standards and adhere to a code of ethics.
  • Because gems and precious metals can fluctuate in value, consider having the jewelry reappraised every few years.

How to Find an Appraiser

Pretty much anyone can claim to be a jewelry appraiser; there are no federal or state licensing requirements the way there are for real-estate appraisers. So it’s largely on you to determine whether an appraiser is equipped to evaluate your inherited items. That involves more than heading to the nearest jewelry store, since simply working in the industry doesn’t qualify an individual as an appraiser. What’s more, most jewelry retailers don’t have their own gem lab or the instruments required to properly examine a stone and determine its quality. 

There are, however, a number of industry groups that require their members to meet certain qualifications and adhere to a code of ethics. You can locate an appraiser in your area by visiting the following websites, listed here in alphabetical order:

Aside from having a recognized qualification, the appraiser should also be a graduate gemologist (GG) of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Having a gemological degree means that an individual can identify and grade gem materials. However, it does not, in itself, provide the training required to become a jewelry appraiser. An appraiser should also be knowledgeable about the current jewelry market.

What to Expect From an Appraisal

A competent appraisal, according to the American Society of Appraisers, should:

  • State clearly the purpose that the appraisal was performed to fulfill (insurance coverage, estate distribution, etc.)
  • Specify and define the type of value provided (replacement cost, fair market value, marketable cash value, etc.)
  • Specify the effective date of the appraisal
  • State any circumstances that limited the performance of the appraisal
  • Describe the jewelry in the detail appropriate to the type of appraisal performed
  • Include images of the jewelry (except when it has been lost or destroyed)
  • Explain the procedures used to arrive at a value
  • Be signed by the appraiser and include their contact information
  • Describe the qualifications of the appraiser 

An appraisal should not only put a dollar value on each item of jewelry but also provide a detailed description of it and, if possible, include photos.

The Bottom Line

Putting a value on inherited heirlooms requires a qualified professional. To find an appraiser in your area, contact one of the major industry associations listed above for names. Don't hesitate to ask potential appraisers, “What qualifies you to value this type of property?”

Be prepared to pay a premium given the specialist training and equipment required for the job. Costs can range from about $50 to $75 per item or $50 to $150 or more per hour, depending on the items and nature of the appraisal. And given that the prices of precious metals tend to fluctuate dramatically, appraisals should be carried out every few years to keep your insurance coverage up to date. Should you decide to sell your inherited jewelry, knowing its value will also help you obtain a fair price for it.