Grandeur of Vintage and Antique Jewelry

Vintage jewelry has a timeless appeal. From the sophisticated to the outrageous, vintage jewelry of different eras in time vary in styles and can easily compliment any outfit. The thrill of purchasing a vintage piece is finding out about its past – who was it made for? When was it made? What was the story behind it? Knowing which period the vintage or antique jewelry comes from will bring you closer answering these questions. 

When looking at jewelry time periods, you may also be interested in the difference between "vintage" and "antique. Vintage Jewelry: jewelry which is at least 20 or more years old, so to be considered “vintage” it could be anything made during the 1990's or earlier. Antique Jewelry: jewelry which is over 100 years old, the piece would have to be made before 1910's to be called "antique".

Historical Periods of Vintage and Antique Jewelry

An at-a-glance list of the approximate vintage and antique jewelry periods,  representative of the various styles and trends of jewelry, since the Georgian period up to today:

1715 - 1830 Georgian 1830 - 1900 Victorian (Romantic 1837-1860, Grand 1861-1880, Aesthetic 1880-1901) 1860 - 1920 Arts & Crafts 1890 - 1915 Art Nouveau 1900 - 1920 Edwardian 1915 - 1935 Art Deco 1935 - 1950 Retro 1950 - Present Modern

Styles of Vintage and Antique Jewelry

Here is a more in-depth look at examples of styles and a brief history of each of the periods:

Georgian 1715 - 1830

Georgian era(Georgian 18k Foil-Backed Topaz and Chrysoberyl Bracelet)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry University)

The Georgian Era spans the reign of four English Kings named George. Jewelry of this period could be described as opulent and regal. Georgian jewelry was entirely handcrafted and is known for it’s natural themes like floral, organic, and romantic motifs. Early styles were ornate while later styles ranged from Neoclassical to Gothic. Jewelry pieces from this period usually had stones set in sterling silver with the back enclosed in 18K yellow gold - "foil backed" (silver fused to gold). Garnets, amethysts, topaz, and diamonds (Rose Cut or Old Mine Cut) were readily available and often used in Georgian jewelry. Georgian jewelry is rare to find today, and it's hard to come across a piece in good condition due to the age as well as it's status as a collectible. Georgian jewelry is fragile and is not recommended for daily wear.

Victorian 1830 - 1900

(Victorian Antique Enamel & Diamond Snake Bracelet)
(Image Courtesy: Antique Jewelry University)

This period is named after Queen Victoria, who's reign was the second longest of any British monarch in history, spanning from 1837 until her death in 1901. Victorian jewelry mimicked the Queen’s style and collection.

The Victorian era of jewelry can be broken into three epochs:

  • Romantic Period (1837-1860)
  • Grand Period (1861-1880)
  • Aesthetic Period (1880-1901)

Up to the start of the Victorian period, essentially all jewelry was handmade with expensive 22K and 18K yellow gold and silver. At this point however, with rapid advances in technology,  machines could now cut and stamp metal and electroplate gold onto base metals. The expansion of factories meant metalwork in 14K, 10K and even 9K yellow gold could now be achieved on a mass scale using affordable materials - and suddenly jewelry was accessible to almost everyone. Elaborate cameos of shell and stone, lockets of Renaissance Revival, hearts, flowers and animal-themed jewelry set with seed pearls were the styles of the Victorian period. 

Victorian: Romantic 1837-1860

(Victorian Cobalt Enamel Diamond Earrings)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

The early Victorian era (Romantic Period) was influenced by Classical, Gothic, and Renaissance. Even Ancient Greek and Roman mythology was incorporated into designs. Since religion was a vital part of Victorian life so cross pendants were frequently worn. Additionally, hair combs and pins made of gold with gemstones and enamel were an important part of any woman’s wardrobe. As an anecdote, it is said that serpents were a popular motif after Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria a snake engagement ring. 

Victorian: Grand 1861-1880

(Victorian Angle skin Coral Grand Necklace)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

In 1861 Prince Albert died and trends changed - to express the Queen’s grief all-black mourning clothing and jewelry became popular. Jewelry from the Mid-Victorian or Grand Period had a heavy somber air, and employed materials for their dark colors, such as jet (black fossilized wood), black enamel, black onyx, tortoise shell and black glass. Hair was also incorporated into designs, usually horse hair, but also the hair of the deceased; as disturbing as it may sound, using hair in jewelry was meant to be a sentimental tribute.Darker motifs like skulls and skeletons were also frequently added to jewelry designs. During the Grand period cameos grew in popularity, as a way to remember or honor a loved one.

Victorian: Aesthetic 1880-1901

(Victorian Aesthetic Hair Barrettes)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

The late Victorian period saw the introduction of the Aesthetic movement which emphasized a return to refined artistic taste and visually appealing designs. Distinct from the early Victorian preference for fussy decor, curvaceous forms, and abundant detail, Aesthetic art is characterized by subdued colors, geometric designs, and simplified linear forms. 

The Aesthetic movement took as its sources of inspiration Pre-Raphaelite painting's of flaming red haired beauties, medieval geometric designs, and Japanese aesthetics. Common motifs of the Aesthetic movement included peacocks, flowers, insects and Japanese-inspired forms. Women in general preferred to wear fewer jewels at this point and jewelry was lighter and on a smaller scale than in previous years. Small stud earrings were desirable as the latest Victorian hairstyles exposed the ears.Weighty Victorian brooches were replaced by smaller pins scattered on the bodice of a dress. Diamonds were down-graded as a fashion faux-pas for daytime wear and reserved to be worn in the hair for evening events. There was a focus on showcasing gemstones for their intrinsic beauty instead of flaunting them as a symbol of wealth.

Arts & Crafts 1860 - 1920

(Henry G. Murphy Arts & Crafts Carnelian, Chalcedony, Silver Pendant/brooch)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

Beginning in Britain, and then flourishing in Europe and North America, the Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts world. It's said to emerge in Japan as the Mingei movement in the 1920's. As far as antique jewelry goes, the Arts & Crafts movement stood for traditional craftsmanship, essentially being anti-industrial in its rejection of machinery and return to hand-crafted wares. Due to the jewels being made entirely by hand, this movement is often defined by simple designs that placed the intricate metalwork at the forefront. The Arts & Crafts movement often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration, and commonly featured enamel, semi-precious and non-precious stones.

Art Nouveau 1890 - 1915

(French Art Nouveau Iris Pendant in 18k Gold)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

By the late nineteenth century, there was a growing desire to express the aspirations and achievements in innovation of the day, so as a counter-movement to past styles, the "new art" or Art Nouveau movement was born. Albeit a short movement, Art Nouveau has been far reaching and acted as a foundation for some future jewelry styles. Designs of Art Nouveau drew their core inspiration from the natural world, featuring animals, insects, flowers, and women with flowing hair and elegant curves. Romanticized depictions using sinuous lines and whiplash curves sharply contrast from the "rigid" lines more common in the jewelry of other movements during this time. New materials and techniques like enameling and molded glass were used to develop the period’s fantastical designs. Pilque-à-jour, an enamel technique reminiscent of stained glass art on a miniature scale, also characterized jewelry of the Art Nouveau movement. Precious stones like agate, moonstones, opals, sapphires, garnet, and aquamarine took the front seat, wile diamonds were not used as much.

Edwardian Jewelry 1900 - 1920

(Edwardian Peridot, Diamond, and Pearl Swag Necklace.)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

The Edwardian period derived it's name from the reign of Edward VII (Queen Victoria’s son), who took the throne in Great Britain in 1901. His reign marked society's return to the height of its elegance and sophistication.

The overall style of the times was light, graceful, and delicate. Most prominent motifs were bows, ribbons, bow knots, lace, flowers, and even sporting events. Roman, Ancient Greek, Napoleonic, and French Baroque influences were all evident in Edwardian jewelry styles. Edwardian jewelry heavily emphasized showcasing brilliant diamonds. Granted that colorful gemstones like emeralds, rubies, sapphires, aquamarines, and green demantoid garnets were also used, the diamonds were, nonetheless, the real focal point. It was during the Edwardian period that advances in metal fabrication marked the beginning of the use of platinum in jewelry. This helps with jewelry dating, for if a piece contains platinum, it would have been made in the early 20th century or later.

Art Deco Jewelry 1915 - 1935

(5.00 Carat Art Deco Sapphire and Diamond Ring, circa 1930)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

"Art Deco" is an abbreviation of a event's name, the “Exposition Internationale de Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderns” which took place in Paris in 1925. This is where the style was first exhibited. Art Deco concepts can be described as geometric and symmetrical, and when lines were used, they did not swirl like those of the Art Nouveau period; they were straight and angled or they curved in a gradual and sweeping manner. 

This era was influenced by several factors, including an admiration for the modernity of the machine - the industrial development, the free-flowing elegance of Art Nouveau, the geometric simplicity of cubism, and the human practicality brought about by the devastation from the first World War.

Retro Jewelry 1935 - 1950

(Retro Synthetic Sapphire and Diamond Clip Brooch and Earclip Parure)
(Image Courtesy:Antique Jewelry Institute)

The Retro period is also known by some as the Retro Modern, and largely reflects the changes accompanying the end of World War II. Though one may have expected the style to be sombre, minimalist, and restrained by reflecting the death of war and the economic depression, on the contrary, jewelry styles were big, colorful and elaborate. Additionally, Retro era jewelry has a distinct air of old Hollywood glamour. Concepts of the Retro era reflect an infusion of futuristic vision with elements inspired by preceding periods, but unlike the Art Deco style, Retro jewelry has soft curves and feminine motifs. Famous brands which influenced this era with their innovative concepts include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and designers like Paul Flato, Schepps, Mauboussin, Schlumberger, Vendura and others.