A Complete Vintage Jewellery Guide By Era

From opulent Georgian vintage jewellery to geometric Art Deco – this guide encompasses jewellery from the mid 1700’s to the early 1960’s; complete description of jewelry terms, styles and examples, including where to buy specific items from each era.

Georgian Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1714 – 1830 (may include pieces crafted as late as 1837)
Jewellery Style – Opulent / Handmade

The jewellery of this era may be termed vintage but is also correctly labeled antique, since it officially only requires 100 years to convert an item into an antiquity. The time frame that this jewelry style covers is quite vast and therefore not characterized by a single defining feature, considering that it covers more than a hundred years of history, however one thing that the pieces tend to have in common is that they are all made by hand.

Just to clarify the period, it is the time from the start of the British Kings of the House of Hanover, namely the Georges – George I through IV –which is how this time span gets its name. It may extend into the reign of King William IV, which would bring us up to the year 1837.

This total period in history is especially noteworthy in the jewellery world because it was a time of regal plenty, of indulgence and particular extravagance, to the point of opulence, especially amongst the elite royal households of Europe.

It is exactly such profligate and brazen excesses in fashion, jewellery and art that caused the extreme uneven distribution of wealth to become a cause for revolt amongst the peoples. Therefore, while being a time of great opulence, it is also marked by some of the most notorious upheavals in history such as the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars.

Jewellery trends are influences by both political events and by the architectural and religious influences of the period. For example, the designs begin with an exaggerated ornate and flowery Rococo (or baroque) style and graduate into Gothic and then into what was termed Neoclassical – derived from the Grecian motifs that were popular as exemplified by headbands. Some of the bands worn on women’s heads were gemstone or pearl encrusted, and the armbands, which became very popular, imitated how the ancient Greek women were known to wear jewellery high up on their bare forearms.

Naturally, the Neoclassic trend included hairdos that were swept up and therefore, with necklines open, long dangle earrings came into vogue as did necklaces that filled the décolletage of the exposed throat and upper breast region above women’s gowns. That is why nowadays there are many fine examples of these vintage necklaces, and also those that are choker styles with ornate craved cameos and short, multi-strand necklaces with rows of gemstones, especially diamonds.

Many gorgeous antique necklaces and vintage brooches remain to this day as witnesses of the extravagant luxuries of that era.

What’s interesting about the jewelry of that period is that since clear stones, mostly diamonds, were so popular, another form of sparkle came into use, namely ones that were not so costly like marcasite and crystal and almost anything with a bit of sparkle, including highly polished metals.

One of the oddest things that occurred, which affected jewelry, was the political situation in Europe, and in specific Germany. To fund wars, those who offered their genuine gemstone and diamond jewels to battle causes were rewarded with blackened iron replicas, which are now seen in vintage pieces, most notably lacey iron necklaces. Another thing that modern retro and vintage fashion fans may not realize is that the choker ribbon jewelry, particularly in black and red, were worn during the time of France´s Madame guillotine, and the tightness of the ribbon tied around the throat was a symbol of decapitation of those who became victims of that fanatical judicial system.

Genuine Georgian vintage jewellery does exist but it’s not very common and naturally is expensive. A factor to consider when choosing collectable pieces, is that although in some cases the pieces may be valuable and gem laden, each piece was crafted by hand and under varying economic and political conditions, so the quality varies almost as much as the design.

There’s a bit of crossover from Georgian to early Victorian if the latter years(up to 1837) are included. While the motifs of the latter part of the Georgian jewelry period were often inspired from nature as were the initial Victorian jewelry pieces, the Victorian era saw a lot more colored gemstones.

The Victorian era is divided into three parts: Early, Mid and Late, and in terms of fashion, jewelry and art, are more correctly termed Romantic, Grand and Aesthetic. The total time covered is over a hundred years, from 1837 to about 1900, however, in the latter years of the Victorian era there emerged some very different styles that led into what is termed the Arts and Crafts jewelry period and continued until the age of early Art Deco.

Not all scholars agree on the exact dates that divide these eras in terms of architecture, fashion, jewelry and art, however, loosely speaking the dates below are acceptable for determining to which time period particular pieces of vintage jewellery pertain.

Where to buy Georgian Vintage Jewellery

Antique and vintage fine jewellery from the Georgian period is available online at a wonderful shop called Georgian Jewelry. They offer free international shipping. Their select pieces are genuine and come with a complete description. This is collector quality jewelry. Please remember that antique vintage jewellery that’s genuine is not cheap. Prices range from about $800 to several thousand.

Just in case you’re wondering where to get a pair of genuine Georgian pinchbeck earrings, you’ll find them at Georgian Jewelry for about $2,500.

Amongst other creations of this opulent era, you’ll find a faceted oval amethyst necklace and earring set that has incredible detailed rose flowers in solid yellow gold and dazzling, deep purple amethyst gems for both the pendant, on the double strand necklace, and as the central gem for the matching earrings. The set is unique, handmade, dated between 1820 and 1830, thought to have been crafted in France. It costs almost $7,500 –ideal for serious vintage jewellery collectors.

Early Victorian Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1837 – 1855
Jewellery Style – Romantic

Historically speaking, the Victorian era encompasses the entire reign of Queen Victoria, which began in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. In the early years, the queen’s love for jewelry aided to revive the fashion and jewelry trends of Europe (albeit not as opulently as it had been in the early Georgian years), since styles had become more toned-down after wars and especially after the French Revolution when opulence and extravagance was a crime punishable by death. However, in Britain, with the empire spreading throughout the world and peace and prosperity being a major influence upon the nobles, courts and people, there was a resurgence of delicate, feminine and elegant jewelry – and that is why the early Victorian era is labeled Romantic.

Another factor that contributed to what Victorian Jewelry would end up being known for was that the British empire was in India, Malaysia and the Orient, and exotic materials, gemstones, metals, and even woods, ethnic motifs and carvings, now became popular and influenced fashion and jewelry to a great extent.

Also the ability to “manufacture” jewelry and use wire and semi-precious stones and beads and even glass, made jewelry available to more people from the non-noble classes. What is meant by manufacturing jewelry was a far cry from an industry, but it became possible for a craftsman to create a series of items that were virtually identical, using stamping and other techniques that were appearing on the scene.

Since happiness in the royal court was a dominate factor, jewelry was made in happy motifs, using small seed pearls and soft delicate corals, and lovely mementos like lockets with hair and pictures were part of nearly every young ladies possessions.

There was also a Scottish element to the jewellery crafted in the Victorian era, in part due to the castle that Albert and Victoria bought in Scotland and in part because the queen loved all things Scottish, which is evident in the brooches, bracelets and certain motifs of the era. .

The gold content of the vintage pieces you might find for sale today will vary greatly. Here’s why. Gold and silver wire began to be used instead of forged metal or hand pounded heavier settings. More delicate wire allowed for the jewelers to make sheets of precious metals, that began as 18k and 22k, but eventually were standardized into much lower gold content. By 1854 there was 15k, 12k and even 9k gold wire and therefore not very pure gold jewelry. Gold plating over silver was also used, but it was called rolled gold, and then there was Vermeil which is also gold over silver using a specific quantity of gold.

By the way, aside from the classic animal, insect and floral motifs that were employed in this period, there was a resurgence of mythical creatures and Germanic and Scandinavian symbols. Sentimentality was at an all time high….romance was paramount, symbolism loved and poetry abundant. It was not just a time full of hope and playful mystery but a time when everything could hold a secret meaning to a loved one…for example bluebells were about loyalty and constancy, and a butterfly (which was a very common motif of the day) was a representation of the Soul. Daisies were about innocence, which was rather abundant within the realms of maidens, and yet the funniest symbol of all was that of a lizard, which symbolized love that was passionate. Needless to say, superstition was alive and well in the Romantic early Victorian jewelry era.

Have you ever wondered why colored gems were so much more popular in the early Victorian era than they were previously when clear and white diamonds were in vogue? Well, the answer is about using colored gems to spell messages, usually about love, and therefore amethysts, rubies, emeralds and pearls (as well as diamonds) were required to set meaningful message-laden jewelry. Just as an example: pearls symbolized the word tears. Very appropriate.

Due to the availability and cost of other gems, the most common gems that you’ll find in the early vintage Victorian jewellery that’s for sale today will be opal, pearl, amethyst and turquoise. Pearl, especially teeny seed pearls, and baroque pearls that are odd shapes, were the most common.

Just a small note: if you see some Georgian or Victorian jewellery that looks like gold but isn’t, that’s because it’s probably a kind of metal that was termed “pinchbeck” and is in fact a blend of zink and copper, but has a similar color as gold. Don’t worry about it being non-precious worthless metal because if you happen to come across a piece that’s genuine pinchbeck, it’s probably more valuable than genuine gold!

Mid Victorian Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1856 – 1880
Jewellery Style – Grand / Solemn

The delicate and romantic jewellery of the early period gave way to a more somber and heavy look. This may have been, in part, due to Queen Victoria’s personal life that took a turn for the worse, marking less happy times after the death of her beloved husband, and therefore introducing what is known as “mourning jewellery”.

The poetic romance of light and bright colored gemstones were replaced to some extent with darker ones, deep red garnets, somber jet, black onyx, and darker amethysts. Interestingly, as with all things tragic and mournful, creativity took an upward turn. Much richer tones, more profoundly elegant designs, elaborate mosaics and blends of gemstones were used by jewelers to create less fun and frivolous pieces in favor of more Grand and majestic items – therefore the term GRAND is used when referring to this mid Victorian period in terms of fashion, jewelry and art.

There existed a marked distinction between day and eveningwear, for example: it was acceptable to wear shell, jasper, agate and mosaic pieces during the day, and diamonds and more elaborate gemstone sparkle for evening.

Elaborate Etruscan motifs and hand carved frames became popular due to certain ancient discoveries in Tuscany. It’s interesting how archeology, conquests, travel and science, as well as political events and personal events in the lives of European monarchs, served to shape fashion and jewelry trends. Due to the archeological discoveries mentioned above, two very unique and famous styles emerged, one known as Cannatille, the other Repousse. Naturally vintage jewelry collectors will recognize Cannatille for been crafted intricately and elaborately stylized with gold wire. Repousse is not so delicate – more massive, solid.

The cameo continued to gain popularity during the age of mourning, and instead of being small items, became carved masterpieces. Mourning jewelry was dark, as might be expected, etched or carved silhouettes and elaborate cameos were crafted in black seashell, lava rock, dark onyx and even horn and bone. Lockets didn’t wane in fashionability, since keepsakes and remembrance items were a large part of what made jewelry that mourned deceased loved ones popular.

Lockets were known to have places for locks of hair or other small mementos. It’s hard to explain how the mournful state of the Queen affected the fashion and jewelry of that era without mentioning that Queen Victoria herself remained in mourning, and only wore mourning attire and dark somber “mourning jewellery” from the time of her husband’s, Prince Albert, death in 1861 until her own death in 1901! That impacted the Victorian jewelry design to such an extent that high society crafted elaborate rules to regulate what colors were appropriate to wear when and how soon a person could add a little color to the wardrobe after the demise of a loved one.

Although the Victorian era is romanticized and thought to be a colorful epoch, the fact is that prudery, sadness, mournfulness and a lot of black became dominate during the mid period. The prudery and darkness that was beginning to overtake European courts and even spreading to overseas colonies who were susceptible to prudish ways, was thankfully reversed to some extent by Alexandra of Denmark who at sixteen years of age married Edward the Prince of Wales, who was heir to the throne and would be Queen Victoria’s successor. Alexandra’s gracious style and delicate nature, as well as her well-known jovial and endearing mannerisms, influenced fashion and infused delicate femininity and aesthetic beauty to jewelry, with softer, lighter gemstone jewelry gradually taking over the heavier mournful pieces.

Late Victorian Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1885 – 1900
Jewellery Style – Aesthetic

As stated in the section above, the influence of Alexandra of Denmark (who became Queen-Empress consort during the reign of King-Emperor Edward VII, and later was known as Queen Alexandra) so altered the jewelry and fashion trends that the entire period is known as one where jewelers returned to sparkle and gemstones that were splendid and light – translucent diamonds, pink and red spinels, light blue sapphires, soft green peridot and others. It’s disputed when this era began and ended, however the style of the latter part of the Victorian period is indeed characterized as a feminine one, with pearls and fun motifs returning to lighten the hearts of wearers. Aside from the femininity of Alexandra, the other major influence was Japan.

Trade began between Europe and Japan, most notable as it concerns jewelry, with the pearl trade, and the beginning of the development of the cultured pearl farms in Japan, lowering the price of these organic gems and making them more accessible to average people. Aside from pearls, the Japanese delicate motifs found on silk fabrics were incorporated into fashionable trends and also affected the patterns that were used in jewelry – fan-like brooches and motifs, delicate insects, floral patterns and soft minimalist colors began to be incorporated into the European designer creations.

Also archeological discoveries in Egypt and other regions brought things such as scarab beetle jewelry into popularity. Also, a technique known as pietra dura, which was characterized by inlaying stones and mosaics to create scenes, became fashionable. Micromosaics were used to depict full scenes, landscapes, architectural forms and detailed insects in jewellery.

Then came Darwin. Yes, even he influenced jewelry and fashion, making insects and rare botanical forms popular. Butterfly pins, which characterized the early period as a symbol of the soul, became popular once again for different reasons, more scientific and less romantic ones. Also beetles and tropical animals were incorporated into jewelry designs, studded with sparkling gems and pearls.

In the United States, silver became abundant, and made forging jewelry more affordable. Glass was also more popular due to Czech glass creations and distribution throughout Europe. Trade between Asia, Europe and the Americas was on the rise and the world was on the brink of change with the turn of the century offering innovations. The industrial revolution in Britain caused some unusual effects in terms of jewelry that would follow, with a short span termed the Arts and Crafts movement.

Arts and Crafts Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1894 –1923
Jewellery Style – Handcrafted / Artisan

This is a time that overlaps the Victorian era and the Edwardian epoch, and appears to be a style that took hold as a reaction to industrialization. Handcrafted jewelry resurfaced with intricate details and gorgeous patterns in gemstones that were not cut or facetted, therefore being more natural and craft-like.

The focus of this time was on naturalness, truth, influenced immeasurably by people such as John Ruskin, who was an art critic as well as a commentator on moral and social issues, famed for popularizing the idea that art must communicate a unique and personal communion with nature.

Conventional forms were therefore rejected in favor personal studies of colour and form through individual observation. His famous saying remains noteworthy: “go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing.” This philosophy affected fashion and jewelry trends, especially in Britain, making craftsmanship and quality be valued over things either newly manufactured or originating from traditional concepts. Returning to simple, almost medieval designs, and allowing for artists and artisans to show the truth by showing how items were put together instead of concealing certain aspects for aesthetic appeal, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late Victorian and early Edwardian era revived ancient craft techniques.

It has been said that this movement was a rebellion against, or at least a reaction to, The Great Exhibition that took place in 1851, (in Hyde Park, London) and is considered the first World’s Fair. However, although it was designed by the nobles as a means to promote the arts, many artists and thinkers of the day found it artificial, contrived, offering only overly ornate items that were overindulgent, not individual or personal, lacking in distinctive natural qualities. Following on the heals of the Arts and Crafts movement, came yet another jewelry design that overlapped the Edwardian timeframe. It was the emergence of Art Nouveau.

Where to Find Genuine Arts and Crafts Vintage Jewellery

One of the best sources is Tadema Gallery. The items featured in this article in reference to the Arts and Crafts Vintage era are from their collections.

Art Nouveau Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1895 – 1915
Jewellery Style – Nature, Animals, Floral, Complex Designs, Elaborate Gemstone

This was a movement or style that was global, not just European. It didn’t begin with noble courts.

It was a movement that was about artistic expression, with everything from Czech glass creations to French Lalique. This is the time of artists of note like Gustav Klimt, Gaudí and when jewelry by Tiffany began. Belgium, Hungry, Spain and Eastern European designers, jewelers and artists contributed such widely different interpretations of what Art Nouveau meant to them, that it’s impossible to pinpoint one specific style that permeated everything. And that was the point! A liberal artistic style based on artists’ imaginations and not on jewelers and how they set gems.

One element that made some Art Nouveau pieces have something in common was that faceted and fine gemstone cuts were not considered as important as the design or the artistic element of a piece. The jeweler was second to the designer / artist that came up with conceptual settings for the jewelry. It was the start of a new relationship development between craftsman, goldsmith, silversmith, gem cutter and designer or artists, emerged on the scene. Setting quality gemstones was a secondary or complimentary aspect of having an artistic rendition of an idea….the gem was no longer the focus. The idea or concept was. This brought the world the magnificence of the Lalique flowers and dragonflies, and also brought unusual variations of enamel, modular glass formations, carved horn and ivory, as well as moonstones and other semiprecious gems.

Some say this epoch of artistic jewelry ended in 1905, however, no matter when it began or ended, it overlapped the Edwardian era to some extent.

Where To Get These Authentic Vintage Style Jewellery Creations

Tadema Gallery is a good source. Also Georgian Jewelry, which by the way, has a lot more than just Georgian period vintage, but represents some of the best vintage jewellery designers of any online shop for all the periods from Georgian through Victorian and beyond.

Edwardian Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1901 – 1915
Jewellery Style – Elaborate Gemstone

There were conflicting styles during the early 1900’s, with monarchs still in power and exhibiting the opulence of the most expensive stones available, yet with other factors influencing the none-royal fashions of the time. It was a time of elaborate design, which is in fact what the movements such as the arts and crafts and art nouveau was all about, a rebellion or protest against the overly ornate Edwardian styles while new and innovative international art and architectural influences, as well as philosophical and social changes, were engulfing the globe.

So, with several contradicting styles, the elements that denote what is called Edwardian Vintage Jewelry must be based on what the Edwardian court popularized, since the other styles will be referred to by their own names.

King Edward VII, who ruled from 1901 to 1910, was considered a fashion enthusiast who lead the elite into fashionable attire that was influenced by his extensive travels, by his taste for all that was opulent and flamboyant. The jewelry of the Edwardian nobles only served to accentuate the abyss that was widening between the upper elite and the average people who were beginning to assert themselves.

From the perspective of gemstone jewelry collections popularized by nobles, the Edwardian era jewelry was similar to the best Georgian or early Victorian. King Edward attempted to maintain regality, luxury, even extravagance, while common people were enthralled with electricity, the automobile, more comfortable leisure attire and personalized and artistic jewelry styles.

Art Deco Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1915 – 1935
Jewellery Style – Geometric, Crisp Clean Lines, Colorful

It’s about silver and bright enamels, chunky celluloid, Bakelite and even large amber beads and glasswork like the Murano glass chokers.

The style began in Paris, a complex blend of lavish motifs and crisp geometric lines, of vivid color and ethnic influences from Egypt and Africa, but also from Japan.

With new inventions such as polished stainless steel, aluminum, chrome and even lacquer, many jewelry pieces incorporated these non-precious metals and techniques in creations that were geometric yet somewhat ethnic, such as imitations of animal skins, stripes, zigzag shapes, tribal sunburst shapes, yet still being streamline, like the newer automobile shapes of the day. It was about blending the newest technology in plastics, metals and manmade materials with symmetrical repetition of patterns that were often taken from both Asian and Middle Eastern motifs, especially ziggurat forms, until they reached a point where minimalism was more important than the decorative elements.

Oddly enough many of the most famous examples of Art Deco jewelry take their inspiration from the geometric shapes of Aztec and Mayan structures and jewelry artifacts, from Greek and Roman classic simplicity and white accessories – a bizarre mix of cubism, modernism, neoclassicism, constructivism and a sleek approach to what the designers of day thought to be futurism.

Perhaps this blend of cultures and time periods, with color, vivid gemstones, precious and non-precious polished metals, sleek and chic geometric forms, translated and simplified ancient patterns and manmade materials that were innovative and contemporary, that made this era one that is imitated the world over right up to the present. The graphic elements that are not seen in previous jewelry or design concepts is perhaps one of the strongest elements – the repetition and simplification of patterns, and the contrast of color and texture, which characterizes the jewelry accessories and fashion of this time.

Where To Buy Art Deco Vintage Jewellery

Of all the vintage style jewellery eras that we’ve presented, Art Deco Vintage Jewellery is one of the easiest styles to buy today. Both original items and replicas are widely sold. In this post we’ve only shown genuine pieces from Georgian Jewelry, who have a good selection of Art Deco. However if you want some more affordable items, try Antique Jewelry Mall, Topazery or even Adin Antique Jewelry from Belgium and across Europe. Some good silver vintage jewellery in an Art Deco style, also genuine, is available through Fay Cullen. View Wiener Werkstatte Art Deco designs as well as the neoclassical pieces from the Art Nouveau period. In fact you can get a little of every style, retro and vintage at all the above mentioned online shops, but thanks to Georgian Jewelry, we have examples to show you with this post.

Retro Vintage Jewellery

Era – 1940 – 1960
Jewellery Style – Bold, Gemstone Glam, Glitzy Hollywood ; Faux, Synthetic, Chunky

What is now termed Retro is from the 1940’s (primarily), but may also be extended to include the post-war era from 1945 through to the 1960’s. It reflects the effects that the two world wars had taken on the world, on design, on art and inspiration.

With a desire to return to happy times and simpler days of frivolity, femininity and colorful design, strikingly bold, yet fun, jewelry took center stage. But the catch was that metals and gems in the early 40’s were still in low supply, and with the war not concluded, gemstone jewelry saw gold with small bits of diamonds and gemstones….although that gave way to post-war flamboyant cocktail rings, charm bracelets, long necklaces, dangling earrings…fun colorful enamel and sparkling rhinestones, fake, faux, manmade or genuine it didn’t matter so long as it sparkled and was alive! It was all about color and frivolity for the masses and not about adorning the elite of the European royal houses. Manmade materials mixed with semi-precious gems and synthetic stones were the norm, and innovation, everyday machines and objects, were now the source of designer inspirations. Femininity was apparent in sparkling rhinestone and floral patterns, but just as precious were the wild enamels and chunky Bakelite and other plastic or resin-based products.

One of the most notable elements that affected jewelry during the Retro period, was the rise of the American influence throughout the world. With Hollywood pictures and glamorous actresses, escaping reality, and the ugly past was easier. Starting a new world with hopes of happiness and peace, seemed within reach while gorgeous stars inspired dreams if glamour and sparkling glitz. The American dream, or at least the Hollywood versions of it, become instantly popular the world over. Feminine glamorous jewelry, which went with bright red lips and slinky sensual dresses, was what every woman wanted, be it real or synthetic, be it diamond or rhinestone, be it emerald or a large chunk of polished green glass.

Perhaps the thing that most defines Retro nowadays is the glamour of large sparkling cocktail rings and gigantic stones on pendants and earrings; even imitations of the flashy diamond-like gems seen on leading ladies who filled the silver screen. replicas of what these American actresses wore, were, and still are, one of the most popular forms of jewelry.

Today, retro glam and vintage elegance are what characterizes both high-end designer and trendy fashions and jewelry. Vintage costume jewellery is sought after, be it real or replicated. Buy vintage jewellery online at Georgian Jewelry and many other fine retro vintage jewellery shops that offer vintage engagement rings, bracelets, necklaces; antique jewelry for collectors or vintage retro fashion jewelry just for fun. Try Ruby Lane, Adin Antique Jewelry, Fay Cullen and even places like Ross Simons where there are Estate Jewelry pieces that are one of a kind.

For more information on specific places to shop for singular items see related topics that deal with Vintage Jewelry in the US, and other shopping ideas for vintage costume jewellery UK clients can order direct from shops close to home. We also offer inspiration and suggestions on buying Antique Rings, Antique Broches from around the world, Ancient Museum quality Brooches that replicate unusual Viking and Nordic designs, and lots of ideas for Celtic Jewelry. If you’re looking for a specific style of vintage engagement rings, then we suggest you also browse the information on Ruby Rings and Bridal Sets.