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Antique jewelry buying guide
Tips for buying before you spend

by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff

Victorian mourning pin set with garnets. The dark heavy design is a hallmark of the design from this era.
Before rushing out and spending your hard-earned money on antique jewelry it’s important to know the difference between antique, vintage, and vintage reproduction. All can be beautiful and have value, but some pieces will be more or less expensive than others without regard to age. Here are some guidelines you may find helpful.

Antique jewelry has no particular style, though most people think of things like an engagement ring with a diamond. That’s not an incorrect assumption, but there’s much more — like a brooch with opalescent enamel or a bejeweled stick pin for a hat. The defining trait is that antique pieces are at least 100 years old.

Keep in mind that age does not ensure quality. Be sure you understand why you are paying what you are paying. The price tag on these items can get hefty fast.

Whereas antique can include just about anything, vintage is more specific. Generally, one regards as vintage those pieces that were manufactured between the end of World War II and the end of Reagan’s presidential naps (i.e. 1945-1989). The sliding timeframe for antique versus vintage will shift each decade, so some will also include the ’20s and ’30s in vintage. Those two decades are, for now, in the twilight area between vintage and antique. Know what you’re buying, and decide if the price asked is the price you are comfortable paying.


Art Deco emerald ring with 22 diamonds. Note the bold geometric shapes.
Vintage Reproduction has the advantage of aesthetic style but often the disadvantage of lower quality. This is not always the case — one can find high quality reproductions fairly easily. The most common goal in buying reproduction, however, is to save money. Be careful in your search if you want something that is authentic. Aging techniques can be advanced, and you will need to know how to separate a bargain from an heirloom.

One more hint about these categories: Designer costume jewelry, regardless of when it was made, can be very handsome and will often fetch a higher price because it does not generally have a mass-produced look to it. Although it often uses base metals with precious metal coatings and glass gemstones, they still have a place in the realm of the collectible. Keep names like Weiss, Haskell, Eisenberg, Coro, Trifari, Boucher, Carnegie, Sarah Coventry, Juliana, Kramer, Bogoff, and Lindser on your wish list.

The condition of the piece in question is very important. Antique, elaborate, or well preserved pieces demand much higher prices. Older items that include the original price tag, container, or papers often double in price. On all items, but particularly on vintage, look for chips, cracks, discolorations, bumps, holes and corrosion. Unlike scratches, which can sometimes be corrected, these other problems cannot be fixed.

Another important factor to take into consideration: personal taste. You’ll want to identify those stylistic eras that are most attractive to you. Here you will find a brief description of the periods you are most likely to encounter when buying Western pieces. Again, remember that condition and quality together can sometimes outweigh age alone.

1714-1837, Georgian
Handmade, unique pieces of varying quality. Usually inspired by shapes from nature. Pieces from this era include gemstones such as garnets, rose diamonds, coral, and precious topaz.
Very rare.

1838-1850, Early Victorian/Romantic
Similar to Georgian in that it is often inspired by nature, but more likely to include animal motifs as well. Filigree handiwork was popular, as were colored gemstones for day wear and diamonds for evening. Brooches and lockets came into fashion at this time.


This Edwardian black opal brooch explodes with color, as is typical for this style.
1851-1880 Mid-Victorian/Grand
This era coincided with the death of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert. The Queen went into mourning and thus jewelry from the time in Europe was austere and subdued. Heavy, dark stones such as onyx, jet, amethyst and garnets were popular. The grand style was inspired by new uses for stones and metals and gave rise to bolder color choices provided by materials such as shell and jasper. Japanese themes were popular at this time.

1881-1900 Late Victorian/Aesthetic
Feminine colors were preferred. Sapphires, peridot and spinel were the stones of choice. Hats became almost indispensible wardrobe pieces, and thus hat pins too came into high fashion. Stars, crescents and other astrological themes were popular.

1894-1923 Arts and Crafts
Mass production inspired a backlash amongst artisans. During this time a return to high-quality, intricate craftsmanship saw the use of uncut stones in simple patterns.

1895-1915 Art Nouveau
In France, Lalique ushered in a graceful style based on the curving and sweeping lines found in vines, leaves, flowers and dragonflies as inspiration for gorgeously crafted brooches, rings, necklaces and other accessories. Lacquer with gems and precious metals combined to create breathtakingly realistic orchids, irises and insects. Tiffany rose to prominence at this time.

1901-1910 Edwardian
Edward took the throne after Victoria’s death, and his lavish tastes were reflected in the styles inspired by his reign. The continent came out from under the arduous, protracted mourning Victoria inspired and was ready for some pageantry. Look for jewelry accented with diamonds and pearls and embellished with colored stones set in elaborate designs.

1920-1935 Art Deco
Not really vintage, but not quite yet antique, Art Deco style is usually defined by geometric shapes (as opposed to organic swirls), bold lines and colors and a heavier sense of functionality. Inspired by a combination of Egyptian, African and Japanese color palettes, Cubism’s geometric shapings, and speed motifs (i.e. planes, cars, etc.) this era saw the use of Bakelite, a durable resin combined with enamel. The style inspired by the German Bauhaus focused on function in design.

1940s Retro
Look for colorful combinations, unusual shades of gold and a dazzling array of stones. Citrine and aquamarine were particularly popular. This decade was inspired by Hollywood glamour, and celebrated both the end of the Depression and the end of the War. Look for items from this period to be larger than life. Charm bracelets also came into fashion as a means of self-expression.

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