Talking to gemologists is always interesting. So much goes into what they do — science, economics, history, design — that’s it’s often the job for a renaissance woman. Many of our gemologists have traveled the world, some are experts in art history, and they all know exactly what they’re looking at when they put a gemstone beneath a microscope. Case in point, the newest member of our team Karen Sternberg. As the Valuation Manager at our new Washington D.C. location (another beautiful Courtney Applebaum-designed space), Sternberg casts her expert eye on beautiful gems and impressive watches up close and personal each day. But she also gets to educate people on the value of their pieces, something that’s often a total surprise. We asked her about how she got into the industry, the authentication and valuation process, and of course the most impressive pieces she’s seen (be prepared to get into an internet spiral looking at Suzanne Belperron designs).
What is your background in gemology? How did you get into it? I have worked in many different ‘facets’ of the industry. It all started with a love of jewelry, which grew into a love of gemstones, which led to an addiction to the microscope. My entry into the world of gemology started with my first job after college; a work colleague’s mother owned jewelry stores in San Francisco and they invited me to join them on a buying trip to Hong Kong. I loved every second of the entire experience and I have never looked back. After I returned to the United States I decided to pursue a Graduate Gemologist degree at the Gemological Institute of America. After obtaining my degree, I started in retail, moved to the wholesale colored stone side of the industry, worked in the auction and appraisal worlds and have even had my own custom jewelry business.
Given the great range and depth of your career, what attracted to you to joining The RealReal? I have always loved new challenges. I had been intrigued by TheRealReal since it was founded in 2011. I was so excited when jewelry and watches were added to the site a couple of years ago and even more excited when I heard an office was opening in Washington, D.C. — it felt like a sign! I am fascinated by TheRealReal’s business model — we have become a business disruptor in the secondary market of luxury goods.
What are some of the most stunning pieces you’ve seen? I love gemstones. So some of the most memorable pieces I have ever seen have contained a significant colored gemstone or yes, even a diamond or two. I have long been a Suzanne Belperron fan and a couple of years ago I had the chance to see several of her pieces. It was a breathtaking experience; she was quite a gifted jeweler. She was truly a jewelry visionary.
What is your process for authenticating pieces that people bring in? The RealReal takes the process of authentication very seriously. I follow a strict set of steps for every piece of jewelry I examine. Each Valuation Office has a full gemological laboratory at its disposal and I use it on a regular basis. The RealReal follows the standards set by GIA, which is The Gemological Institute of America. GIA has set the industry standard for grading. If we are authenticating a branded item, we are looking at the details such as the hallmarks, the quality of the item, the signature, and asking do all of these factors look genuine? Are the details accurate and representative of the branded designer?
How do you determine the value of the pieces people bring in? We look at a number of factors when valuing a piece of fine jewelry or a watch.
We look at the intrinsic value of the metal and stones as well as the quality of the craftsmanship and materials. If a factor, we look at provenance.
We investigate the market demand for the type, brand, style or period of the item.
We consider the availability or rarity of the item with the secondary market.
We consult our enormous database of every item we have ever sold to see where the item may fit in. This allows us to see the highest price we can achieve for the items.
We also use many different industry pricing guides and databases to strengthen our research.
What’s something most people don’t know about their jewelry or watches? How much it is worth! Many people have jewelry or watches that they have not worn in years or that maybe they inherited and it is not to their taste. They are astounded when provided with its current value.
Can you tell us about some of the most exciting pieces you’ve valued at The RealReal’s DC office? I recently had the opportunity to do research on an older Bvlgari necklace that was just stunning, as well as some De Grisogono jewelry. We also have a consignor that is an avid watch collector and it has been really interesting to see what he brings in next!
What’s the dream piece you’d love to see come into the office? Hmm…..so many choices! I would love to see some vintage, 1920 Cartier Tutti Frutti jewelry or a Bvlgari Serpenti enamelled and jewelled bracelet/watch from the 1940s. This was a tough question, I could go on and on!
What’s the best part of your job? I have loved meeting lots of wonderful people and hearing the interesting stories about their jewelry. Every day if different; you never know what will come across your desk. The variety is astounding. We have a wonderful client that used to work in Italy and you can only imagine the beautiful jewelry she has brought in. Every piece is beautifully constructed, completely unique and a joy to evaluate.
Want to schedule an appointment for a free valuation with one of our expert gemologists? Click here.