December 27, 2011

Dividing the jewelry of an estate between heirs: tips from a jeweler

Posted in appraisal, birthstones, brooches, diamonds, estate jewelry, gemstones, gold, jeweler, jewelry, rose diamonds, silver tagged , , , , , , , , , at 5:26 pm by rosediamonds

We are about to enter the season of New Year’s resolutions.  The fair and equitable division of jewelry from an estate is an issue that has come up time and time again.  I have compiled a list of tips and suggestions that have worked best for our clients over the years.

Here’s the situation: a loved one passes away to leave a collection of jewelry that does not divide equally.  For example, it could be

  • a vintage (not gold) brooch
  • a small sapphire ring
  • a huge amethyst ring
  • a diamond solitaire pendant
  • a multiple stone diamond engagement ring

How do the heirs divide this up equally when the values are very unequal?

How Things are Valued

We explain that there are different values:

Sentimental value-does not make a piece worth more $ but if the brooch was worn every year at Christmas dinner by a favorite aunt, it becomes more valuable to the heirs because of the memory it envokes.

Insurance value-this is retail replacement value or in the case of a vintage or custom pieces, it is a value for replacement with a comparable item.  If lost or stolen, an insurance company will pay out this amount to have the piece replaced.  This amount should be recalculated every few years as the prices of gold and gemstones fluctuate with the world market.  For example, a pair of gold earrings that you bought for $30 five years ago would now cost $90+.

Scrap value-this is the amount a jewelry store or pawn shop will pay you for the items to be broken down into parts.  The metal smelted and refined while the stones will be used for repairs or sold to a dealer.  (We use old gemstones in our mini gem museum or gemology classes)

How to Divide Things

( I am just making up the names to these rules btw).  How well these rules go will depend on your family’s personalities.  You know what I’m talking about.

  1. Read the will–wills are a pain in the neck to create, so if the loved one went so far to write out a legal document saying the peridot bracelet goes to cousin Ed’s neighbor’s mailman’s cousin–respect it.  This is what they wanted.
  2. The rule of return to owner–If you gave mom the diamond earrings for her birthday, they can be reasonably returned to you.
  3. The rule of favorite ONE item–Let each member pick out their one favorite piece from the collection.  ex. if your sister wore mom’s sapphire ring at her wedding as something blue, she might have a stronger sentimental tie to it than the rest of the family.
  4. The rule of equal parts–Take all jewelry of an estate (you’ll get a better rate if it all goes in one trip) to an appraiser.  Split the items as close to equal as possible or have people “buy out” for favored pieces.  You can also interpret this as dividing up a three stone ring between three kids, diamond earrings between two kids, or everyone getting 2 bracelets etc.

Inevitably, some jewelry will be considered “leftover.”  Costume pieces can be donated to charity, while the remaining precious metal jewelry can be sold (scrap value) and the proceeds equally divided.

Planning In Advance

If the idea of your family squabbling over your jewelry/possessions in general turns your stomach, here’s a few ways to minimalize the chaos.

  1. Invite loved ones over (one at a time) and show the collection.  Say you’ll consider special requests–who knew your son always liked your coin pendant?  This gives you the opportunity to tell the recipient the stories and history behind the jewelry they’ve chosen.  These stories are priceless and many times lost.
  2. Go another step and distribute the pieces before your death so you can see others enjoying them.  TELL people of you mind if the pieces are redesigned.  I know a lot of women that have inherited jewelry in a drawer somewhere at home because they don’t want to offend Mama be redoing her yellow gold abstract retro ring…
  3. Update your will if you are expecting a confrontation, or would like to avoid one.  A written history of the history and stories of the pieces would also be appreciated.  One day your bracelet from your college days when you dated the president could be on antiques roadshow–you never know!  Update often if there are…changes in family status in your family.  This is a very common thing nowadays, and you might not want grandama’s ring bequeathed to “that hussy that ran off with the mailman.”

Try to keep your sense of humor and an envelope of calm around you when dealing with this situation no matter the side you are on.  A good jewelry appraiser should ask you a lot of questions about how you want things evaluated and it might be a good idea to make a family meeting together with the appraiser so everyone can have their say.  Emotions run high in these situations, but inherited jewelry remains one of the most sentimnentally charged items you can have.



  1. Victoria L said,

    A piece of jewelry’s most endearing quality is the story that comes with it which makes the wedding band and such favored pieces a powerful dispute when reading a will. This article is great advice. Also, if you send the will to everyone while you are still alive you can head off most disputes. When I sent my will to my stepdaughter, she told me that I didn’t have anything of value anyway. So, my $7K gold wedding band with 14 marquises diamonds surrounding a solitaire goes to my grand-daughter (since it is of NO value anyway-right?).

    • Michele said,

      Sounds right to me! Do put it in writing — legally. My relative didn’t and sadly everything is a disaster thanks to a manipulative Trustee.

  2. John said,

    My issue is how to separate the costume from valuable jewelry. We have box loads and I suspect most is not valuable. If we find an independent jeweler who says they will be happy to appraise it all, won’t they want us to leave it with them-it could take days. Who can you trust?


    • rosediamonds said,

      You can try to identify the marks on jewelry yourself. It takes patience and a good magnifier. Most jewelry is stamped either 10K, 14K, or 417 585 750. Be careful about G. E. and G. F. 1/20 markings.

      If you want professional help, most independent (not chain) jewelers will help you sort through your jewelry for you. This is especially true if the jeweler is advertising that they buy or trade in gold. Many chain stores do not have a trained sales staff to handle this sort of thing well(accurately). A word of advice: don’t ask for an appraisal for the jewelry. Appraisals (written by a Graduate Gemologist) are for insurance or probate typically, and will run you around $75 most places. Simply ask them to help you sort the gold and silver from the costume. We do this for free at our stores.

  3. Great post! Been reading a lot about what to do with this sort of jewelry. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. LALA said,

    My mother had alot of jewelry and me and my two sisters went thru it after her death. It was all very cordial. We wanted to give some to the two neices. We went peice by peice and came across a wide gold bracelet we actuallly passed around and said, that is ugly, no one wanted it, we put it in the pile for her 25 year old neice to have with other things. Turns out the bracelet was 18 k gold and worth 7K. But we were not upset, she could keep it or sell it we didn’t care. It’s all in the family anyway!

    • rosediamonds said,

      That’s the right attitude:)

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