It's the story, not necessarily the stone or other bells and whistles, that gives jewelry shared between generations its high value.
And there is so often a good, interesting and meaningful story since many people get or give jewelry to commemorate an event or send a message: It could be a birthday or anniversary, a statement of love or gratitude. But, says Annabel Tollman, a top industry stylist, a pendant, earrings or bracelet "are rarely exchanged because it's Tuesday."
Yet, she adds, they're items that can be worn each and every day afterward. Try that with a sweater.
"We hear so often from clients their vivid memories when they speak of jewelry," says Jon King, executive vice president at Tiffany & Co. "Women immediately paint the picture of the moment they received a bracelet or ring. They'll say, 'I was at the restaurant. It was raining outside. My husband had the pasta and I had the meat.' They remember every detail."
And, then: "You'll hear young women who say, 'I remember every time my mother went out to an important occasion, she always wore THOSE earrings or THAT bracelet. When the next person in line can be so fortunate to have it passed along, it comes with all the memories," King says.
There's also a trend toward shoppers buying their own celebratory jewelry, especially rings, when they achieve an accomplishment such as a promotion or graduation. It could make a child proud to wear such a symbolic item many years later, King says. (He says he thinks rings are popular because they can be seen by the wearer.)
Jewelry can be quite timeless in appearance. Unlike a fashion-driven item such as a dress or a handbag, the likelihood of vintage jewelry fitting into a modern wardrobe is strong, so the story of the piece doesn't ever have to end, says Sally Morrison, head of jewelry public relations of the World Gold Council.
There is always a potential new chapter, she says. "Jewelry is usually a part of life's most jubilant, happy moments. There's an aura of positive emotion."
Morrison keeps her grandmother's simple gold wedding ring, and she has a charm that she made from her son's toe print when he was a baby. "Hopefully, his toe charm will someday go to his wife or child. It's comforting to know that," she says.
Engraving or personalizing a piece adds to its intrinsic value, whether it's a luxury-brand Swiss watch or the thin little band that served as your grandmother's placeholder when she and grandpa were saving for an engagement ring.
If you're unsure of the provenance of an engraved message or whom the initials belong to, just let your imagination run wild, Morrison says. "It gives a mystery and romance to the story."
Tiffany's King says there is a lifetime progression in one's jewelry wardrobe. It often starts with a silver necklace and, if he were a betting man, he'd predict a heart motif. "The heart is an important symbol, an international symbol, and it's appreciated and understood regardless of where one sits in the world."
Tollman, an ambassador for Gemvara, a website that sells customized jewelry, says a tennis bracelet or diamond stud earrings are a good place to start for those looking to build an heirloom-worthy collection because they can be within the budget of a self-purchase, yet they'll age gracefully. They're also more appropriate for a younger wearer than, say, a choker necklace dripping in diamonds.
There is a time for diamonds, though, whether you are buying for yourself, someone else or planning to pass them down. "Diamonds really are a girl's best friend," Tollman says, "and you can't go wrong with them."
She has been known to pair her "nana's" 19th-century diamond earrings with jeans and a biker jacket, or a ballgown. "Jewelry is meant to be used, meant to be worn. Leaving them in the jewelry box would be like leaving the plastic on dining room furniture."