How To Find The Best Antique Jewelry For Your Style

The fun kind of history lesson.

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1950s jewelry

What is often “new” in fashion is often not actually as new as you’re led to believe. Eras passed can inspire what’s in stores right now. But, as consumers increasingly turn to the secondhand market — whether it be for it bags or engagement rings — more of the past is being celebrated all at once. This intersection between style and history is especially celebrated when examining the iconic jewelry trends through the decades that are back again. “All types of jewelry are available today, from antiquity to medieval and Renaissance periods through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries right up to contemporary times,” 1stDibs Director of Fine Art and Editorial Director Anthony Freund tells TZR. “There are not a lot of other collecting categories to match that impressive time span and breadth.”

It’s still possible to find (and buy) jewelry that dates back several centuries, which is equal parts exhilarating and befuddling. For starters, how do you know if it’s authentic? “There are tell-tale signs to confirm a piece’s authenticity when looking at a diamond or a jewel from a different era,” Greenwich St. Jewelers Co-owner Christina Gandia Gambale says. “The piece is examined by the level of craftsmanship, stampings, or condition of the stones. Replicas can never imitate these features.” Freund also recommends doing research on the era you’re looking for and asking the seller questions. “You should have no reservations about asking the seller to share accompanying documentation or information on past provenance,” he says. “The extent you want (and need) to go to verify authenticity is ultimately tied to how expensive the piece is. If the jewel is a serious investment, you should pursue your research as far as you need to have peace of mind.” He adds that this might even entail taking the piece on approval and showing it to another respected dealer, jewelry historian, or museum curator.

The purpose of buying an antique or vintage piece of jewelry could be tied to a few occasions. The first that comes to mind is an engagement. Both Freund and Gambale have seen a surge in popularity with engagement rings from the Art Deco era. “The geometric designs from this period remain prominent in buyers' minds when seeking an antique design,” Gambale says. However, if your purchase isn’t linked to a proposal but simply a desire to invest in something sentimental, continue ahead for a guide to different periods of jewelry from the Western world you can still shop now.

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Georgian (1714 - 1835)

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This period covered the reigns of five English kings, four of which were named George. Distinguishing factors, Freund explains, include intricate labor and intensive work, stones set in closed-back settings, and lots of enamel with ribbon and foliate motifs. “Chandelier earrings, Riviere necklaces, and ancient cameos were popular in this time period,” he adds. “The price for a piece from the Georgian era should be over $1,000 and can go very high depending on provenance and materials.” Gambale also says to keep an eye out for bow motifs and teardrop shapes. “They were common elements in these jewels, which were often large in size,” she says. “They featured everything from diamonds, sapphires and emeralds to topaz, citrine, and amethysts.”

Victorian (1837 - 1901)

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Queen Victoria’s long reign heavily influenced the jewelry style of this era. "It initially embodied romantic jewelry with floral motifs and themes symbolizing love, later transitioning to black enamel details to represent the mourning period after Prince Albert’s [passing],” Gambale says. Freund breaks down this extensive era into a few main periods. Romantic (1837-1860), with “influences in this era including Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and Ancient Greek and Roman mythology,” Freund says. “Interestingly, serpents became a popular motif after Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria a snake engagement ring.” Then there was the Grand Period (1861-1880), after Prince Albert passed away. “Black mourning jewelry became the trend and featured darker motifs like skulls and skeletons using onyx or black glass,” he says. “Cameos also grew in popularity.” And lastly, the Aesthetic Period (1881-1901), which is punctuated by jewelry motifs like peacocks, flowers, insects and Japanese-inspired forms. “Diamonds were downgraded from ultra-luxurious jewels to a style that could be worn for every day for a more modest approach to jewelry,” Freund notes.

Art Nouveau (1890 - 1910)

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The Art Nouveau period was influenced, Gambale explains, by organic forms and nature. “This era’s designs drew inspiration from nature (birds, flowers and the female form) and had a soft, whimsical feeling,” Freund adds. “New materials such as enamel, molded glass, and ivory along with precious stones were common.”

Edwardian (1901 - 1915)

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Gambale explains you can spot an Edwardian piece of jewelry by its platinum, pearls, and diamonds. “The designs were airy and feminine with exquisite craftsmanship and intricate details,” she says. Freund also explains that Cartier was a new company during this time period. “The company gained popularity because of its elaborate and delicate designs,” he says. “Popular motifs included bows, ribbons, and flowers.”

Art Deco (1920 - 1935)

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“Jewelry made in the 1920s and 1930s blended glamour and luxury and was characterized by geometric patterns and abstract designs using diamonds and gemstones in contrasting colors,” Freund says. He also adds that jewelry designs of the time mirrored relevant art movements such as Cubism (with its geometric motifs) and Fauvism (featuring strong colors). “Ornate Asian and Middle Eastern architectural and design influences were popular during this period as well,” he says.

Retro (1940s - 1950s)

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Jewelry that is considered from the Retro era features “bold, chunky gold showcasing big gemstones that were less costly like citrine, aquamarine, topaz, and tourmaline,” Gambale explains. Freund says the jewelry of this time was designed to offset the sober style of the WWII era, so motifs like flowers, bows, and butterflies were prevalent. “Less expensive stones and materials were often used because resources were limited during wartime,” he says. “Typically, large semi-precious stones were featured for an impressive and bold look.”

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