Heirloom Jewelry: What To Keep And What To Sell

selling heirloom jewelry
Hedda Schupak

By Hedda Schupak | Apr 14th, 2020

“Need tops everything.” 

I got that piece of sage advice from my sister-in-law, a CPA, when the company I used to work for offered all former employees the option to cash out their pensions early. (This is a defined pension, a dinosaur hardly ever heard of anymore.) 

If I took the lump sum payout, would my choice of investment funds be better than the company’s? Or if I started drawing on it early at a lower payout per month, would the additional years ultimately add up to more than I would get by waiting till age 65 and taking a higher per-month payout? 

Since I’m no math whiz, I gave the buyout proposal to my sister-in-law to decode. Her advice was that if we truly needed the extra money, draw it now, but if we could wait and take the larger per-month payout, as we’ll be grateful for the higher income once we’re retired. Thankfully, we’re able to wait.

But if you’re staring at a box of jewelry and deciding whether to keep it or sell it, that’s the first question to ask yourself: do you need the money it will bring? 

heirloom jewelry pieces

If you need money to pay bills, pay down debts, get more education to advance your career or pay for medical care, then by all means do your best to get back to firmer financial footing, including selling any jewelry that can help. (See the “finance” section of Worthy’s blog for lots of great advice.) 

But even if you don’t need the money urgently, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need the money at all: it just means that “need” falls into a more nuanced category. Apart from financial security, selling some (or all) of your jewelry can help to free you from emotional baggage or provide funding for an important new start on the next chapter of your life. Read more about that here and here

The “will I wear it?” question 

Let’s say you don’t need the money and there’s no emotional baggage attached to the piece. It’s just not in style, not your style, or you don’t wear it often or at all. Keep or sell?

First of all, evaluate whether the piece can be changed in some way to make it relevant to you. Can a less-than-popular diamond shape, such as a marquise, be re-set east-west in a matte yellow gold bezel instead of the typical north-south white gold prongs? Instant update and very current

Can a heavy omega chain be mixed with an assortment of other gold chains in different weights and widths for the modern layered look? Check out this video to see how gold necklaces we thought were left in the ‘80s look modern again! 


Can Granny’s brooch be broken apart so you can use the stones in a new pendant and remember her that way? Beware, not everything can.

heirloom jewelry pieces 2

If there’s truly no good way to reinvent the piece, then maybe it’s time to let it go. But how to sort it out? Think about how you pare your wardrobe. There’s no shortage of methods, ranging from the Marie Kondo dump-it-all-on-the-bed system to turning a hanger around every time you wear something, so that at the end of a year you can just toss whatever you haven’t worn. Great idea—if your routine and your weather never change. But if you don’t know from one winter to the next if you can go out in a leather moto jacket and fashion boots or you’ll be swaddled to the eyeballs in a puffer coat and Timberlands, it isn’t the best method. 

To clean my closet, I ask myself three questions of each item in my wardrobe:

  1. If I were trying this on in the store for the first time, would I buy it?
  2. Would I be glad I’m wearing this if I ran into an ex, a business colleague, an old classmate, a “frenemy,” or anyone else I want to see only when I look and feel my absolute best?
  3. Does this fit my lifestyle at all? Even occasionally?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” for me, that’s compelling enough reason to get rid of it. If it’s not a style I like anymore, if it doesn’t fit the way I want it to fit, or make me feel the way I want to feel, then I’ll consign it or donate it.

It’s a little tougher with jewelry. Because it’s small and doesn’t take up a lot of space, it’s tempting to keep it. But three questions to ask are:

  1. Does it fit or is it uncomfortable when I wear it? Does the earring pull or pinch, is the ring hard to get on and off, the bracelet too tight, and so on? There are solutions—such as retrofitting a ring with a hinged opening—but if there’s no way to have a jeweler adjust the piece so that it’s comfortable to wear, you’re not going to wear it, plain and simple.
  2. Can I put it on without help? There are a lot of hacks, such as the paper clip/bracelet trick, or ask a jeweler to put a bigger or easier-to-work clasp on a necklace. A flat plastic disc or little piece of surgical tape can hold a saggy earring upright, and so on. But if there’s no solution, you’re unlikely to wear it.
  3. Realistically, am I going to wear this? Do I like it? Does it work with any of my clothes? Do I go to any events that it’s appropriate to wear? Can I type or talk on the phone or does it get in the way and I’m always taking it off and tossing it on my desk? In these cases, my suggestion is to keep a few favorites for special occasions and let go of the rest.

Or it can simply be that you’d much rather have a new countertop than Granny’s old diamond brooch. If you loved Granny but not her taste in jewelry, you might be struggling over what to do about it.

In case you’re feeling guilty about parting with it, read this article that author Debbie Reslock posted earlier this year on the Worthy blog. To summarize: the memories, love, and sentiment lie within us, not within the actual pieces. If you’ll wear the piece occasionally—even if only for special occasions—then it’s worth keeping. Likewise if you cherish it and want to pass it down yourself. But if it’s just sitting in a box and will never see the light of day, she offers a few other ideas for celebrating the memory of the loved one who left it to you: 

Read her full post here.

How do you determine what to keep and what to sell? 

Some great tips are in this article, which author Kait Schulhof posted earlier this year on Worthy.com. She adapts the KonMari method to cleaning out your jewelry collection. 

Schulhof advises doing the same dump-it-all-in-a-pile approach Kondo advocates. Then sort it by type, keep what sparks joy, thank what doesn’t and get rid of it. You can thank Granny’s diamond brooch for bringing joy to Granny, and for its role in allowing you to get a gorgeous new kitchen—and you’ll likely think fondly of your granny every time you are cooking on your new countertop.

“If we can repurpose or sell the jewelry and use the money to find another way to remember or bring enjoyment, surely that is an acceptable gift that we can give back to them,” says Reslock of departed loved ones.

Like Reslock, Schulhof suggests asking family members first if they want any heirloom jewelry you don’t. If there are no takers, then you feel no guilt about getting rid of it. 

But wait, you might say. If it’s mine and I would like to use the money for something else, can’t I do that guilt-free instead of offering it to family? Yes, you can, says Schulhof. (Offering it up is not a requirement, just a way to deal with any guilt you might already have about getting rid of it in the first place.)

Finally, I asked a friend how jewelers address this issue. Laura Stanley is an AGS jeweler in Little Rock, AR, who has been dealing with buying and selling jewelry since she was old enough to peer over the counter in her family’s store. Now in her own business as a private jeweler, she still often deals with clients struggling to decide what to do with jewelry they don’t wear. Her advice? Selling is fine, just think twice before committing.

“I tell everyone that if they have even the remotest interest in a piece, they should keep it, because if it’s sentimental it can’t ever be replaced.” 

Beyond that, she says gold prices are up now, so if you’re thinking about selling old heavy pieces that look dated, now is a good time to do it. She recently had a client sell an old gold-nugget watchband and use the money toward a diamond piece she liked better.

Signed and period pieces also are good to sell if they don’t appeal to the owner because they can go for good money, says Stanley.

Hedda Schupak

Hedda Schupak

Hedda Schupak is an editor and analyst in the fine jewelry industry who has covered trends in the luxury fine jewelry industry for more than 33 years.


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