Part of the joy of collecting old jewelry is determining the age of the piece. Estate jewelry available to the collector is readily divided into several historical periods.

Unless a piece is engraved with a specific date, a patent number, or a hallmark, arriving at a specific date is futile. Historians love to have beginning andending dates, but mass culture and taste have resulted in jewelry styles that overlap so-called jewelry periods.

The jewelry found on this website reflect styles from a historical period more than any specific time or date. For example, historians agree that the Victorian period ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, but Victorian-style jewelry was made well into the 20th century.


Nevertheless, old jewelry holds clues, if not to specific dates, at least to the identification of a general collectible period.

Timeline of Art History


Each period has jewelry styles that are easy to identify. The majority of old jewelry draws from the Victorian period mainly because it lasted so long -- starting in the late 1830's and continuing well into the 1900's. This period parallels the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

Recurrent themes of nature, history, sentimentality, and symbolism are reflected in the jewelry of the Victorian period. Victorians, known for their closed lips, nevertheless wore their sentiments on their shirt sleeves, so to speak. Hair jewelry, mourning jewelry (onyx, jet, died horn, glass, plastic), name and message jewelry, hand jewelry, and love brooches (knots) were worn, as well as "anchor of hope" and "heart of charity" motifs.

Nature was a source of inspiration for Victorians in the form of flowers, lovebirds, animals, and insects. Good luck symbols are found in clovers, horseshoes, and other symbols like hands, snakes, love knots, and crosses.

During the Victorian period, a revival of interest in older periods found its way into jewelry, including Etruscan (granulation of beads), Renaissance, and Scottish. Jewelry, such as cameos and mosaic jewelry, was often purchased during trips to Italy.

Identifiable motifs include stars, crescents, slides, tassels on pins, fleur d'lis, stick pins, bracelets, lockets, and pocket watches. Gem materials used include diamonds, seed pearls, turquoise, agate, garnets, opals, moonstones, coral, and blue zircon set in yellow gold and gold-filled jewelry. Jewelry methods included black enameling called "taille d'epargne," use of man-made stones, and pierced earrings.

ART NOUVEAU (1895-1915)

At the end of the Victorian period, a number of craftspeople broke away from the common styles and motifs, partly in response to industrialization and mass production. Much of the jewelry made by these Art Nouveau artists drew on themes involving nature and women.

The most important characteristic of this kind of jewelry is its free-flowing nature. As Walter Crance suggested, "the line is all important." The flowing lines found in Art Nouveau jewelry suggest the movement, passion, vitality, and youthful vigor in the new ideas of the turn of the century.

Equally important was the portrayal of women. Gone were the static Greek and Roman images found in Victorian cameos. They were replaced by women with flowing hair, sensual and passionate - reckless, untamed hair suggested the emancipation of women.

At the heart of the Art Nouveau movement were nature motifs, including flowers just budding or in decay, which symbolized the energy and dynamic forces of nature. This nature motif also included animals, snakes, and birds, such as peacocks.

An important jewelry manufacturing method in this period was the use of colored enamel, including specific enamel techniques like "plique a jour." Materials included non-precious stones like opal, moonstone, amber, pearls, and horn.

EDWARDIAN (1890-1920)

Queen Victoria's son finally ascended the throne in 1902, but Edward and his wife, Alexandra, had influenced jewelry well before that time. This period witnessed the rise of an incredibly wealthy class who wore jewelry which was distinctly different from the Victorian style. The color of gold changed from yellow to white and platinum was introduced. Craftsmen designed filigree rings, pins, and bracelets - a lacy, intricate look.

Edwardian motifs included garlands, bows, tassels, bar pins, tiaras, lavalieres, sautoirs, and multiple strands of seed pearls in choker length called dog collars. Many of the bar pins have a two-tone look - with a white metal top and yellow gold bottom.

Monochromatic looks were popular, so diamonds and pearls were used together set in white metal. Other gem materials included amethyst and peridot, the favorite stones of Alexandra and Edward, as well as some sapphire. Calibrated sapphires, both natural and synthetic, were introduced during this time.

ART DECO (1920-1935)

The period between the World Wars witnessed new interest in modernizing jewelry. Whereas the Edwardians drew from the past for inspiration, the designers of the Art Deco period welcomed the clean lines of the machine age. Forms inspired by nature or abstract sources followed geometric lines, in marked contrast to both Edwardian and Art Nouveau jewelry.

Motifs of the Art Deco period included the dress clip, with the double clip patented by Cartier in 1927, screwback and clip back earrings, circle pins, diamond and platinum link-style bracelets, sport jewelry, Egyptian jewelry (King Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922), and sautiers.

Unlike the Edwardians, this period's artists were seeking chromatic contrasts; thus, materials included diamonds matched with primary color gemstones like sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. Marcasite, glass beads, and even plastics appear in this period.

New diamond cuts were introduced to accentuate the geometric taste, including the emerald cut, triangle cut, trapeze cut, and marquis cut.

RETRO (1935-1955)

Even before World War II, jewelry was changing. The most obvious change was in the color of gold. After nearly 50 years, tastes were moving from white gold back to yellow gold. Government restrictions on metals during the war reinforced this change and the introduction of rose gold in jewelry.

The Retro look was an infusion of old and new - utilizing the curves of Art Nouveau with the clean simple look of Art Deco, but in a scale not seen before. Big is beautiful when it comes to describing jewelry of the Retro period. Gem material includes large aquamarines, citrines and amethysts. Because of the war, synthetic rubies are found in rose gold jewelry.

Motifs include bows, ribbons, flowers, birds, patriotic themes, clips, large floral sprays, and suites of jewelry.