Items that belong to a bygone era hold a certain appeal, and their nostalgic allure pulls in those who seek a connection with the past. Combined with the intensely personal nature of jewelry, that allure is only compounded. Aside from the beauty and refinement of antique jewels, there is something intriguing about a piece of jewelry with a history. In order to truly appreciate a piece of historic, antique or estate jewelry, it is important to understand the context in which it was created and originally enjoyed. This understanding makes our experience of these pieces that much richer. Read on to learn more about unique antique jewelry and gain some special insights into what sets it apart from modern-day jeweled creations.
What is Antique Jewelry?
You may already be familiar with several terms associated with antique jewelry, so let us begin by clarifying their meaning. In the world of jewelry, “antique” refers to pieces that are more than 100 years old, while “vintage” is generally used to describe pieces between 50–99 years old. “Estate” jewelry can refer to anything that was previously owned, new or old. These terms are important to understand because they are fluid, and as time goes on, a wider variety of jewelry is classified as antique. For instance, a decade ago, Art Deco pieces were not officially considered antique but today, many are.
Design Elements, Materials and Techniques
Collecting categories within antique jewelry are vast, are each enjoys its own distinct set of design elements. Some of the most popular eras and their key characteristics are as follows:
Pre-Columbian: Before 1492
Jewelry is not a modern art, and fine jewelry dates back over 100,000 years. The use of gold, bold shapes and simplified lines in Pre-Columbian jewelry could rival any contemporary jewelry or sculptural design.
Renaissance: 14th-17th centuries
Renaissance jewelry was marked by brilliant yellow gold dotted with colorful gemstones. Settings were intricate and bold, and pendants featured prominently.
The Georgian era of jewelry design is named after the four King Georges who reigned from 1714 to 1830. During this time, jewelers commonly used colored gemstones, gold and silver to craft original pieces of Georgian jewelry.
Named for England’s Queen Victoria, Victorian-era designs can be difficult to categorize due to their incredible variety and confluence of influences. However, styles from the period tended to be ornate, romantic and playful, incorporating flowers, hearts, animals and bows. Seed pearls, turquoise and coral were often utilized as accents, along with rubies, emeralds, amethysts and garnets.
Art Nouveau: 1890-1914
Developing in response to the Industrial Revolution and the machine age, this period favored highly original, one-of-a-kind, and hand-crafted designs, emphasizing the organic over the machine-made. Art Nouveau jewelers fully embraced natural motifs and themes, color and sensuous shapes.
Running concurrently with the Art Nouveau period, Edwardian jewelry, in many ways, reflected the ideals of the Art Nouveau style by rejecting ostentatious man-made creations in favor of daintier, more ethereal designs. Yet, rather than looking to nature for its inspiration, the Edwardian period looked back to traditional 18th-century styles. Filigree techniques were important, as they gave designs a light, lacy feel.
Art Deco: 1920-1939
Streamlined with an emphasis on structure, Art Deco design was a celebration of technology, modernity, and the return to normalcy after the chaos of war. Bright colors and geometric patterns expressed the seismic shift into a modern era. Its regularity and symmetry were a far cry from the freeform, flowing designs of the Art Nouveau era.
While not considered an antique category yet, Retro jewels are worth noting because of their popularity and unique aesthetic. Jewelry designs of this period were based on the preceding Art Deco aesthetics, but where Art Deco lines were rigid and sleek, Retro lines were softened, curved and filled out. Still modern, jewelry became more robust and heavier.
Jewelry is unique in the realm of antiques because it has not always been considered an artform, with its value lying in materials alone. Due in part to the whims of fashion and in part to the scarcity of materials, antique jewels have not always enjoyed revered status. There was a time when it was commonplace to melt down or disassemble pieces to repurpose their precious metals and gemstones in a completely new creation, even among the very wealthy. For instance, in the 20th century, it was commonplace to dismantle and reuse diamonds from Art Deco pieces that had fallen out of style — a practice that collectors would wring their hands over today.
Jewelry became more respected as a collecting category as the 20th century went on. Thanks to increased public awareness and high-profile sales, most notably the record-breaking Sotheby’s sale of the Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson’s jewels in 1987, antique jewelry has become coveted as much for its beauty as its history.
To discover M.S. Rau’s collection of both antique and contemporary jewelry creations, explore our website.