How to Buy Vintage Jewelry at Thrift Stores

Hi all! It’s getting colder and colder as we get into the Fall season here in Boston. That means soon everyone will be bundled and swathed in puffy coats, scarves, and sweaters. Cold weather dressing can be a bit…boring (colorful xmas sweaters aside) to put it bluntly. Instead of sacrificing fashion for warmth, however, cold weather season is the perfect time to break out some serious jewelry. Today’s post covers some ways and places to score great jewelry at even better prices.

The interwebs abound with stories of people finding (literal) gold at thrift stores for mere dollars. Hats off to those intrepid souls! Most people though, don’t have the time, energy, or know-how to sift through thrift store jewelry bundles for those treasures. Realistically, it’s probably best to keep expectations low when shopping for jewelry at thrift stores – shop for yourself, not some imagined windfall!

Housing Works rings

These rings are from a Housing Works jewelry sale (UWS location in NYC). No maker’s marks, definitely not a precious metal, though the silver one is marked sterling. Even so, they make excellent and understated rings for everyday wear – they cost about $8-15 each.

Tip #1: Try It On

You can spend hours looking at the jewelry cases in thrift stores. Because there are often no bright lights making things shiny like a retail jewelry stores, thrift stores are one place where jewelry can look better out of the case than in. This means even if nothing initially catches your eye, ask a sales associate to take some things out of the case. Rings are especially easy because they’re often put together in a foam insert pad. Take a few moments to try on some of the rings – what looks good on the pad might not on your hand and vice versa. It’s the fastest and most effective way to tell when you’ve found a winner.

Sterling ring

This sterling ring is from Housing Works in Brooklyn, NYC. Unlike gold, sterling silver is a bit easier to find in thrift stores. They will often be priced a bit higher as even thrift store employees know to look for markings (this was priced around $20). Because sterling jewelry is often pretty tarnished in thrift stores, I usually carry a small microfiber cloth in my wallet – like the one you use to clean your eyeglasses. These cloths are perfect for a quick shining of sterling jewelry. Obviously, make sure it’s okay with the sales associate before doing anything to the jewelry.

Tip #2: Weigh that Jewelry!

This is another reason why trying on jewelry is the essential first step. Sterling has an obvious heft to it but even non-sterling costume jewelry should not feel like plastic when you’re wearing it. Those light as air piece of jewelry might look shiny in direct light, but most will not stand up to even light wear. It might sound paradoxical, but too light jewelry often feels foreign or itchy on your skin, because there’s no weight anchoring it! With a little weight and the right shape, a ring or necklace can feel like a natural extension of your body.


The ring of the top right is a classic Tiffany 1837 ring while the one of the bottom right is a Napier sterling ring from the 1950s. The earrings are also sterling by Lisa Jenks. These rings were a bit pricier than normal thrift store jewelry – and that’s due to the maker’s marks. Any jewelry by a famous maker will cost more – and with the information readily available on the internet, most thrift store associates do their due diligence and price accordingly. Sometimes you can still get a good deal, especially if the item has been in the store long enough. For example, I got the sterling Lisa Jenks earrings at Second Time Around on Newbury St. for less than $50.

Tip #3: Maker’s Marks Matter but they’re not everything

It’s an eternal battle: maker’s marks connote quality and value but also usually mean higher than normal prices. I’m in the camp that says a few quality pieces from well-respected designers can be worth the price. But it’s not everything. The sterling ring in the second photo is not marked. And much of the jewelry in the photo below is also unmarked. No maker’s mark doesn’t mean the jewelry isn’t worth it, it’s absence just means it’s even more important for you to try on the jewelry and see if it fits you. Aside from maker’s marks, jewelry can also have hallmarks denoting the purity of the metal content, i.e. sterling, gold, etc. There’s a pretty big list here of silver marks from around the world. Gold marks also vary across the world, from the U.S. to U.K.

online jewelry

Browsing jewelry in a thrift store can be a fun experience in and of itself, regardless if you walk out with your next go-to piece of jewelry. As you get more serious about jewelry, though, you may find better luck in the broader secondhand market, namely online. These rings are from RubyLane.

Tip #4: Buy Online – But Carefully

Sites like RubyLane are usually more expensive than Ebay, but they’re also more curated and less populated with fakes. You’re often buying from brick and mortar secondhand jewelry stores with established reputations versus the soup that is Ebay. You also, ostensibly, get more value for your money – i.e. fine jewelry vs. costume jewelry. RubyLane has red tag sale events, where items can be 50% off. Some sellers are also open to negotiation, you can always make an offer if you think the list price is too high. Buying online is riskier than in person – what looks good in the photos might not translate in reality. So check if there’s a return policy (and if there’s a restocking fee) – a luxury you don’t get at thrift stores. I also like to add jewelry to my cart but not check out for a few days to avoid impulse purchases. In general, I suggest going online for jewelry only if you have experience buying jewelry secondhand and know in general what looks good on you, what you’re looking for, etc. If you are very familiar with a particular maker, you may also consider Ebay, especially if it’s an older piece that is less likely to be faked.

That’s all for today dear readers. Love to hear your tips or stories about thrifting jewelry in the comments below!

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