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The Eras of Antique & Vintage Jewelry

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Portrait of Queen Victoria by Franz Xavier Winterhalter
A Portrait of Queen Victoria by Franz Xavier Winterhalter

Vintage, antique, and estate jewelry have a certain romantic allure. They come to us having been loved, filled with their own histories and stories. But what’s the difference between vintage and antique? And what is estate jewelry? Learn about the historical jewelry periods—from Georgian and Victorian to Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco, and Retro—to the differences in vintage, antique, and estate jewelry in this primer piece.

Edith & Aster founder and gemologist Erica Swallow adapted the below content from educational resources provided by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) during her studies there.

Antique, Vintage, or Estate?

There are dramatic, yet straight-forward differences between antique, vintage, and estate pieces. In short:

  • Antique jewelry is at least 100 years old.
  • Vintage jewelry is between 50 and 100 years old.
  • Estate jewelry is any jewelry that was previously owned.

To dig into these three types of jewelry, learn about the differences between antique, vintage, and estate jewelry.

Key Eras of Historical Jewelry

While jewelry has been in existence since ancient times, jewelry that is still accessible and worn—or displayed—today falls into six historical eras:

  1. Georgian (1714-1837)
  2. Victorian (1837-1901)
  3. Art Nouveau (1890-1914)
  4. Edwardian (1900-1915)
  5. Art Deco (1920s-1930s)
  6. Retro (1940s)

Georgian (1714-1837)

Georgian emerald and diamond ring (courtesy Doyle & Doyle)

The early eras of jewelry history are named for English royalty. The Georgian period (1714-1837) encompasses the reigns of five English monarchs, including the Georges I, II, III, IV, and William IV. Georgian jewelry is regal and ornate in nature and features:

  • Intricate, artistic, hand-crafted metalwork
  • Closed-back settings with foil backings
  • Rose cut, old mine cut, table cut, cabochon, and briolette cut gems

Georgian jewelry is quite rare today. As it is delicate, most Georgian jewelry in existence is likely displayed rather than worn.

Victorian (1837-1901)

Victorian Ruby and Diamond Ring - Christie's
Victorian oval-cut ruby and old-cut diamonds, circa 1900 (courtesy Christie’s)

The Victorian period (1837-1901) includes a variety of styles popular during the reign of England’s Queen Victoria. Some key features include:

  • Matching sets of ornate gemstone jewelry
  • Sentimental or romantic symbols
  • Mourning jewelry made of jet and other black materials
  • Ornamental locks of human hair
  • Cameos, typically featuring a pale silhouette against a dark background

As Queen Victoria reigned for nearly 64 years—making it the longest reign of any female monarch in history, it should be noted—the period marks a variety of styles. The period saw revivals of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Gothic, and Renaissance motifs—and archeological jewelry was of particular fascination, as various excavations were under way, unearthing ancient treasures that delighted the mind.

Art Nouveau (1890-1914)

Art Nouveau Sapphire and Enamel Ring by Rene Lalique
Art Nouveau sapphire and enamel ring by René Lalique (courtesy Christie’s)

The Art Nouveau period (1890-1914) is home to jewelry inspired by the Art Nouveau decorative arts movement, which highlighted natural motifs and forms, specifically the free-flowing curves of plants and flowers. You can spot an Art Nouveau piece if it includes some of the following:

  • Curved lines
  • Realistic portrayals of nature, including birds, dragonflies, birds, flowers, and trees
  • Fantastical creatures, including dragons or mythical beasts
  • Designs of women transformed into mermaids, winged sprites, or flowers

Art Nouveau jewelry pays tribute to the beauty of nature.

Edwardian (1900-1915)

Edwardian Diamond Cluster Emerald Frame Ring - Doyle & Doyle
Edwardian Diamond Cluster Emerald Frame Ring (courtesy Doyle & Doyle)

Another English monarch, another period of jewelry! The Edwardian period (1900-1915) marks the reign of King Edward VII, and it got pretty fancy in these times. This is the period that first saw platinum metal used widely. Edwardian trends were all about using only the best of everything: the most precious metals and the most costly gems. Edwardian jewelry is quite dainty and feminine in nature, with filigree being a go-to style for settings. Some features of Edwardian jewelry include:

  • Platinum and 18k gold mountings, often using the filigree technique
  • Wide use of pearls, opal, and diamonds, as well as colored gemstones, such as ruby, sapphire, and emerald
  • Delicate motifs including garland, ribbons, bows, lace, crescents, starbursts, laurel wreaths, crowns, swallows, and butterflies

If you’re looking for the finer things in life, you’ll likely find something of great joy in the Edwardian period.

Art Deco (1920s-1930s)

Art Deco ruby and diamond ring in platinum - Skinner
Art Deco ruby and diamond ring in platinum (courtesy of Skinner)

The 20th century saw a departure from English-monarchy-centric naming conventions to more internationally-relevant names. Thank goodness. When you think Art Deco (1920s-1930s), think Roaring ’20s. Flappers, jazz, and the Charleston, baby. Some attributes:

  • Geometric patterns and straight lines
  • Bright, bold, contrasting colors
  • Intricate use of gemstones in settings
  • Brilliant, scintillating diamonds, thanks to advanced cutting techniques

Art Deco jewelry can range in quality. This is the era when technology-enhanced jewelry making became more popular. More advanced gem cutting techniques emerged and metal casting lent way to less handmade settings. This era was about the boldness of the Jazz Age, but technological advances in this era also made way for more consumers to be able to afford jewelry.

Retro (1940s)

Retro amethyst ruby diamond ring - Christie's
Retro amethyst, ruby, and diamond ring in rose gold (courtesy Christie’s)

The Retro era (1940s) goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood’s golden age and takes place right after the start of World War II. During this time, gems were in short supply and platinum was reserved for use by the military. So, jewelers leaned on what was available during these lean years: gold and diamonds. Common attributes of Retro jewelry include:

  • Bold, sculpted yellow and rose gold metals
  • Settings with small diamonds, rubies (often laboratory-grown), and light-colored sapphires
  • Floral and bow motifs in colored gems
  • Mechanical motifs inspired by bicycle chains, padlocks, and tank treads

Want to learn more about the periods of historical jewelry? Browse our collection by period and see if you can recognize what makes each piece unique for its era.

Browse our Collection

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