CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

A Guide to Antique Jewelry

The identification of a piece of jewelry presents a challenge. To discern the maker, materiality, and age of a piece often requires immense background knowledge. Still, one can determine the essentials of a piece of jewelry through close observation and investigation. Read on to learn several helpful tools to identify a piece of antique jewelry.
 

How do you identify antique jewelry?

While it seems obvious, it is first essential to identify the type of jewelry presented. Whether investigating a ring, a bracelet, a watch, or a necklace, knowing exactly how a piece is to be worn is critical. Moreover, sometimes, the piece has been altered in some way, or it is not necessarily what it appears to be. For instance, this Cartier “bracelet” is actually a multi-functional piece that doubles as a bracelet and a watch.
 
Bracelet Watch by Concord for Cartier Bracelet Watch by Concord for Cartier 

 

Bracelet Watch by Concord for Cartier
M.S. Rau
 
The second most important factor in determining what type of jewelry you are investigating is to look at the materiality. What is the piece made of? In many cases, this question can pose a challenge that cannot be resolved with the untrained eye; however, there are still accessible methods of identifying material. The simplest material identification is metal type. For jewelry, the most common materials are platinum and gold, which can vary in color and karat weight. The type of metal is often indicated within the piece, particularly in rings.
 
For instance, platinum rings will often be stamped “Pl” or “Plat” within the band to indicate that they are set in platinum. For gold, often, the numbers 583 or 75 will be stamped to show either 14- or 18-karat gold. Determining the type and weight of the metal element is perhaps the most straightforward aspect of identifying a piece of jewelry.
 

Stamp denoting “750” or 18 karat gold

 

Stamp denoting “750” or 18 karat gold
 

Stamp denoting “IRID PLAT” or an alloy of iridium and platinum

 

Stamp denoting “IRID PLAT” or an alloy of iridium and platinum
 
A more difficult task is identifying the type and weight of stone(s) present. While a specialist is often required, a comparative analysis is the simplest way to recognize stone type. Check out these gemstone guides to gain familiarity with different stones.
 

How do you find out how old antique jewelry is?

While jewelry is not typically stamped with a date, there are other methods to approximate just how old a piece is. One important indicator is the decoration style. Recognizing design styles takes some practice, but here are some general trends to look for:
 

Victorian

Also known as the Romantic Age, the Victorian period is aptly named for Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 to 1901. The style of this period was opulent, and it often used ancient motifs of the Greco-Roman age. Pieces were dramatic, sometimes even Gothic in style. Somber pieces to indicate mourning were in vogue at the time, largely due to the Queen’s life-long state of mourning after the death of Prince Albert.
 

Victorian Diamond Cat Brooch

 

Victorian Diamond Cat Brooch
M.S. Rau
 

Antique Burma Ruby and Diamond Necklace, Circa 1880

 

Antique Burma Ruby and Diamond Necklace, Circa 1880
M.S. Rau
 
These two pieces are exemplary models of the theatricality seen in the Victorian period.
 

Edwardian

Like Victorian jewelry, pieces from the Edwardian era reflect the growing wealth of the upper classes, and as such, jewelry designs were incredibly sumptuous. The period was known as “La Belle Epoch,” and it lasted from the beginning of the twentieth century to the outbreak of the First World War. At this time, jewelers were becoming increasingly more specialized. Cartier began using platinum in its jewelry during the period, thus creating the timeless clean look of “white on white.”
 
In addition, because of their relative value, pearls were cherished more than diamonds and were therefore frequently incorporated into Edwardian jewelry. Other motifs common in Edwardian pieces are bows, ribbons and swirls.
 

Tiffany & Co. Peridot Pendant Brooch

 

Tiffany & Co. Peridot Pendant Brooch
M.S. Rau
 
This Tiffany & Co. brooch from the period captures all the popular motifs and materials of the piece, as it includes both white diamonds and pearls, and it is set in platinum.
 

Art Nouveau

From the end of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War I, Art Nouveau was at its height. While the style overlapped with the Edwardian period, it was markedly different. Art Nouveau was internationally recognized, and it broke barriers between the different forms of the arts. Within the realm of jewelry, Art Nouveau is characterized by its whimsical forms, often incorporating floral or vegetal motifs. Colors were often muted, romantic and evoked nature. Art Nouveau also incorporated previously-unused materials and techniques into its jewelry design, and it tended to focus more on the setting itself than the gemstone used. One of the most popular techniques at this time was plique-a-jour, a type of enameling which allowed light to permeate its surface, thus creating a luminescent effect. Overall, Art Nouveau jewelry can typically be identified by its highly ornate foliate patterns.
 

Rene Lalique, Brooch with cornflowers, ca 1904-1906 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

 

Rene Lalique, Brooch with cornflowers, ca 1904-1906
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
 

Emerald, Pearl and Plique-a-Jour Enamel Pendant

Emerald, Pearl and Plique-a-Jour Enamel Pendant
M.S. Rau
 

Art Deco

The famed Art Deco style emerged following World War I. Highly popular, even today, this style focuses on clean lines and geometric aesthetics. A style as exuberant as the Roaring Twenties itself, Art Deco jewelry features all the glitz and glamor of a Gatsby party. Typically, Art Deco jewelry is symmetrical and linear, so these characteristics can be useful for discerning the date of a piece of jewelry. While the official period of Art Deco ended with the onset of World War II in 1939, the style is still incredibly popular today.
 
Art Deco Diamond and Sapphire Bracelet Boucheron, Paris

 

Art Deco Diamond and Sapphire Bracelet
Boucheron, Paris
 

Columbian Emerald and Diamond Art Deco Necklace

 

Columbian Emerald and Diamond Art Deco Necklace
M.S. Rau

 
These chic Art Deco pieces reflect the essence of the style, featuring highly linear and geometric designs coupled with a vibrant display of gemstones.
 

How do you find the maker of antique jewelry?

The final pressing question in identifying a piece of antique jewelry is, “Who made it?” Fortunately, the maker often leaves a stamp or mark on the jewelry to indicate their craftsmanship. While this is not always the case, for large jewelry houses, there is almost certainly a stamp somewhere on the piece, similar to silversmiths or other craftsmen. For rings, check inside the band. On necklaces and bracelets, the maker typically leaves their stamp near the clasp. Sometimes all it takes is a careful eye.
 

Red Spinel Physalis Earrings by JAR M.S. Rau

 

Red Spinel Physalis Earrings by JAR
M.S. Rau
 
These earrings by master jeweler Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR) are stamped on the clasp, indicating their maker.
 

Tiffany & Co. Columbian Emerald and Diamond Ring

 

Tiffany & Co. Columbian Emerald and Diamond Ring
M.S Rau
 
Often, these stamps are just the initials or name of the maker, but for more established brands, sometimes the stamps can include symbols.
 
 

 

Two different stamps used on jewelry by René Lalique
 
It is also important to note that, for some jewelers, there can be more than one stamp used. For instance, famous French jeweler and glass designer René Lalique used many variations on his name and initials to mark his pieces. It is always important to pinpoint and research the mark on your piece of jewelry to identify the maker with certainty.
 

Final Techniques

Each of these techniques is a critical step in identifying a piece of antique jewelry. Still, sometimes it is impossible to discern the maker, age, or materiality of a piece without expert help. In these cases, seek help from your local appraiser, who may be able to answer some of your questions. Nevertheless, in following the above-listed steps, you will be well on your way to identifying a piece of jewelry.
 
Check out M.S. Rau’s entire collection of fine jewelry.

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