Buying Estate Jewelry: What you Need to Know

August 21, 2018 7 min read

Estate jewelry offers an exciting opportunity to those who love vintage jewelry, designs from a specific time period, and even pre-owned modern jewelry at a great value.

There’s a big market out there for “old” or antique jewelry with a lot of nuances. Whether you’re looking for a vintage engagement ring, wedding rings, or other types of estate jewelry, there are a few things you should know before you get started.

Learning about the different classifications, periods, and what to expect can help you make informed purchasing decisions and enjoy all that estate jewelry has to offer.

The Appeal of Estate Jewelry

People have worn jewelry for thousands of years. It’s been a reflection of culture, socio-economic status, and more recently personal style. Any jewelry that isn’t brand new has a story, and the older a piece is the more history it holds. It’s what makes estate jewelry so captivating. Shoppers can find unique pieces, or jewelry that reminds them of a certain time in their life. Or they use their imagination to bring the jewelry’s history to life.

On the practical side, it’s important to know the market. There are several terms that people use interchangeably, but not always in the correct way. Also, there are various jewelry periods with distinct design features. Let's start with an overview of some common jewelry terms.

Estate Jewelry Terms – What Antique, Vintage, Replica, and Motif Actually Mean

Do you love the look and feel of antique or vintage jewelry? Love shopping for these pieces from particular eras but not always sure what you’re looking at?

In the estate jewelry market there are several terms that are used, sometimes interchangeably but not always correctly. Read more about antique, vintage, replica and motif jewelry to learn more!

Antique Jewelry

Antique jewelry is the classification given to any piece that is over 100 years old.

Going by the defined period of jewelry, anything that was made before the Edwardian Period is antique, with many pieces made during the Edwardian Period also meeting the qualification to be considered antique.

Antique jewelry looks decidedly older, and typically they are either one-of-a-kind or one of only a few made in that period. Mass production of jewelry started before the Edwardian Period, but it was not on the scale that it is today. Also, time has made these pieces rarer as many of the mass-produced pieces have been lost or converted to other pieces.

Vintage Jewelry

The classification of vintage jewelry means that the piece exemplifies the era when it was made. They are iconic pieces that experts can glance at and know when they were made because they are very much a product of their time.

Two of the most notable types of vintage jewelry are from the:

  1. Art Deco Period

  2. Retro Period

Estate jewelry can include both antique and vintage jewelry and can be found at estate sales, being sold by individuals following the passing of a loved one or at a fine jewelry store with a specialty in estate and vintage jewelry.


Replica Jewelry

Replica jewelry has gotten a bad name because people tend to think of replica jewelry as knockoffs or counterfeits of other jewelry. However, replica jewelry is simply an imitation of an original piece, something that is made to look like a famous piece or from an earlier era.

Replicas can use the same materials, or similar ones, so that they are still valuable, just not as valuable as the piece they were made to imitate.

They may also use stones or metal from a vintage or antique piece. As long as jewelers and estates do not try to pass a piece off as an original when it is a replica, then it is fine. It does have to be disclosed that a piece is a replica, and not an original.

Motif Jewelry

Motif jewelry simply refers to jewelry that uses an established motif, or symbol, to depict a certain idea with the jewelry.

One of the most popular motifs is the heart shape, but the number of motifs varies, and many have been carried forward from ancient civilizations.

Many motifs have been used since people began making jewelry, some of which are still popular today. However, the symbolism behind them is often missed because people just like the shapes and styles.


A History of Classic Jewelry Periods

With the storied past of jewelry and humanity, there are countless eras, traditions, and cultures that can be identified. However, these are some of the major jewelry eras.

Georgian

The Georgian Era is named because it spans the reign of the four English kings named George (early 1700s to 1830s). It can be hard to come across pieces from this time period that are in good condition due to their age and their value as collectibles. Diamonds from this era were Rose Cut or Old Mine Cut, while design features ranged from flowers and foliage to animals and feathers. Jewelry was most commonly set in silver or silver fused to gold.


Victorian

The Victorian period spans from the 1830s to 1901 with the reign of Queen Victoria, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. With a booming economy, the middle class began to wear jewelry as well. Jewelry from this period includes everything from cameos to lockets, romantic and animal-themed jewelry, and seed pearls. Jewelry styles transitioned in the 1860s following Prince Albert’s death – heavier jewelry, black enamel, and onyx.


Arts & Crafts

Arts & Crafts (1890-1915) followed on the tail of the Industrial Revolution. The focus shifted to artisans making the jewelry and their skill as they crafted one-of-a-kind pieces. As a result, there were a lot of simple leaf and foliage designs using earth tones, hammered metals, and handcrafting techniques.


Edwardian

The Edwardian Period was between 1901 and 1920. The roughly 20 years were called “The Gilded Age” in the United States, and England suffered the death of their then longest reigning queen, Queen Victoria. Social change was occurring around the globe, and the jewelry of the time reflects the feelings of euphoria and change.

The old and new worlds blended together to create delicate, beautiful pieces that went well beyond the traditional jewelry. They were romantic, feminine, and lacy, with curvaceous and open designs. Women wore chokers and beautiful berets in their hair, as well as diamond-studded bows. Pearls were incredibly popular during this time, and the stones used to complement them were typically white or clear, creating a monochromatic or pastel look. Platinum was commonly used, or platinum over gold.


Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau describes jewelry made between 1895 and 1915 when France was experiencing “La Belle Epoque” and the end of the Victorian Era was happening in England.

As jewelry was beginning to be created based on a single industrial standard, artists still worked to make pieces that were singular, beautiful, and distinctive.

During the Victorian Era, jewelry started to be mass produced. The Art Nouveau Period was the short, poignant push by artists to prove that art had a place in jewelry. They created pieces that were far more innovative and stunning than those that were mass produced. The rise of some of today’s most popular motifs began during this time, such as dragonflies, butterflies, and water lilies crafted in calm, peaceful pastels. Also common were dancers, nymphs, and mermaids. Gemstones and diamonds were used modestly in the jewelry. Some artists used shimmering colors with fired enamels and even with plique à jour, a type of translucent enamel used with stained glass windows.


Art Deco

The Art Deco Period lasted from 1920 to 1939. It is easy to identify pieces created during this time as it reflected the lifestyle of the US during those polar opposite decades. It started during the Roaring Twenties and continued into the Great Depression.

Pieces from the Art Deco Period tend to have a more clinical feel as they focused more on architecture and bold, streamlined designs more than artistic feelings, with an emphasis on the gemstones and geometric shapes. Platinum continued to reign supreme. Diamonds were often accompanied by calibre sapphires or black onyx to create vibrant rings, opulent bracelets stacked on both wrists, and double clip brooches. Sautoir (long) necklaces were very popular.


Retro

The Retro Period lasted from 1935 to 1950, a time of war and then recovery around the world.

The jewelry shifted from the hard, sharp lines of the Art Deco period and moved into softer colors and more feminine motifs. This made the jewelry reflect the femininity of the women working in shops while the men were fighting in World War II. Platinum was in short supply during WWII, so jewelry transitioned to rose and rose-yellow gold. Designs were often asymmetrical and whimsical, featuring rubies and diamonds. Semi-precious stones also were common including citrine, amethyst, aquamarine, and moonstone.

The use of colored gold was very common because the jewelry could be worn without stones without sacrificing color. Pieces in the United States favored stones that were red, white, and blue, frequently adding all three to show patriotism.


Mid-Century

Mid-century jewelry includes the 1950s and early 1960s. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe! Jewelry transitioned back to platinum and diamonds, but designs were abstract and free-form or floral. Pave diamonds were extremely popular, as were brooches and cocktail rings. Yellow gold was quite visible as well.


The Sixties

The mid-to-late 1960s may make you think of culture rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll, but for jewelry during this time period you will find that it reflects pop-art and the hippie lifestyle. Larger diamonds and fine gemstones were less popular, replaced by colorful turquoise, lapis, malachite, tiger-eye, and onyx – predominately set in yellow gold. These pieces were asymmetrical and geometrical works of art.

What You Need to Know about Buying Estate Jewelry

Estate jewelry has grown in popularity over the last few decades, largely because antique shows that draw attention to the possibility of finding something rare or valuable (or both). Plus, it can be more cost-effective than new jewelry, and it comes with a history.

The public has become increasingly more interested in finding singular pieces that reflect a different time or that have a classic look not found in stores today. You also need to be careful when shopping at estate sales to make sure you know what you are getting.

If you are planning on purchasing estate jewelry, you can actually go to a specialized jeweler and see what they have on offer. This can greatly simplify the process and offers peace of mind, assuming that the jeweler is reputable and focuses on fine estate jewelry.

Specialized jewelers have a wealth of knowledge and can tell a good bit of the history of the time when a piece was made, even if they cannot tell you too much about the piece’s history. You can always ask if they know the history behind different pieces, as they may have some background history if they were provided that at the time they purchased the pieces. However, you will definitely have an accurate idea of how old a piece is.

Finally, know that estate jewelry is available at all price points. It all depends on your style, the type of estate jewelry you’re seeking, and its value.

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