The Allure of Antique, Period and Estate Jewelry

A closer look at why these pieces are so popular.

By Antoinette Matlins, PG, FGA

April 14, 2015

The singular beauty, design and workmanship of antique jewelry and “period pieces” make them increasingly popular. They are setting all-time records at auction, so it is important to understand which jewelry can legally be called “antique,” as well as what the terms “period,” “estate” or “previously owned” really mean. All too often, the terms are used interchangeably, but not understanding what they mean in the trade and how they impact value can be costly. Let’s take a closer look. 

In the U.S. and many other countries, a piece of jewelry sold as "antique" must be at least 100 years old. Some "period" jewelry is also antique, and we will discuss this below, but period jewelry refers to a specific time frame within which a particular style evolves, as well as to the characteristics that become associated with that time period. "Estate" is a term used to refer to jewelry that is pre-owned. Estate pieces might be “antique” or “period” (or have some association to a well-known person or prestigious jewelry house or designer that might add value) but otherwise, estate jewelry should be described simply as “previously owned.” Its value is usually calculated solely on the gemstones and metal content. Finally, while any piece over 100 years old is technically an antique, items from pre-Greek and Roman times through the Middle Ages and Renaissance are "ancient jewelry," a very specialized area generally found in the realm of museums. These pieces are not normally encountered by retail jewelers and we will not discuss them here.

Photo above: Transitional Art Deco/Retro period diamond and peridot flower brooch. Rene Boivin, circa 1937. From Jewelry and Gems: The Buying Guide (Matlins/Bonanno, Gemstone Press). Photo courtesy of Phillips Auction House, New York City.

Antique and period jewelry that is especially popular today includes the Georgian, Victorian, La Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco and Retro periods. All Georgian and Victorian jewelry is antique, as are most of the Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau and Edwardian period. The Art Deco and Retro periods are not yet antique, but fall into the category of highly collectible period jewelry. Jewelry from after the mid 1950s, however, while it may be beautiful and contain fine gemstones, is considered simply pre-owned.

Victorian carved cameo, gold and enamel bracelet. Tomasino Saulini, circa 1850. Photo courtesy of Joseph DuMouchelle, New York City.

While there is an overlap in the time frames for various antique and collectible periods, certain design elements influence the look of each period. We see it in the very lines of the jewelry itself, as well as in the use of certain gemstones, styles of cutting and size and color of stones used. Here we will discuss both the time frames and the design characteristics that help collectors recognize a piece as being from a particular historical or collectible period. 

Georgian Period (approximately 1714–1835) 

The Georgian period covers most of the 18th century into the early 19th century, when Britain was ruled by the four “Georges.” Pieces from this period are very rare and very expensive. Jewelry was handmade, and designs consisted primarily of themes from nature and “ribbon and bow” motifs. The design was very delicate, sometimes using a technique called en tremblant (with parts that would “tremble” as the wearer moved). A new and important discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 18th century resulted in the creation of jewelry that combined many diamonds with colored gemstones such as pink topaz and aquamarine. Lots of foil-backing—placing silver or colored foil between the stone and the back of the setting to create greater brilliance and enhance the color—was done in this period. During the mid 18th century, paste (glass), rhinestones, cut steel, and marcasites became extremely popular. In the second half of the 18th century, intaglios and carved gemstones became popular, and the style became more sentimental, with hearts, doves, and bows emerging. 

Victorian Period (approximately 1837–1901)

This period began with the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837. Victoria reigned for almost three-quarters of a century, so the jewelry we see covers a range of styles. Jewelry from the early Victorian period (the Romantic period) was light in feel and used small, inexpensive colored stones and seed pearls. The 1850s ushered in the Gothic Revival movement and a rebirth of the art of enameling. After the death of Prince Albert, in 1861, “mourning” jewelry was worn and the design was somber, usually made from jet or black onyx, sometimes with seed pearls. While most Victorian jewelry is associated with England, the finest Victorian pieces were made in France. These were of much greater quality overall, and were lighter, more delicate and more finely engraved and enameled. 

Arts and Crafts Movement (approximately 1885–1923)

A movement known as Arts and Crafts occurred in reaction to an increase in mass-produced jewelry. Fearing the loss of fine workmanship, jewelers who belonged to this movement made each piece by hand. Although gold was sometimes used, they worked mostly in inexpensive and less glamorous materials such as silver, beaten copper and aluminum, and they used inexpensive cabochon-cut or uncut stones. Diamonds were never used and faceted stones rarely. Opals and moonstones were especially popular, along with small, asymmetrical baroque pearls. There was little use of prong settings. Color was important, and many designs also incorporated bright enamel. 

Art Nouveau gold, sapphire and natural pearl necklace. Marcus & Company, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Joseph DuMouchelle, New York City.

Art Nouveau Period (approximately 1890–1915)

French jeweler Oscar Massin paved the way for the Art Nouveau period. His work from 1860 to 1880 inspired designers at the end of the 19th century to abandon the restraints of the day and start the new century with a fresh burst of creative energy. They took a bold new approach and were concerned more with the overall impression than with valuable gemstones. Using free-flowing designs, they focused on detailing in the metalwork, using unusual stones, incorporating other materials and using enamel to create works of art that were unique in every aspect. This period was one of great experimentation. Subjects were out of the ordinary: large irises, or butterflies and dragonflies captured in flight. The softly flowing movement and the more abstract character of Art Nouveau jewelry created a feeling of peace and serenity. 

Edwardian and Belle Epoque Period (approximately 1901–1914)

The Edwardian period coincides with the Belle Epoque (the French term that means “beautiful era”). During this period we find new styles of diamond cutting. While gold was still used, designers turned to platinum because of its strength and malleability. Platinum settings of this period, referred to as “marvels of engineering,” are so delicate and lacelike that one wonders how they did it, and how the settings have survived generations of wear. Jewelry from the Edwardian and Belle Epoque period has a feminine, romantic feel. It is characterized by very delicate lace-like open work, sometimes incorporating garlands and swags, and other times being more geometric. Natural pearls, seed pearls and diamonds were the preferred gems of the period.

Edwardian seed pearl, black opal and diamond necklace. Cartier, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Bonanno, New York City.

 Art Deco Period (approximately 1920–1935)

Jewelry of the Art Deco period usually reflects the free spirit of the Roaring '20s. Early Art Deco jewelry continued the “older” Art Nouveau style, characterized by flowing, curving lines, but this gradually moved toward stronger lines and geometric patterns. Platinum and diamonds were used extensively, but we see much greater use of less rare and costly gemstones, including citrine, peridot, aquamarine and garnet, and widespread use of jade, coral, and black onyx. The Art Deco period featured geometric shapes for colored gemstones, and also introduced unusual geometric shapes for diamonds. Another innovation was the use of colored gemstones to create geometric patterns. Since it was often too difficult and time-consuming to find perfectly matched rubies, sapphires and emeralds, some of the manufacturers of less costly jewelry would substitute lab-grown (also known as synthetic) stones. Given their small size and inconsequential total weight, the gemstone component was an insignificant factor in the overall value of the piece, but one must never assume the stones are natural, regardless of the genuineness of the diamonds and the use of platinum. 

Art Deco diamond, rock crystal, emerald and black enamel brooch. Mauboussin, circa 1926.  Photo courtesy of Kathryn Bonanno, New York City.
Retro period bangle bracelet in rose gold with citrine baguettes. Matching clip brooch. Cartier, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Bonanno, New York City.

Retro Period (approximately 1940–1950)

Retro jewelry emerged after World War II and it is very distinctive and readily recognizable. Gold and rose gold were the preferred metals, often used together. The goal was wearability, so pieces are not overly ornate or formal. The jewelry tends to be large and architectural in feel, often set with affordable colored gemstones such as citrine, aquamarine and peridot. One also finds diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, but often used in small sizes. Designs are seen where the metal seems to fold over and meld into itself, and unusual horn shapes and three-dimensional comet shapes were popular. Retro period jewelry is just coming into its own; it offers excellent value and is a very wearable, distinctive choice.

Many are drawn to jewelry from bygone eras because there is little that rivals these pieces for their distinctive and timeless allure—and there is something to meet virtually everyone's own personal style and budget. Authentic pieces are highly sought for their fine workmanship and rarity, and the names of certain designers or jewelry houses can also add dramatically to the value of authentic pieces. For example, any Victorian piece with the name of the Italian master jeweler Castellani will bring exceptional prices because he created some of the finest masterpieces of the day, while in the Art Deco period, many experts agree that Cartier was the finest of all jewelers. 

Antique and period jewelry is commanding higher prices today than ever before, but we cannot end this discussion without one word of caution: Whatever the period, beware of reproductions and pieces with authentic settings that have had the original stones replaced with inferior or synthetic stones. These are encountered in the marketplace for antique jewelry and pieces from collectible periods more than elsewhere, so one must take much greater care to confirm the authenticity of the period as well as of the gems set within to ensure it’s worth the asking price.

And for those who prefer contemporary jewels, let these pieces serve to remind you that if you choose wisely, paying close attention to the quality of the workmanship, uniqueness of the design and the beauty of the stones, the pieces you select today may become the coveted antique or period pieces of the future.