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What era is my vintage jewelry from?

What era is my vintage jewelry from?

We explain some of the common styles of jewelry found at estate sales or
vintage jewelry stores.

When it comes to visiting an estate sale or a vintage or antique jewelry store, there are many treasures to be found. To the uninitiated, the sheer amount of estate jewelry out there is hard to wrap your head around because of the types, and time periods, that jewelry was made in.

So while this is not a comprehensive history of all jewelry styles, I would like just to concentrate on the styles you are most likely to encounter when shopping for vintage jewelry.

The oldest jewelry that is commonly still found for sale is from the Victorian period, which began in 1837 with the ascension of Queen Victoria of England to her throne. There is certainly older jewelry to be found, but it is rare, primarily because of jewelry’s general fragility as it is worn, so you will not see much of it outside of a museum.

Some common terminology regarding estate or vintage jewelry.

First let’s be clear what the terms mean when referring to older jewelry. The terms “Estate Jewelry” and “Vintage Jewelry” are interchangeable. They both mean jewelry that has been previously worn and loved by someone else. It can be one year old or a hundred years old. The term “Estate Jewelry” came about because often this jewelry is on the market because someone passed away and the items in the “estate” have been sold off for cash.

The term “antique” is actually a legal term and it is different all over the world. For anything to be called an “antique” in theUnited States, it has to be at least 100 years old. Other countries have stricter or possibly more relaxed standards for antiques. Generally speaking, cultures with a more ancient history (such as China, the Middle East, etc.) have stricter standards, meaning the item has to be even older than 100 years to be a genuine antique in their country.

Now that we know the difference in the terms, let’s cover some of the common time periods in which jewelry was made which you may find at
estate sales or in vintage or antique jewelry stores.

The Victorian Period: 1837-1901

Now let’s talk about the Victorian Period and what it means in terms of jewelry. It is named for Queen Victoria because she was the primary influence on all types of fashion, from jewelry to clothing, furniture, etc. Whatever Victoria liked, wore or used, most of Western Europe and the United States followed. One important thing to note is that Victoria herself, like many of the upper class of her era, had a very romantic view of life and living. This is why we see a lot of jewelry with bows, ribbons, hearts and flowers. We also find jewelry that sometimes spells out a secret message. “Remembrance jewelry” contained hair, images and names of children, husbands, sons, etc. Later in her reign after her husband passed away, this evolved into “Mourning jewelry” with black stones or black enamel to memorialize a deceased loved one. There was even jewelry that spelled a message with gemstones. For example, “Dearest” jewelry had a mix of Diamond-Emerald-Amethyst-Ruby-Emerald-Sapphire-Topaz (the first letter of each stone spelled the word “DEAREST”.)

Most jewelry in the Victorian period was yellow gold. Some was even gold filled or gold plate. Generally, like the furniture and women’s clothing of the period, the jewelry was heavy looking. In addition to romance, other common themes were snakes, cameos (in shell, stone or lava), Etruscan style, elaborate high relief scrolls and flowers, and large gemstones. One gemstone in particular went out and back into popularity in the Victorian period: opals. Around this time a novel came out that told a story of a young woman who possessed a cursed opal, putting her endlessly in peril. Thus the myth that opals were “unlucky” began, and many refused to wear them. However, Queen Victoria loved opals, many of which were mined in the United Kingdom colony of Australia. To combat this rude gossip about opals, Victoria wore them herself often, and gave them to her daughters on their wedding day. After all, what mother would give something “unlucky” to her daughters on such an occasion? The myth still persists to this day, but only in a minor way.

With cutting technology still in its infancy, most diamonds of the Victorian period are “Old Mine” cuts, which are not quite round, and look a bit chunky, with deep top and bottom sections when viewed from the side. Since white gold was not developed yet, and platinum was so new it was seen as a “cheap” metal, many diamonds were set in silver, which over time develops a darker look. Rose cut diamonds and garnets (called “Bohemian garnets” for their most common source) were also popular, as was coral, seed pearls and amethysts.

Estate Jewelry Broken Down By Modern Jewelry Design Periods

Edwardian Period: 1901-1915

After waiting 60 years, Victoria’s son finally became King Edward VII of England. He and his wife Queen Alexandra were part of a very fashionable set that was ready to be done with his mother’s heavy clothes, black mourning jewelry and dresses, and in general, adopt a much “lighter” attitude. The jewelry and clothes of the Edwardian period clearly reflect this. Clothing for women was lacy and more flowing. Jewelry designs had to be lighter so they would not overpower ladies’ new fashions. Filigree jewelry came into vogue during the Edwardian period, mostly in platinum now that it was recognized as a truly precious metal. Most platinum jewelry was set with diamonds and a smattering of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, aquamarines and pearls.

As for the jewelry designs, this era popularized necklaces worn high on the neck, often called “dog collars”. It was rumored that Queen Alexandra had a small scar on her neck, so she wore high necklines or dog collar necklaces to cover it. Also very long strands of tiny diamonds and/or pearls were fashionable. Enamel designs were not new to this time period, but now there were in delicate, translucent colors, with engraved designs under the enamel. The Russian jewelry design house of Faberge was famous for their enamel jewelry, clocks and other small objects d’art. Of course most people know the name Faberge for their elaborate enamel and gemstone “eggs” they designed for the Russian royal family.

One fun quirky jewelry trend of this era was similar to the “message” jewelry of Victorian times: Suffragette jewelry, designed to lend silent support of women’s right to vote. The colors of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. were purple and green. Some women in the movement wore jewelry with amethysts and green garnets as a subtle message of where their politics lay on this issue.

New gemstone cuts that originated or popularized in Edwardian jewelry were what is now called “Old European Cut” diamonds (a more round, attractive improvement on the Victorian Old Mine cuts), briolette cut stones which are a 3-dimensional teardrop faceted all around, as well as tiny well matched colored stones called “calibre cut” (usually sapphires, rubies and emeralds), which were used as delicate accents in diamond jewelry.

World War I also had an effect. During the war years, platinum was pulled from the general market to be used in the manufacturing of many war time items. Once the war was over, a new era of style and design began. The Edwardian era was relatively short -only about 15 years, but it left a lasting legacy of beautifully made jewelry that is found in jewelry boxes to this day, primarily because so much if it was in platinum which is highly durable and less prone to wear and tear.

ART NOUVEAU: 1860-1915

Before we move on to the next consecutive time period, we have to talk about a major design period that overlapped both the Victorian AND the Edwardian eras, peaking in popularity between 1890 and 1910. This period is what was known in France as the Art Nouveau (meaning “new art”) period. It had different names such as Jugenstil in Germany and Arts and Crafts/Craftsman in the United States, and was an international style that carried over into clothing, architecture, jewelry and decorative arts. Two of the more well know designers for jewelry and decorative objects are Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique. The city of Paris with its beautiful street lights, bridges and underground station gates has some of the most famous Art Nouveau architecture and design elements in the world.

Art Nouveau and all its variations come from one guiding principal – to use and interpret “natural” themes, and bring “art” back into design rather than simply pieces that were costly. It was the design aspect that mattered most, not whether the materials were the most precious. In fact, Rene Lalique famously scoffed that most of the famous jewelry houses were merely merchants, while his design studio employed artist-jewelers. Although the movement was global, it was definitely a more artistic, less mainstream design theme compared to the Victorian and Edwardian styles. Not everyone was brave enough to have a house, a dress, or a piece of jewelry that looked completely different from what most people were wearing or using.

Some designers interpreted it romantically, showing women with long flowing hair, dragonflies with the bodies of lovely ladies, graceful flowers of all kinds, etc. The gems used were more chosen for their color and fit with the design, like pearls, coral, opal and other colored gems. Diamonds were often only accent stones. Enamel was also popular, but colors were even softer than in Edwardian jewelry, and sometimes it was see-through like stained glass. Other designers, especially in Europe, took natural themes and made them stylized, less recognizable as “natural”, but still nature-inspired. Most Art Nouveau jewelry was produced in yellow gold. Due to the fragility of many of the designs and the other materials used, not a lot of Art Nouveau jewelry is on the market, but when you see a classic piece, it is truly a work of art to behold.

ART DECO: 1915-1930

So now the Edwardian era has ended (King Edward died in 1910), the world has just survived the first World War, and a new era was beginning, one that for the first time in decades may not revolve around the British monarchy. The Art Deco period takes its shortened name from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels (Decorative Arts and Industrial Exposition) in Paris. Its peak was during the flapper era of the 1920’s.

With the war ended and old society in tatters, among the young there was a new sense of freedom from their parents’ social constraints and styles. Women in particular cut their hair, shortened their skirts and threw away their corsets. It was more acceptable (or at least not completely scandalous) for women to be bolder, out in public without chaperones and using their brains. Their mother’s and grandmother’s jewelry just would not do!

The first influence was the sensational European tour of the Ballet Russes (Russian Ballet). With their red and black costumes, new music and wild choreography, they had a huge influence early on. Early Art Deco jewelry, most notably from Cartier, featured bold red coral, black onyx and diamonds in platinum settings to mimic the Ballet Russes costumes. Art Deco designs were geometric and almost industrial; gone were the pretty hearts,
butterflies and bows of previous eras. Metals used were almost exclusively white; first platinum, and later white gold and finally silver near the end, to be affordable to a rising middle class. The gemstone colors used evolved quickly from red and black to the more neutral black and white, or the navy and white of sapphires and diamonds, and of course later only colorless stones like diamonds and crystal.

Many of the styles were elongated such as long earrings that in modern times would be called “stiletto” styles. Long necklaces were often worn down the back of the wearer, to show off the scandalously low back of their dresses. Fancy double ended stick pins were used on coats and hats. Filigree designs were still around (a holdover from the Edwardian era) but they were often more geometric, and in cheaper metals like silver to appeal to less affluent buyers. When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in the late 1920’s, there was a flurry of Egyptian themed jewelry, furniture and decoration. In
keeping with the exuberance and devil-may-care attitudes of those with rising stock investments, cigarette cases and holders, pill boxes, lipstick case were relatively common in gold and silver, a trend that carried over in to the 1930s and 40s but only for those whose finances survived the stock market crash.

ART MODERNE/RETRO: 1930s to 1950s

Other eras were often influenced by royalty and the upper classes. With the Retro Period a new group influencing styles emerges – Hollywood film stars. Big, bold and yellow gold (often with pink gold) was the new style, possibly because stars had to wear accessories that were larger to show up on the screen and in publicity shots. Most jewelry and the gemstones in it were oversized, shiny, and in warm colors like brown, red, gold, etc. with large pale blue aquamarines the exception. In the Retro era, it was hard to design something that was considered too large or too bold. Bigger was always better. Even the Second World War did not dampen the bold designs, when a new group of costume jewelry designers burst on the scene, making Hollywood style affordable for everyone. These names are still familiar today, and their vintage costume pieces command premium prices: Coco Chanel, Miriam Haskell, Trifari and Coro.

In addition to shiny gold surfaces, other specific themes that were popular include shells and starfish, Birds of Paradise and panther bracelets. Designs were often curvy and 3-dimensional, to set them further apart from the flatter, geometric Art Deco designs. In addition to American film stars, one of the most famous foreign women to epitomize this style was the Duchess of Windsor, the woman who King Edward VIII famously abdicated his throne to marry “the woman I love”. His gifts to her of panther bracelets, precious metal compact cases and huge suites of matching jewelry were excellent examples of this style.

MODERN JEWELRY: 1950s to now

The jewelry industry from the 1950s until the present time has, like all fashion, seen an explosion of individual designers. Names that endure today include Elsa Peretti, David Yurman, John Hardy, David Webb and many others. The trend in the current decades has been for designers to find a style that suits them, and continue to expand their selection and brand themselves and their look. David Yurman has built an empire on the twisted “cable” design, Elsa Peretti is known for her flowing lines and John Hardy for his inspirations from nature. Rather than cater to a trending style, they seek to be the trend themselves, so that buyers will follow them, instead of the designer looking simply to design what will sell. They want their new collections to somehow fit within their personal design style, and shoppers who feel the same inspiration can come along for the ride.

What will you find at the next estate sale or vintage jewelry store?

Certainly part of the allure of visiting an estate sale or vintage or antique jewelry store is finding a rare, interesting, or exciting piece of jewelry. If you do happen to find a piece of jewelry and you aren’t sure what it is, what it’s worth, or when it’s from, feel free to visit either of our New Jersey jewelry store locations in Morristown or New Providence to see for yourself and talk to any of our expert jewelers.

If you’d like to talk to someone directly about estate, vintage, or antique jewelry, you can contact us online anytime by emailing us directly at or simply filling out our contact form and we’ll answer your questions quickly.

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