five tips

Reproductions: how to check for authenticity

One of the main challenges with collecting traditional jewelry from North Africa and Southwest Asia is determining the authenticity of the pieces. Many pieces are sold as “antique” or “traditional” when they are actually modern reproductions. But what is ‘authentic’, and how does that show in jewellery? Here are 5 points to consider.

First off, authenticity is a complex issue. Because who determines what ‘authentic’ is? Often, the notion of authenticity is both visual and pinned to a moment in time: this is what it looked like then, and so this is what it is supposed to look like forever. That is often the result of available sources like books and online image searches, as I wrote about here, that provide that reference of what jewellery should look like. But personal adornment is always subject to change, so comparing a piece of jewellery to an image frozen in time is not enough in itself. As I have written earlier, authenticity is not solely dependent on visual aspects, but I believe the intended interaction between the object and people is a vital aspect. [1] Factors such as age, materials, craftsmanship, provenance, motifs, and designs can all be considered when determining the authenticity of a piece. So, what should you look for?

Age and patina: Older jewellery will show signs of age and wear, which can be relevant indicators of authenticity. Scratches, dents, and tarnish may indicate that a piece is authentic and has been used, rather than being a modern reproduction. Additionally, patina can also be an indicator of authenticity. Patina, that soft silk-like shimmer on a piece of jewellery, is difficult to replicate in reproductions, but tarnish can have been artificially inflicted upon a piece as long ago as, well, yesterday. And then there is the fact that there are truly antique pieces out there, that do not necessarily show signs of use and wear. Simply because they might not have been worn frequently or they have been carefully preserved over the years – read all about that phenomenon here.

Signs of use and wear alone are not definitive indicators of authenticity. Therefore, it’s important to consider these signs together with other indicators of authenticity, such as materials and craftsmanship, provenance, motifs and designs, and hallmarks and stamps.

Materials and craftsmanship: Craftsmanship can be a telling sign. Authentic traditional jewelry was made by skilled artisans who used techniques passed down from generations. These techniques, materials and designs are specific to each culture and region, and can be difficult to replicate in reproductions or forgeries. As craftmanship varies even within the same culture and region, and also changes over time like anything else in personal adornment, it is absolutely essential to have a good understanding of the traditional techniques, materials, and designs specific to the culture and region the jewelry is claimed to be from. No piece is created equal, in terms of craftsmanship: some pieces will be more intricate, detailed, and finely made than others. It really depends on the maker, the time period and the intended usage. And as for materials, a main question is whether the material did exist in the period the piece is supposedly from – it would not be the first time you’ll find a necklace with early 20th century trade beads advertised as genuinely 18th century (and that is even without the possibility of the beads themselves being reproduced).

Motifs and designs: Original jewellery often features unique motifs, patterns, and designs that are specific to the culture and region that the jewellery comes from. This is where more research comes in: familiarizing yourself with particular motifs and the execution of those motifs requires lots of reading and, of course, seeing. One of the things I enjoy the most is endless comparing of pieces. And as with many other fields of research, the devil is in the details: the overall composition may be featured in a wide area, but the execution of the details is mostly telling of the exact origin of a piece. Modern reproductions often get those tiny details not quite right, so getting a handle on these is key.

Hallmarks and stamps: Check for the presence of hallmarks or stamps. These may indicate the metal content, maker, and sometimes the date of the piece. As they are mandatory, they can often not be forged (a modern reproduction of an old piece still needs a current hallmark to comply with the law). Checking for hallmarks that are contemporary with the period the piece is supposedly from may help in determining its authenticity. But, be aware that not all pieces are hallmarked, especially older ones. Most countries in North Africa and Southwest Asia only adopted a hallmarking system in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many pieces older than that will not have been hallmarked, or may have been hallmarked only when a piece was eventually sold.

Provenance: And finally, there is the provenance of a piece that may help determine its authenticity. Provenance is the history of a piece of jewellery, and this is where the paperwork comes in. Particularly for older pieces, provenance may help to establish whether a piece is indeed as old as is claimed: are there any sources that will confirm this exact piece has been in a family for decades? With traditional jewellery, this is a difficult path. Many heirloom pieces that are sold do not come with receipts of purchase, as they have been handed down within a family for generations.  And like anything else, provenance can be forged, too: it’s not that difficult to provide an old-looking piece of paper (if it can be done with papyri, it can be done with receipts!).

Determining the authenticity of a piece of jewellery is a process that involves all of these together: the more you familiarize yourself with jewellery through handling, seeing and reading, the easier it will be to distinguish reproductions from authentic pieces!

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[1] Broekhoven & A. Geurds 2013. Creating authenticity : authentication processes in ethnographic museums. Sidestone Press (read online for free)

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.