Once used only to refer to fine wines, the word vintage is derived from the French word ‘vendange’. Purchasing vintage or antique jewelry can be an excellent investment. These pieces have withstood the test of time and offer valuable insight into the past.
Antique jewelry pieces can include anything from geometric designs to intricate engravings and exquisite craftsmanship. They often play host to a variety of stunning gems and their styles still inspire modern jewelry makers to create beautiful contemporary pieces.
For more insight into jewelry history, read our guide to vintage and antique jewelry below.
Jewelry pieces that are more than a century old are classified as antiques. Vintage pieces are usually a bit younger and made around fifty or more years ago. This comprises a wide timespan, with some jewelry pieces dating as far back as the Georgian era.
Throughout history, there has been a wide range of eras. Each era has its own style and unique characteristics, which is also true for its jewelry! Jewelry antiques are also typically one-of-a-kind pieces, which is ideal if you’re looking for something special.
If you’re interested in purchasing antique or vintage jewelry, you may be wondering how to identify it. This is usually done by looking at the style and design, the techniques and materials used to make it, and hallmark stamps. These can be radically different for each era.
Knowing what to look for in vintage jewelry can prevent you from getting swindled and ensure that you are paying a price that matches the jewelry’s value.
Keep reading for our guide to jewelry from some of the eras throughout history.
Georgian jewelry is rare, ornate, and regal.
The Georgian era spanned from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s and is named after England’s King George the First, Second, and Third. During this time, it was nearly exclusively the wealthy who wore fine jewelry.
Because this era spans over a century, the jewelry from this time varies greatly. In the early part of the era, jewelry was designed in a Rococo style, which was ornate and playful. Later, jewelry styles leaned more toward Gothic and Neoclassical designs.
Originally, diamonds were the preferred gemstones. These were typically rose cut. During the mid-1700s, colored gemstones like rubies, emeralds, and sapphires became more popular.
Early Georgian jewelry can be identified by its closed-back settings and enclosed gemstone pavilions. In some cases, foil was placed underneath the gems to add shine or adjust its coloring.
There are very few pieces of Georgian jewelry in existence anymore. These pieces were never mass-produced, and many have fallen victim to being taken apart for their components. As a result, Georgian jewelry is very rare.
The most common Georgian jewelry pieces are rings and brooches. Necklaces and earrings are quite rare.
Jewelry designs from the Victorian era are joyful and confident.
This era is named after England’s Queen Victoria, who was the monarch of the British Empire from the mid-1800s to the very early 1900s. At the start of the era, fine jewelry was mostly worn by the aristocracy. However, later in the Victorian era, luxurious jewelry started becoming more accessible to the emerging middle class in the U.S. and Europe.
Queen Victoria’s taste in jewelry had an effect on the preferences of the public. Interestingly, her taste in jewelry was affected by events in her life.
Victoria’s loving relationship with Prince Albert gave way to the Romantic Period, which lasted from the mid to late 1800s. During this period, the jewelry was quite joyful and romantic, with common motifs including hearts, flowers, birds, and bows.
Later, when Queen Victoria’s husband passed away, she mourned him. Her taste in jewelry reflected this, and, as a result, jewelry from the Grand Period is melancholy and dark. Black jewelry became popular during the late 1800s. These were made using materials like onyx, black enamel, fossilized coal, and jet. Revivalism also became popular.
Once Queen Victoria had stopped mourning, during the late 1800s and very early 1900s, more buoyant and whimsical designs returned. These included motifs like crescent moons, stars, dragons, and griffins. There were also notable Japanese influences.
During the Victorian era, precious metals and gemstones became more available and less expensive. This gave way to stunning jewelry designs like filigree and engraving. Gold and diamonds became the most abundant, especially during the late Victorian era after gold discoveries in the mid-1800s and diamond discoveries in South Africa in the late 1800s.
The Art Nouveau period had romantic designs inspired by nature.
With the 20th century fast approaching, the vibrant arts scene in Europe brought forth a new, imaginative style of making jewelry. Art Nouveau, which means New Art, is an era that lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, overlapping with both the Victorian and Edwardian eras. While it wasn’t a long period, it made a lasting impression on the world of jewelry making.
Jewelers considered themselves artists and wanted art to form part of everyday life. They prided themselves on creating exquisite pieces of jewelry that could be considered little works of art.
During this time, jewelry was romantic and mystical. Pale colors were used, and the forms were soft and curved. Many jewelers found inspiration in classic art and architecture, as well as Japanese depictions of nature. Some of the most prevalent motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry were the female form, orchids, lilies, irises, dragonflies, butterflies, ferns, and snakes.
The Art Nouveau movement broke from the tradition of making gemstones the statement of a jewelry piece and instead focused on the setting. This resulted in stunning enameling and the use of various materials and gemstones. Some of the common stones used in Art Nouveau jewelry were peridot, amber, citrine, opal, amethyst, and moonstone. Diamonds and silver jewelry were not seen as often. Other materials besides precious gemstones and metals were also used, such as freshwater pearls, shells, horn, and copper.
The Art Nouveau era offers some of the most beautiful and unique pieces of antique jewelry.
The Edwardian era is known for its classic, graceful, sensible, and refined jewelry design.
Named after Britain’s King Edward, this era took place in the early 1900s. It is known for its extensive filigree, made using threads of platinum, gold, and other precious metals. The jewelry from this era has the look of lace, which was designed to complement the lace and silk of female fashion of the time.
This era followed the Victorian period and kept the need for jewelry to convey decorum and femininity. However, Edwardian jewelry was made using simple palettes and classic motifs to emphasize the natural beauty of gemstones. Edwardian jewelry makers took inspiration from Roman, Napoleonic, Ancient Greek, and French Baroque styles. Other prevalent motifs of the era include garlands of flowers, laurel wreaths, tassels, bows, and scrolls.
Some of the key materials and components used in Edwardian jewelry were pearls, diamonds, and platinum. Because of their understated beauty and elegance, these materials were favored by Edwardian jewelers. Platinum was especially popular because it was lightweight and very strong, allowing jewelry makers to use ‘invisible’ gemstone settings.
The monochrome appearance of diamond and platinum jewelry was also considered the epitome of class and sophistication during the Edwardian era.
Art Deco is known for its bold, high-spirited, and expressive designs.
The era lasted throughout the early 1900s and is most often remembered for the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and early 1930s. It was the era of a booming economy, jazz, flappers, and gangsters. The era also came with a need to discard the restraints of the Victorian era.
Art Deco jewelry is both fun and stylish. Women during this time felt free to express themselves in fashion and jewelry, and the styles became bolder and more masculine. It was sharper and the soft, lacey patterns of Edwardian and Art Nouveau jewelry were cast aside. Instead, the jewelry makers of this time opted for bright colors, straight lines, geometric shapes, and futuristic motifs. These designs reflected the confidence and free thinking of the time.
It was also during the Art Deco era that the modern brilliant cut was invented, allowing gemstones like diamonds to sparkle even more brightly. More and more people were able to afford jewelry with diamonds and things like engagement rings. There were new casting methods that allowed for efficient and intricate settings, and jewelers began using white gold as a cheaper alternative to platinum.
Retro jewelry is known for its large size, which is in stark contrast with the economic depression and war of the time.
Jewelry from the Retro era is often referred to as cocktail jewelry, after the cocktail parties they were worn to. The Retro era spanned across the mid-1930s and throughout the 1940s. Jewelry during this time was designed to be eye-catching, resulting in large, bold, and chunky pieces. This was to mimic the golden age of Hollywood and the glitz and glamour of the films that came out during that time.
Bracelets, necklaces, and cocktail rings during this time were oversized, whimsical, and playful. World War II required women to enter the workforce, and they opted for jewelry that could express their femininity even while wearing business attire.
Curved designs were popular for Retro jewelry, along with motifs such as ruffles, bows, ribbons, and flowers – all of which were considered very feminine.
During the war, much of the metals normally used for jewelry were used for weapons instead. As a result, jewelers were limited and had to be creative. Gold was used more often, and alloys were mixed to create different colors. It is during this time that rose gold became popular.
There was also a limited supply of precious stones, which led to jewelry designers using synthetic stones, such as lab-grown sapphires and rubies, and semi-precious gemstones like topaz, citrine, and aquamarine.
Costume jewelry is another thing that became popular during this time. Due to the great depression in the 1930s, many people could no longer afford expensive gemstone jewelry. Instead, they opted for cheaper jewelry in fun styles that could express their taste while still being budget-friendly.
This is something that has remained popular to this day. Costume jewelry is especially popular for casual pieces that are frequently worn.
Modern era jewelry is sleek and sophisticated and takes inspiration from past designs.
Also known as the Contemporary Era, the Modern period spans from the 1950s to today. This makes it the longest era yet, with the most styles and trends within it.
For example, Mid-Century styles continued the trend of oversized jewelry with colorful gemstones worn at cocktail parties. During the 1990s and 2000s, designs were scaled back and became more modest. The modern era is ever-evolving and changing.
There has been a wide range of inspirations in the Modern era.
During the 1950s, styles were inspired by the ‘atomic culture’ that followed the Second World War. Many of the rings, brooches, and earring styles of the time included motifs of precious metal rays to resemble atom structures. Television also influenced trends greatly, as it allowed more access to celebrities, world news, and advertisements. Sitcoms featured stars like Lucille Ball and Donna Reed wearing classic pearls, making it a trend at the time.
The Feminist movement and women entering the workforce launched a societal change that also affected jewelry styles. Women were in need of versatile pieces that could be worn to the office as well as social gatherings. There was also an upsurge in adaptable pieces referred to as ‘Day to Night’ looks.
The 1960s, often referred to as the ‘hippie era’ or time of ‘flower power’, brought back floral motifs and nature-inspired jewelry. Jewelers opted for the use of natural materials such as ivory, amber, amethyst, quarts, turquoise, and wood. Popular styles from the Art Deco era were also reinterpreted during this time, and things like layered necklaces and toe rings came into style.
Large, chunky pieces with bright colors became popular in the 1980s, as nothing complements big hair better than big earrings. Cocktail rings were popular once again and showcased a person’s status or wealth. In contrast with this, the 1990s brought back classic, muted styles with basic and essential pieces of jewelry.
During the age of computers and the internet, online shopping and internet culture made personalized, self-purchased pieces more popular. Wearing jewelry to express oneself is a hallmark of the Contemporary era, with no strict rules or restrictions.
Another perk of the Modern age of jewelry making is the sheer number of materials and metals available. People have a wide range of metals to choose from for their jewelry, including yellow gold, platinum, white gold, and rose gold. While the early 2000s saw white gold and platinum trending, rose gold has become especially popular during the last decade.
There are still other materials used for jewelry making, such as meteorite, tungsten, resin, and ceramic. Many people are even opting for wedding bands made of silicone.
Another trend in the Modern era is the use of diamond alternatives. More and more people are opting for other gemstones and lab-grown variants, whether it be to express their unique style or to save money.
Now, more than ever, there are no limits to what people can purchase when it comes to jewelry.
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