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Vintage Jewelry - Buying Guide

Updated on January 4, 2013
Used Jewelry - or - Vintage Jewelry?
Used Jewelry - or - Vintage Jewelry? | Source

Used Jewelry

Used jewelry doesn’t sound quite as glamorous as other terms used to signify items that have been previously owned, does it? Sellers use more intriguing terms, like vintage jewelry, antique jewelry, estate jewelry, and retro jewelry. Some consumers like the sound of the terms, but they might not understand what each one really means. And, of course, there’s some overlap in the different terminology used, so it can get somewhat confusing. If you’re a novice at buying used rings, bracelets, pendants, and such, you’ll benefit from a little information before you head out to go shopping for jewelry. Below, I explain the differences among vintage jewelry, antique jewelry, estate jewelry, and retro jewelry. I also discuss some of the most popular historical periods for jewelry, along with some of the most common types seen in each period. When you shop for jewelry with some basic knowledge, you should definitely do a better job. At least you’ll have a few ideas about what to look for in your search. Happy jewelry shopping!

Cameos were super popular in the Victorian era.
Cameos were super popular in the Victorian era. | Source
Under Queen Victoria, the middle class expanded greatly.
Under Queen Victoria, the middle class expanded greatly. | Source
Victorian jewelry included pocket watches.
Victorian jewelry included pocket watches. | Source
Edwardian jewelry often used leaf and flower motifs.
Edwardian jewelry often used leaf and flower motifs. | Source
Hearts and pearls were also popular during the reign of King Edward VII.
Hearts and pearls were also popular during the reign of King Edward VII. | Source
During the Art Deco period, men often wore cufflinks with large geometric stones.
During the Art Deco period, men often wore cufflinks with large geometric stones. | Source
Art Deco jewelry often displayed geometric designs with gemsstones of different colors.
Art Deco jewelry often displayed geometric designs with gemsstones of different colors. | Source
Art Deco jewelry included Egyptian themes, too.
Art Deco jewelry included Egyptian themes, too. | Source

Vintage Jewelry

I’m sure you’ve heard of vintage jewelry, but do you really know what the term means? If you don’t, you shouldn’t feel alone. Even experts have different ideas about what constitutes vintage items. With jewelry, vintage usually means jewelry that is a good or excellent representation of a specific period. Such items are usually high quality, with genuine gemstones and/or real gold, silver, or platinum. The craftsmanship and attention to detail should be evident.

Some of the most sought-after jewelry comes from the Edwardian period, the Victorian period, and the Art Deco period. These are historical periods that were important in the making and wearing of specific styles of jewelry. Not familiar with all these eras? I’ll provide you with some information.

The Victorian period is the oldest of the ones I’ve mentioned. Historians don’t always agree with the exact years included in the era. It can be described as the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, from 1837 until 1901, or it can be said to begin with the 1832 Reform Act of Parliament. Although the Victorian era was part of British history, it had a huge impact on the United States and on the American public. Many of our customs and traditions at the time were influenced by those from “across the pond.” America’s answer to the Victorian period was the Gilded Age, which occurred between 1877 and 1893.

The Victorian era saw the rise of a powerful and prosperous middle class, and that’s often reflected in the wide range of vintage jewelry from the time. Many items were useful as well as decorative, including belt buckles, combs for the hair, cufflinks, kilt pins, pocket snuff boxes, pocket watches, and clasps and fasteners. Of course, many items were purely ornamental, including pendants, lockets, brooches, rings, earrings, bracelets, bangles, and necklaces. Gold replaced platinum as the most popular metal, and affordable gold-filled jewelry began to be made.

Some of the most popular gemstones during this era were diamonds, pearls, amethysts, emeralds, turquoise, jet, garnets, rubies, coral, sapphires, onyx, and aquamarine. Some of the most popular designs and motifs were flowers, birds, snakes, letter initials, Greek gods and goddesses, crescents, scarab beetles, leaves, hearts, stars, and crosses. Cameos were also extremely popular.

The Victorian era in Britain gave way to the Edwardian period, which began with the death of Queen Victoria, in 1901. Her successor to the throne was King Edward VII, who ruled until 1910. The Edwardian period, however, is often described as extending through 1919. The king traveled extensively and was interested in fashion and style. He brought new trends in art, design, and fashion to his subjects. Meanwhile, in the United States, a “nouveau riche” class was being created, and these people had money to spend on luxuries like jewelry.

During this period, gemstones were greatly admired, and they were often the focus of jewelry pieces. Diamonds were held in especially high esteem, as new methods of cutting and shaping the stones were discovered. White gold became popular, too, and in general, jewelry was more subdued and less colorful than it was in the the preceding era. Popular Edwardian jewelry items included necklaces, signet rings, birthstone rings, dome rings, diamond solitaire rings, brooches, barrettes, pendants, bow pins, choker necklaces, chain necklaces, and open-work bracelets. Some of the commonly seen motifs and designs include tassels, ribbons, bows, wreaths, leaves, garlands, scrollwork, butterflies, eagles, swallows, and hearts. Popular stones included diamonds, emeralds, peridot, black onyx, pearls, rubies, sapphires, amethysts, and opals.

The Art Deco period began in France in the mid-1920s and pretty much faded with World War II. It didn’t take long for it to have a major influence in the United States. These influences had an impact on architecture, furnishings, décor, cookware, apparel, art, and jewelry. Most of the vintage jewelry from this period is ornate or lavish, with many details. Some popular articles of the time included large rings, watch chains and fobs, small purses, wristwatches, ornate boxes, compacts, lipstick cases, brooches, lapel watches, line bracelets, heavy bracelets, jabot pins, lorgnettes, pendant necklaces, pendant watches, lockets, diamond-studded barrettes, bar pins, ear clips, and drop and chandelier earrings. Men often sported matching cufflinks, shirt studs, and vest buttons.

Designs, styles, and motifs included bold geometric shapes, filigree, mesh, dragons, flowers, flower baskets, fringe, horses, horse shoes, knots, flowing scrolls, fans, Egyptian themes, crosses, shells, and checkerboard patterns. Bows, a holdover from the Edwardian era, remained popular, too. Some of the most popular gemstones used were diamonds, sapphires, amethyst, citrine, emeralds, carnelian, rubies, jade, black onyx, opals, and aquamarine. Multiple gemstones were often included in a single item. When several different colors of stones were used, it was often referred to as “tutti-frutti.”

Victorian Jewelry:

Edwardian Jewelry:

Estate Jewelry can be a mixed bag of trash and treasures.
Estate Jewelry can be a mixed bag of trash and treasures. | Source

Estate Jewelry

Estate jewelry is a term that’s often applied to jewelry items that are part of an estate sale. In other words, it’s used jewelry. In most cases, the original owner has passed away, and his or her family is selling away the possessions. Estate jewelry has no specific age requirements. Pieces might be over a hundred years old, or they could have been purchased the previous year.

When buying estate jewelry, get as much information as you can on the jewelry for sale. Sometimes large estate sales will advertise on the internet and display the items that will be offered. That’s your chance to peruse the goods. If and when you find one that sparks your interest, use the photo and description to do your homework. Be sure to ask the seller about any marks or stamps on the items, too.

When you attend an estate sell in person but had no “preview” of the articles, examine pieces closely. Look for trademarks and hallmarks on gold, silver, and platinum jewelry. I recently wrote an article about how to shop for jewelry, so you can click the link to learn more about identifying real gold, silver, and platinum. Also, consider the condition of the jewelry for sale. Is it scratched? Does it have missing prongs around the gemstones? Is the precious metal worn in some places?

Buying estate jewelry often produces some great deals, but it can also offer some surprises and disappointments. Unless you’re a jewelry expert, it’s not wise to shell out big bucks for items you’re not completely sure about. Caveat emptor certainly applies here.

Antique Jewelry
Antique Jewelry | Source

Antique Jewelry

Antique jewelry includes items that are old. How old? Actually, there’s a debate about exactly how old items have to be to be classified as antique jewelry. Some “experts” state that an article has to be at least fifty years old, while others believe an item has to be at least one hundred years old to qualify as antique jewelry. Still others classify “antiques,” in general, as being at least sixty years old.

When you’re buying used jewelry, pay attention to exactly how an item is described. If it’s described as being “antiqued,” that doesn’t mean the item is old. In most cases, it means the item is new and has been treated in a way to make it appear older.

Newer jewelry made of precious metals is required to be stamped in order to let prospective buyers be sure of the quality. The law that requires stamping and hallmarks, however, wasn’t passed until 1906, so jewelry fashioned before that probably isn’t stamped. In some cases, you might also find gold jewelry that was handcrafted but lacks a stamp. It might still be “real” gold, however. A jeweler can tell you if the gold or silver is real.

If the pieces of antique jewelry you like include precious stones, there might be a report from an independent laboratory that accompanies the articles. In such a report, the gemstone is identified by an expert, and it’s usually graded, too. if a report like that is included with the jewelry, you can feel sure about your purchase.

Retro Jewelry was often fashioned into curves and spirals.
Retro Jewelry was often fashioned into curves and spirals. | Source
Retro rings often had large stones.
Retro rings often had large stones. | Source
a diamond wristwatch from the 1940s
a diamond wristwatch from the 1940s | Source
a gold locket from the 1930s
a gold locket from the 1930s | Source

Retro Jewelry

Retro fashion is hot these days, and that includes retro jewelry. What does the term mean, exactly? When Americans think of retro, many often think of items from the sixties and seventies. Retro jewelry is different, however, as the term is applied to a specific style and time period. The Retro Period for jewelry somewhat overlaps the end of the Art Deco period. It all began in 1896 when two men, Alfred Van Cleef and Salomon Arpels started a business that sold perfume, watches, and jewelry. Their Parisian boutique opened in 1906. The company became renowned for their “mystery setting,” in which gemstones were fitted into metal settings without the use of prongs.

In 1939, Van Cleef and Arpels created some special articles and took them to the World’s Fair in New York City. Two of the owners, Claude and Julius Arpels, remained in the U.S., and the following year, they opened a store in Palm Beach. Soon afterward, they opened a store in New York, on Fifth Avenue. When World War II broke out, most of the Arpels remaining in Europe immigrated to the U.S. and helped expand the business. Their jewelry stores offered a fashionable fusion of American and French styles. They remain extremely popular today, with Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry stores and boutiques in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with Retro Jewelry? The jewelry exhibited at the World’s Fair enjoyed tremendous public approval and influenced jewelry makers and designers for several years. In the seventies, Christie’s Auction House noticed the appeal and salient characteristics of the “French cocktail jewelry,” and the jewelry department head of the auction house gave it the name “Retro Jewelry.” Some of the most popular pieces included large brooches, mesh bracelets, charm bracelets, wristwatches, clips, chandelier necklaces, link necklaces, lapel pins, watch pins, portrait pins, ribbon pins, and rings with huge gemstones.

Gemstones often found include diamonds, sapphires, amethyst, emeralds, rubies, tourmaline, citrine, peridot, opals, and aquamarine. Different colors of gold were often used together, and many articles included soft, flowing curves. Designs and motifs often seen are birds, shells, hearts, ballerinas, flower baskets, blooming roses, ruffles, knots, spirals, swirls, sunbursts, fans, butterflies, cameos, clover leafs, horses, bows, dogs, and cats. Military-inspired designs were also commonly seen. Many of the designs are three dimensional.

The Retro period style of jewelry began to fade away not long after 1950. Retro jewelry is a hot commodity today, though, as many consumers appreciate the bold yet feminine designs, along with some of the more whimsical pieces.

Art Deco and Retro Jewelry:

Turquoise is in style again!
Turquoise is in style again! | Source

Fashion Trends

What are the latest fashion trends in jewelry? Vintage jewelry from the Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, and Retro periods are much sought after today, and they can bring hefty prices. Certain jewelers and designers are also in demand, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Carven French, Cartier, Graff, and Bvlgari. If you find any pre-1960 Tiffany items, you might want to grab them.

Emeralds, aquamarine, and tourmaline from Brazil are also very popular now, in everything from rings to bracelets to necklaces. Combinations of black and white stones are trending, along with using several different colored gemstones together. When featured alone, the trend is more to milky, opaque, or pearlescent gemstones. Some of the most popular jewelry features rough-cut stones or gemstones in irregular shapes that are more natural in appearance.

As for earrings, large teardrops, classic hoops, and lace, filigree, diamond studs, and fringe earrings are making a splash. The most popular bracelets are twist bracelets, cuff bracelets, spiral bangles, braided bracelets, diamond tennis bracelets, and wrap bracelets. The hottest in necklaces seem to include bib necklaces, charm necklaces, fringe necklaces, and tassel necklaces. Large stone pendants are making a comeback, too. Strands of pearls, including vintage jewelry, have come back strong.

Trendy motifs include serpents, owls, infinity knots, crosses, turtles, lizards, bows, hearts, and geometric shapes. And believe it or not, cameos are back in style. My mom would be so happy to know that. I suppose I can drag out all her old cameo brooches and wear them with confidence now. Since the cameos are antique jewelry, I’ll be killing two birds with one (gem)stone!

White gold is quickly replacing yellow gold as America’s favorite precious metal. Another type of gold, rose gold, is gaining ground, too. Rose gold is a combination of yellow gold, copper, and silver. It’s available in different shades and purities. And don’t overlook sterling silver. It’s fashionable again.

I’m very happy to see the Southwestern – Native American look coming back. For me, it’s never gone out of style! The latest jewelry trends include lots of turquoise and coral, often accompanied by feathers, conchos, shells, leather, and antiqued silver. Sometimes mother-of-pearl is used, too, for a totally natural yet colorful look.

If you’re really interested in the latest jewelry trends, check out what runway models and celebrities are wearing. Of course, you might not care a thing about fashion jewelry, and that’s okay. It’s fine to have your own unique style and to wear what you like and what looks good on you. And don’t forget that some classics are timeless and never go out of style, like tasteful jewelry made of high-quality components.

Shopping for Jewelry
Shopping for Jewelry | Source

Shop Jewelry

Are you ready to shop for jewelry now? Where are the best places to find vintage jewelry, antique jewelry, and retro jewelry? Obviously, your typical jewelry stores in the mall aren’t going to sell used jewelry, in most cases. You already know that estate sales can be great sources, but you might not be able find any in your area. The best place to look for estate sales is online. You can narrow your search by state, and some of the larger sales will have pictures posted. There’s usually an email address where you can send your questions.

Auctions are other places to find jewelry. Many auction houses have catalogs available for upcoming auctions, with photographs and descriptions of the items listed. Some auction houses also have websites that provide details of future auctions, with a list of items, along with photos and descriptions. With some, you can even bid online. Checking out the items beforehand is always a good idea, whether you do it in person, online, or via a catalog.

You might also find some rare, interesting antique jewelry at antique shops. Unless the owner has a vast knowledge of jewelry, he might not be much help. You can examine items yourself, however, and take photographs. Then you can research the items online or at your local library.

Private sales are another way to find used jewelry. Even though our local newspaper is fairly small, there are just about always ads in it for jewelry, especially for diamond rings and wedding bands. When you’re dealing with an individual, however, you need to take special care in the quality and authenticity of the jewelry.

Have you ever checked out pawn shop jewelry? Don’t laugh – one of my pals is a “jewelryholic,” and she’s found some beautiful old pieces of pawn shop jewelry. She didn’t pay much for most of the items she’s bought, but she had them examined by a jeweler, and they were all real gold, with real gemstones.

The best place to find antique jewelry and vintage jewelry is in online jewelry stores. You’ll find a huge selection, and the better jewelry stores give lots of details about each item. The purity of the gold, silver, or platinum is usually listed, along with the type of precious stones or semi precious stones. For vintage jewelry, the approximate year the jewelry was made, along with the period it represents, is also explained, in most cases. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll most likely pay more for items you find in online jewelry stores. On the other hand, reputable stores will provide you with lots of information on a specific item, and you can be sure the information is correct. You might find that much more comforting than buying antique jewelry from a less knowledgeable and less reputable source.


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    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      7 years ago from Planet Earth

      I'd love to have you along when I go to estate sales or garage sales (which I don't do that often). I never know what is a good deal, or when I am getting ripped off!

    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Fran, that sounds like fun! I've made a few pieces of inexpensive jewelry. Best of luck to you!

    • Francesca27 profile image


      7 years ago from Hub Page

      Thanks, I needed to learn about this stuff. I recently took a course and will be making my own jewelry from now on. You really helped me learn about the different era's jewelry history.

    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Hscribe, your kind words are much appreciated. Aloha to you, too!

    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks a bunch, Doc! Always great to see you!

    • Hawaiian Scribe profile image

      Stephanie Launiu 

      7 years ago from Hawai'i

      Thanks so much for this great hub! It is so thorough and fact-filled; I'll have to save it and go over it again to soak everything up. I loved all of the photos. Voted Up, awesome, beautiful, interesting, and sharing on pinterest. Aloha, Stephanie

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      'Caveat emptor' must prevail, Holle, when purchasing vintage jewelry. Thanks for providing such a complete commentary on the subject.

    • habee profile imageAUTHOR

      Holle Abee 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Carol, I don't wear a lot of jewelry, either. I have a few nice pieces of antique jewelry that I inherited, but otherwise, when I wear jewelry it's almost always turquoise. I love it!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      Lots of great information on all kinds of jewelry. Loved looking at the photos of the old pieces. I wear little jewelry but love looking at it. Voting UP and Pinning.


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