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Antique Jewelry Eras and Their Unique Styles

Antique jewelry from any period of time throughout history is a wonder to behold. Here, we explore the jewelry eras beginning in ancient times and continuing onward to the middle of the 20th century. These jewelry eras may have somewhat defined start and endpoints, but it is not uncommon to see a blend of styles in designs that fall close to the beginning or end of a particular era. Every goldsmith or jeweler brings unique inspiration to their designs, be it from a modern trend or a bygone era. When you understand the eras of antique fine jewelry, you can appreciate the evolution of jewelry design and the unique history behind each piece.

An Ancient Art

Pre-Columbian Sinu Gold and Bead Necklace, circa 600-1250 A.D.
Jewelry pieces are not a modern creation. We have learned from the excavation of ancient societies that fine jewelry dates back over 100,000 years. While not much jewelry from ancient times has survived, the surviving images and artifacts show us how jewelry during this time period would have appeared. During the paleolithic period, organic materials such as beads and bones are thought to have been used to string necklaces and adorn the body. As time went on, the materials used to fashion jewelry pieces changed. The onset of stoneworking and later metalworking greatly affected jewelry craftsmanship. These early trades gave birth to jewelry styles as we know them today.

The Birth of Gold

The middle ages, or medieval times, are remembered as ‘dark ages’ because they are associated with little innovation. Jewelry, however, did undergo significant change during this time period. It marks the birth of the goldsmith, an essential occupation for many industries, jewelry included. The middle ages also catalyzed fashions we still see today, such as cameos, brooches, and gothic jewelry. Biblical scenes were also commonly depicted on jewelry during medieval times, often adorning hats, pendants, and pins. While much of this jewelry may be forgotten, it ushered in the fresh designs of the eras that followed.


Anglo-Saxon Gold Ring, circa 5th-6th century A.D.



A Period of Rebirth

The Renaissance period, which took place from the 14th century to the 17th century, is known as a time period of outstanding creativity and growth, particularly in art but also in technology and infrastructure. Paintings from this era paint a clear picture of what members of society’s upper class would wear. Pendant necklaces appear consistently in these paintings, proving their popularity throughout the Renaissance. These opulent pendants featured an assortment of gemstones arranged in patterns, filigree metalwork, portraits painted on enamel and pearls. As fashions changed over the course of the centuries that define the Renaissance, so did jewelry. Jewelry was designed to adorn hairstyles, hats and even the bodices of dresses.


Renaissance Cameo Pendant, early 17th century



An Emphasis on Gems

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. Jewelry during this period evolved gradually throughout this time of worldwide industrial change.




Georgian-era Amythest Brooch



One of the largest changes in jewelry was its availability to the middle class, not just the aristocracy. While the same jewels and techniques the aristocracy wore were not available to everyone, they did influence the masses. Marie Antoinette shaped what women wore, donning Georgian jewelry with large gemstones and opulent designs. Catherine the Great was known for her love of emeralds and elegant drop earrings, which became popular motifs in Georgian-era jewelry. Also popular were rose-cut diamonds, foil-backed diamonds, rub-over bezel settings cluster settings, cameos and eye portraits.


The Style of a Monarch

The Victorian era, defined as the time period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, is one of the most well-known antique jewelry eras. Jewelry underwent great change during this era, and quality examples can still be found today.

Antique Burma Ruby and Diamond Necklace, circa 1880

Queen Victoria didn’t just define the time period; she defined the style as well. She was known for wearing pieces that featured orange blossoms, serpents and sapphires; thus, the designs of the time featured floral motifs and serpents. When the Queen died in 1901, the jewelry designs shifted once again, and black onyx became a popular stone, symbolizing grief for the loss of the Queen.
The designs of the Victorian era are known today for being extremely romantic and bold. While silver was still used, yellow gold was more popular, as were solitaire settings for rings and old mine-cut diamonds in addition to sapphires, garnets, rubies and turquoise.

A Natural Movement

Art Nouveau-era Plique-à-Jour and Natural Pearl Necklace
Toward the end of the Victorian era, a new movement in jewelry was born: the Art Nouveau movement, spanning from 1895-1910. In the latter half of the 19th century, creativity was considered an integral part of all life, leading jewelers to use their talents to craft true artisan pieces. They were influenced by both nature and architecture, incorporating motifs of flowers, animals and trees into their designs. They also used unique materials such as ivory, shell and copper, and they utilized innovative techniques that focused on crafting intricate settings. Unlike the artisans before them, jewelry makers during the Art Nouveau movement favored pastel stones and mixed metals. The pieces from this time are truly unique and have an unparalleled mystical air.

The Beautiful Era

The Edwardian era was named for King Edward, who reigned following Queen Victoria from 1901 to 1915. In France, this era was also known as La Belle Epoque, French for “The Beautiful Era,” because of the feminine, delicate and artistic designs that the time period birthed. These new designs included filigree and milgrain, techniques that are still widely used today. The filigree technique layers tiny threads of precious metal on top of the base metal for a lace-like appearance, and milgrain created tiny metal beads typically featured on the setting or band of a ring. To craft such intricate designs, jewelers turned to a newfound precious metal: platinum. Platinum’s shiny and durable qualities made it the optimal choice for metalwork.


In terms of stones, people favored pearls and diamonds for their light and airy appearance, but amethyst, garnet, ruby and emerald were also popular.


“No Heat" Burma Ruby and Diamond Ring



A New Look

The Art Deco era, defined as the years between 1915 and 1935, has had one of the most recognizable impacts on jewelry. Post World War I, society changed dramatically in Europe and the Americas. The fashions followed suit, including jewelry. These designs are most known for their clean lines, geometric shapes and fashion-forward appearance.


Emerald and Diamond Art Deco Bracelet



Innovation in diamond cutting during this time produced the modern round brilliant cut diamond. In addition to diamonds, emeralds, rubies, onyx and sapphires were also favored during this time for their bold colors. When paired with platinum, silver or white gold, these stones created a bold, eye-catching piece of jewelry.


The Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs, which took place in 1925 in Paris, is credited with unveiling the “new look” in jewelry. It showcased now-iconic designs from famous jewelers, including the Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron. Today, Art Deco jewelry pieces are some of the most sought-after antiques for their signature style.


A Glamorous Affair


Tanzanite and Diamond Necklace



Taking a turn from the straight geometric lines popular throughout the Art Deco time period, curved lines and feminine details defined jewelry during the Retro jewelry era. Ladies wanted flashy designs modeled after the glamorous Hollywood starlets from the silver screen. The rise of World War II, however, meant platinum was needed for the war effort, so designers looked to yellow gold, rose gold and even green gold. They complemented the gold with colorful stones that were larger than life and designs that were much heavier than any jewelry that came before.


How to Shop for Antique Jewelry

A trusted source with a keen eye is essential when shopping for any antique jewelry piece and identifying its origin. At M.S. Rau, our vintage jewelry is examined by jewelry appraisers with years of experience and accompanied by professional certifications so that you can buy with confidence.
Our unparalleled collection of antique and estate jewelry simplifies the shopping experience even further. We carry a substantial variety of jewelry, so whether you are searching for an antique cameo pendant, an Art Deco engagement ring or a Victorian necklace, you will find an excellent selection at your fingertips.  The ideal way to shop for jewelry from a specific time period is to filter your search using the jewelry eras we have defined above. When you do, you will see the era come to life before you in an array of timeless heirlooms with exquisite history.


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