Classic elegance, impeccable stone selection, innovative design, and sheer luxury are all qualities collectors look for when purchasing antique jewelry from some of the most desirable makers in history. For those who are looking to begin or expand upon their own fine jewelry collections, this list features a few of the most prominent fashion jewelry brands to emerge out of the 19th and 20th centuries. Read on to learn more about each house's unique jewelry styles, characteristics and iconic designs.
Let's begin with perhaps the most famous and recognizable jewelry brand in the world, not to mention the world's oldest major jewelry brand: Tiffany & Co. Known today for their classically beautiful pieces wrapped up neatly in an iconic robin's egg blue box, it may not surprise you that they began as a stationary company. Founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young in Brooklyn, Connecticut in 1837 with a $1,000 loan from Tiffany's father, they originally described themselves as a “stationary and fancy goods emporium.” The firm didn't shift its focus to fine jewelry until 1853 when Charles Tiffany took full control. Thus, Tiffany & Co. as we know it was born.
Tiffany, in part, made a name for itself by buying some of the rarest and finest stones in the world in the late 19th century, including Queen Isabella of Spain's jewels, one-third of the French crown jewels, and the famed 128.54-carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond. These purchases earned them a reputation for utilizing only the best jewels in their designs; a reputation that continues to hold true today.
Just ten years after Tiffany's start, another high-end jewelry firm, founded by master jeweler Louis-François Cartier, appeared on the scene in Paris.
Cartier was seen as so glamorous that countries across Europe and Asia such as Spain, England, Russia and India made it their official royal jewelry maker. King Edward VII of England even described Cartier as “the jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers.” The house remains popular with socialites and royalty today. Kate Middleton even adorned herself with a Cartier tiara on her wedding day, and Meghan Markle wore earrings and a bracelet by the ever-elegant brand on hers.
One of Cartier's most recognized designs is the panther. This motif first appeared on a watch they created in 1914, which featured a panther's fur pattern in diamond and onyx. Cartier then began incorporating the panther's form into what are now vintage Cartier rings, brooches, and more. Captured in everything from enamel to gold to diamonds, the panther eventually became a symbol synonymous with the fashion jewelry house.
In 1896, a young newlywed couple named Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef started a jewelry house that would eventually become one of the most successful and innovative of all time - Van Cleef & Arpels. It is little wonder that a jewelry house founded thanks to a love match would be so successful over the years, and the French company remains at the head of luxury jewelry creations. Over the decades, Van Cleef & Arpels has served a diversity of clientele, from the Duchess of Windsor to Grace Kelly to Farah Pahlavi, the Empress Consort of Iran.
In 1933, the firm developed their innovative “Mystery Setting,” an entirely new kind of setting that eliminated any visible prongs to hold a gemstone in place. The first iteration of this patented technique was only limited to only flat surfaces, such as rings and earrings. Yet, just five years later in 1938, Van Cleef & Arpels patented a new technique that allowed them to invisibly set stones to curve and twist in bracelets and necklaces, allowing for fluid movement. Although a time-consuming process (it could require up to 300 hours per piece), the results are worth the time and effort. Any piece of jewelry created with this method has the unique ability to cascade effortlessly around the wearer's wrist or neck.
Jewelry maker and designer David Webb was born in Asheville, North Carolina, but made his way to New York City at age 17; just three years later in 1948, he had already opened his own shop. He is probably best known for drawing inspiration from the natural world, marrying floral and fauna themes with his distinctively bold and highly sculptural aesthetic. He designed pieces with striking colors and patterns in animals motifs such as frogs, giraffes, crocodiles, and zebras. He was also heavily influenced by the ancient jewelry crafted in South America, Greece and Mesopotamia.
The designs in his collection were favored by America's elite including the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, as well as artists such as Andy Warhol. The 1960s were an especially fruitful time for the jewelry house, when his bold designs caught the eye of European royals such as the Duke of Windsor and American icons like Jackie Onassis. Unfortunately, Webb's soaring career was cut short by pancreatic cancer in 1974, and he died at age 50. However, his brand has carried on, and collectors and celebrities alike still enjoy showing off their Webb creations.
Fred Leighton Jewelry
This brings us to famed jeweler to the stars, Fred Leighton, who only selected the finest stones for his designs. His pieces have adorned some of the most glamorous and sophisticated women of all time from Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor to Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep.
Leighton began as a collector himself and curated an impressive group of vintage jewelry from practically every era including Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Retro periods. Leading up to the 1970s, antique jewelry had fallen out of fashion and many period pieces had been disassembled for their stones or repurposed into contemporary settings. Leighton, believing this was short sighted, was the go-to person in the 70s for impeccable vintage pieces that had been lovingly preserved or restored by him.
Today, the firm's offerings bring together these stunning antique and vintage jewelry pieces with Fred Leighton-branded creations. Often inspired by the historical jewelry and antique designs that Leighton so loved, these pieces are widely adored for their contemporary twist on traditional motifs.
Tips for Collecting
These jewelry houses made pieces to last, making them highly desirable for discerning collectors. Still, there are certain things to look for when selecting pieces to purchase.
First, items from such esteemed jewelry makers as these will often bear a signature. Look for this signature on the underside of a piece or on the interior of a ring. A signed piece not only helps ensure authenticity, craftsmanship and quality of the materials used, but can also greatly increase value. It is also useful to familiarize yourself with the signatures of certain makers and perhaps even purchase a jewelry magnifying loupe to inspect with a more careful eye.
Whether you're purchasing a piece of estate diamond jewelry or a famous antique collector's item, you should also familiarize yourself with styles or distinct qualities that are common threads throughout certain manufacturers. For instance, Cartier is known for its panther imagery and David Webb for his fondness for the animal kingdom, while Tiffany has a reputation for selecting simply the best precious metals and stones.
But the most important factor when deciding to purchase a piece from one of these jewelry firms is to be sure you love it! You will get more wear over time, and therefore, more value out of pieces you love.