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Antique and Estate Jewelry History

Antique jewelry includes any jewelry item made at least 100 years ago, although many consider jewelry from the 1920’s to be antique as well.  

Estate jewelry includes any item that has been previously owned.  Estate jewelry is not necessarily antique.

Our admiration of jewelry is ancient.  Primitive humans wore jewelry made of feathers, bones and shells.  The oldest items discovered were fish vertebrae necklaces that date back to at least 18,000 BC. 

Styles have always changed with new technology and new supplies of gems.  Diamonds were not popular until the 1300’s when people learned how to cut them. 

During the Middle Ages jewelry virtually disappeared from European trade due to conflicts and wars.  In the fourteenth century the Black Death swept Europe, yet even in the face of misery and despair, noblemen and clergy still dressed in lavish costumes and jewelry.     

During the Renaissance period of the 1500’s, many jewelry artists designed and produced more elaborate jewelry for royalty and the wealthy.  Jewelry progressed from thousands of years B.C., throughout the middle-ages, and continued to become the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. 

Unfortunately, unless you are in a museum or auction house, you will probably never see authentic ancient jewelry.

The earliest period that you may find items from is the Georgian period, which covers the Eighteenth century through the early Nineteenth  century.  Georgian jewelry includes revivals of earlier medieval jewelry.  Faceted gems and the introduction of paste, glass and imitation, were widely used with engraved gold work.  Georgian styles influenced the up-coming Victorian period.

Today the majority of Antique jewelry available is from the mid 1800’s through the 1930’s, and of course Estate jewelry continues to become available throughout the 1900’s to today. 

There are FIVE distinct periods of Antique & Estate jewelry:

1837 – 1860 Early Victorian (Victoria & Albert)

1861 – 1901 Late Victorian (Victoria)

1895 – 1917 Edwardian and Art Nouveau

1919 – 1935 Art Deco

1935 – 1950 Retro or Modern


Many exciting things happened during the Victorian era of the 1800’s. Goodyear patented the rubber making process in 1837. Gold was discovered in California in 1848. Factories were being built in record numbers. There was a deep need for Religion and its proper observance.

The Early Victorian period began in 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the English throne, to reign for 64 years.  Victorian times coincide with the rapid growth of cities and of the industrial revolution.  The Jewelry industry benefited from mass production techniques.  Machines were developed to make stamping whole pieces of jewelry from thin sheets of metal. 

Even more significant for jewelry was electroplating, first applied commercially in the 1840’s.  Along with the development of gem imitations like paste, these techniques allowed people of all classes to wear copies of jewelry worn by the rich.  For the first time in recorded history, jewelry was affordable to all economic levels, and no longer only a sign of wealth. 

This was also an age of sentiment and Queen Victoria loved jewelry.  She brought the Cameo back in style as well as romantic jewelry, containing a lock of a loved ones hair.  It was not considered unnatural for Victoria to wear a bracelet made from her children’s baby teeth.

Hair-work jewelry was not only a decorative accessory; it was an outward expression of people’s innermost feelings and became an important part of the jewelry of this era.  Many ladies would buy kits to make everything from watch fobs to rings containing hair.  

To prepare the hair required first boiling it in soda water for 15 minutes, and then dividing it into strands of 20 to 30 hairs each, by length.    You could even send your hair to companies that would make a wide variety of items out of it, for a fee ranging from $4.00 to $15.00.  This became the second largest jewelry industry at one time, making hair more valuable than silver per oz!

Classical revival jewelry also prevailed: Roman heads and Greek Vases, Celtic crosses, fleur-de-lis, serpent, heart, and anchor motifs.  There was a wide range of gems used including:  old mine cut and rose cut diamonds, seed pearls, turquoise, ruby, emerald, opal, amethyst, bloodstone, moonstone and golden topaz. 

The Late Victorian era began when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, resulting in Victoria grieving until her own demise in 1901.  All of England mourned with her.

As a result the second half of the century’s jewelry was reflected in the more somber materials such as onyx, jet - a black coal like material from fossilized wood - and even black glass.  Mourning jewelry became increasingly more popular throughout this period, utilizing these materials, as well as the woven hair, in all types of jewelry.

Gold was still the primary metal, now in eighteen karat, fifteen, twelve and nine karat versions.  Mixed metals such as sterling silver with gold, gold plate and oxidized silver, and rolled gold were increasingly used.

In the 1860’s everything moved toward the idea of Bigger and Better.  Colors were rich and heavy with red velvets becoming popular.  Larger pieces of jewelry were in demand.  Yet also from this time were delicately carved coral pieces set in gold, amethyst set with pearls, amber, carnelian garnets, turquoise, lapis lazuli, malachite, tortoise shell jewelry and Mosaics - art assembled from tiny pieces of stone.

Important new gem discoveries were made during this era: Australian black and “milk” opals; Tourmalines were discovered in both Brazil and America; and probably most important were the diamond mines discovered in South Africa in 1867. 

The 1880’s saw the rise of silver jewelry, heavy lockets and chains, cuff bracelets, and brooches.  The close of The Civil War with more women working was one factor that influenced the roles of women and the jewelry of the times.  Additionally the university system was finally open to women.  As women began taking more active roles outside the home, jewelry was beginning to be more tailored for their needs.  Fashions changed and women began to question the larger more elaborate jewelry.  Faceted gems of softer colors and more delicate pendants were in fashion then.

Toward the end of the century upper class British and Americans were avid travelers, starting a trend in souvenir jewelry. The late Victorian period also began the trend of novelty jewelry: birds, insects and animal themes, real scarabs and claws, all set in both precious and non-precious metals.  With the advent of electric lighting, diamond jewelry and larger diamond solitaires, a woman’s best friend, became more popular.

The Victorian period in general was quite varied as manufacturers raced to come out with new looks from large, showy pieces to smaller and truly elegant styles while keeping up with the constantly changing times.

Edwardian and Art Nouveau

The Edwardian and Art Nouveau movements overlapped with both emerging during the final decade of the 1890’s. 

The 1890’s was a period of rapid colonial expansion, opening the door to a multitude of exotic ideas and designs.  A whole new century was about to begin and creativity and originality flourished.  Art Nouveau jewelers were less concerned with valuable gemstones than with overall effect.  New jewelry materials were introduced such as horn and other materials were used: amber, ivory, opals, pearls, glass, as well as other precious and synthetic stones.  Platinum was used along with gold and silver. 

Nature was a central theme. Trees, flowers, dragonflies, insects, swans and snakes were some of the many forms both stylized and exaggerated.  Dreamy, exotic feminine figures were also depicted with long flowing hair. 

Most significant was the use of enameling.  Some pieces were completely covered in enamel, some had areas etched away and filled with enamel, while many others used the plique-a-jour method - an open window in the jewelry was filled with the enamel paste and baked in an oven that reached 1000 degrees.  This process was repeated up to twenty times for the enameling to get its toughness and color, giving the finished piece an appearance of stained glass windows. 

The greatest Art Nouveau designer was Rene Lalique, who earned a worldwide reputation as a master of the plique-a-jour method.  His creations, like most of the Art Nouveau jewelry, were mostly made by hand.  Many of these pieces were considered works of art more than jewelry.  In fact many of them can only be viewed in Art Galleries and Museums.  Art Nouveau, having only lasted around 15 years, has been compared to a rare exotic flower that bloomed for only a brief time.

Edwardian jewelry also had its roots in the late 1890’s.  Larger jewelry houses had already begun developing better ways to set diamonds. In 1901 Queen Victoria died, and her son, Edward, became the king of England.  It was a new century, optimism was high, and the somber period of Victoria had finally ended – society at last had a pleasure-loving figure to follow.  Elegance and sophistication reigned, and new styles of jewelry were designed to complement the lace, silk, and feathers of the Edwardian lady.

Diamonds were essential and platinum was the metal of choice. 
Channel and invisible setting, which had been developed in the 1890’s, worked well in platinum, showing off the newer cutting styles of diamonds.  The strength of platinum allowed jewelers to carve delicate, open work designs with scalloped edges like fine white lace, honeycomb patterns, and designs resembling bows and embroidery.  The millgrain method, where delicate beads were tooled along the edge of diamond settings, had become the most popular effect.  Another popular style that emerged at this time was the negligee pendant, with two diamonds or pearls hung at different lengths from a central diamond.

Art Nouveau had begun to wane by 1910, Word War I loomed ahead and the true Edwardian styles were in full swing in Britain.  By 1917 the very beginnings of Art Deco were underway in the US.  Never in history had diamond jewelry been created to such a high standard.

Art Deco

Art Deco represents the style of decorative arts popular between the world wars.  The end of World War I brought about many changes in the social structure.  Women had taken another giant step forward in the workplace.  There was a new class of wealthy people that had profited from the war.  Speakeasies sprang up overnight.  The glamour of Hollywood was very much in vogue.  The roaring twenties were off to a roaring start.    

Early Art Deco styling was influenced by both Edwardian and Art Nouveau.  The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 brought another Egyptian revival.  Diamonds remained the main gemstone often with sapphires, rubies or emeralds in well-defined, geometrical designs.  Synthetic ruby and synthetic sapphire were also widely used.  Diamonds and gemstones were fashioned in new shapes: baguette, emerald, triangle, shield, pear and marquise.  The European cut diamond was still being used along with the newer modern or round brilliant cut.  Platinum was still favored but white and even yellow gold provided more affordable jewelry toward the end of this period. 

Designers around the world such as Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, Harry Winston, Black Starr & Frost, and many others were manufacturing Art Deco jewelry.

As dancing became freer during the roaring twenties, women were wearing multiple strands of pearls and long gold chains that would swing with their every movement, and compliment their “flapper” dress.  Cultured pearls were first marketed in the 1920’s and imitation pearls had become popular.  Costume jewelry rose to a new level with designers like Coco Chanel.  Advances were made in plastics and cut glass.  Other costume materials included aluminum, chrome, marcasite, and rhinestones. 

The Wall Street crash of 1929 brought international financial disaster.  The crisis was coming to and end by 1936, but World War II loomed ahead, bringing the fun-loving sophistication of the Art Deco period to an end.

Retro or Modern

Retro or Modern.  In the late 1930’s war was again on the horizon and by 1939, Europe had entered into World War II.  During the war, jewelry production in Europe came to a grinding halt.  At that time the United States was recovering from the depression while enjoying the prosperity generated by the war in Europe.  Many gem cutters, metalsmiths and designers immigrated to the United States, causing America to become the center for jewelry trade. Jewelry took on an “American” look with a large influence coming from the new wealthy - The Hollywood stars.  Jewelry items were getting larger and more suitable for the big screen, with bows, flowers, sunbursts and shooting star themes.  Bigger was yet again better in jewelry design. 

America was thrust into World War II on December 7th 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  In America, and around the world, precious metals such as platinum were required for the war effort. 

The role of women in society changed again.  Not only were women working in factories and other jobs left vacant by men, they were also taking support roles in the military.  Some jewelry took a militaristic look; with tank watches and tank tread designs in bracelets.  Women were wearing larger brooches and rings reflecting their more independent personalities.  Large stones up to, and sometimes over 100 carats and often synthetic, were featured.  As platinum was unavailable, gold became the fashion with a heavy accent on rose gold, often set with rubies.  Diamond cocktail and cluster rings had become popular. 

After the war platinum was again available, though there was a shortage of money, materials and machinery.  The jewelry industry did not get going strong again till the 1950’s.

Jewelry keeps evolving with the constantly changing fashions and fads, often featuring new variations from earlier periods.  Many of these earlier periods have seen revivals in the last fifty years including Art Deco and Egyptian motifs.  Native American motifs like the squash blossom necklace saw popularity in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Designer jewelry became popular again in the 50’s and 60’s and is seen everywhere today.  In the last decade white gold and platinum have become the metal of choice.  Home shopping on TV has seen a huge growth, with a number of companies on a number of channels selling jewelry, and today you can buy anything on the Internet, including jewelry. 

Jewelry designs are moving in many different directions.  Who knows for sure what the future holds, but jewelry has survived for thousands of years and will continue to evolve with the ever changing times.     

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