History of Antique and Vintage Jewelry

The Georgian Era

The Georgian period generally spans between 1714 to 1837, and like all decorative eras, there is no clear cut-off date as trends and styles shift, evolve, and cycle. For context, during the reigns of King Georges I through IV, roughly 5% of the population in the West (Europe and the Americas) was wealthy elites, while 75% of the population was lower class. However, we know that the trends in the Georgian period were set and upheld by the ruling classes, and the dominant aesthetics and movements were Rococo (the early 1700s to the 1790s), Directoire and Empire (1790’s to the 1820s), and Romantic (beginning in the early 1800s).

Rococo architecture, fashion, decor, and jewelry featured pastoral and natural elements, general lightness (more delicate than baroque), bows, frills, and many rococo, meaning shells in French. The Directoire and Empire period originated in France and was characterized by a neoclassical revival with the widespread fascination with Pompeii and Roman artifacts. The Romantic artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement is characterized by emotion and feeling, imagination, an individual’s connection to nature, nostalgia, intellectual curiosity, scientific and historical discoveries, and a rejection of neoclassicism.

Jewelry during the Georgian period was undoubtedly influenced by popular artistic movements, the techniques used, and the resources available to jewelers. The dominant jewelry aesthetic of the Georgian period is attributed to the repoussé technique, the hammering of reliefs into metal from the reverse side.

The common motifs are florals, scrolls, frills, shells, portraits, and the most typical gemstones and colored gemstones are garnet, topaz, and emerald.  A clear giveaway for antique Georgian and Victorian jewelry is foil-backed rose-cut and table-cut gemstones and diamonds, which were cut by hand and looked magical and fiery under candlelight. Foiling is a technique of placing a thin layer of metal behind a gemstone to reflect light and color into the stone; unfortunately, foil-back jewelry deteriorates if not protected and stored properly.

Other noteworthy jewelry trends were love tokens and memento mori, such as cameos, portrait miniatures, mourning jewelry, and even jewelry that incorporated the hair of someone special! Despite the range of movements and aesthetics, Georgian jewelry was often made in 18k gold (or higher) and always designed to hold a greater meaning and significance for the wearer.

 

The Victorian Era

Named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, the Victorian Era was a time of economic and industrial growth, scientific inventions, and cultural shifts.

Due to the advent of photography during this time of increased globalization and colonization, the Queen’s image became ubiquitous worldwide. Queen Victoria’s influence was insurmountable; her image was printed on anything that could hold a print! People from every social class kept tabs on the royal family and sought to emulate them through fashion, furniture, and lifestyle. Anything the royals did became instantly popular, and the crown jewels were no exception; the royals were known for celebrating every holiday and milestone with jewelry, keeping the royal jewelers extremely busy.

As a follower of the romantic movement and the most influential global figure, the Queen set the global standard for fashion and jewelry, characterized by sentimentality, symbolism, and eclectic motifs such as animals, plants, flowers, moons, stars, hearts, and knots. Some of the most quintessentially Victorian jewelry pieces are snake rings—popularized by Prince Albert’s engagement ring to Queen Victoria—sets of matching jewels, cluster rings, and lockets. When it comes to gemstones at this time, birthstones were the popular choice for engagement rings. Colorful gemstones were also common, and sunny yellows were a favorite!

With societal expectations and standards of restriction and restraint, emotions and sentimentality were expressed through gifting and receiving jewelry. Most jewelry trends during the Victorian era originated with Prince Albert’s jewelry that he designed for the Queen. Women in portraits of the time can be seen wearing near-exact copies of Queen Victoria’s gowns and jewelry.

 

Art Nouveau

The Art Nouveau movement’s whiplash curves and sweeping organic shapes ushered in a dramatic shift in jewelry taste and design that signified art’s return to nature during the last decade of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th.

The first decade of the movement was marked by milestones such as the first moving picture show (1890), the first issue of Vogue magazine (1892), Sigmund Freud’s first published paper (1893), the first car built by Henry Ford (1893), the first modern Olympics held in Athens (1896), and the opening of the famous Paris metro (1898). The Paris Metro entrances, designed by Hector Guimard, epitomized French Art Nouveau aesthetics of floral symbolism, slender vine-like structural components, and translucent glass-like materials that let the light through.

The Movement was heavily inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and Japanisme design aesthetics. With the opening of Eastern trade routes in 1858, western design aesthetics were reinvigorated with Japanisme, a lively alternative to the fussiness of the Victorian Era. Western jewelers became enamored with Japanese design aesthetics, such as natural and organic shapes, simple forms, bright colors, and mixed metals.

Similarly, the Arts and Crafts Movement in the west arose as a rejection of soulless, machine-made products, an embrace of creative self-expression, and the idea that art should be present in ordinary, everyday life.

What became known as the Art Nouveau Movement originated in France as a revolution in design interpretation, elevating jewelry making to an art form that emphasized craftsmanship over large, showy stones. However, as the movement developed, the style became mass-produced in an oversaturated market and sought to satisfy all consumers at every level of society.

Jewelry from the Art Nouveau Movement often featured creatures, both real and fantastical, in a manner that blended loose (and sometimes false) interpretations of Eastern design with Western design. Dragonflies, butterflies, birds, serpents, dragons, mermaids, and griffins were typical beasts portrayed in the whimsical style. Many creatures of the time showcase a technique called “plique-a-jour,” an enameling method that allows light to shine through, similar to stained glass.

The reinvention of enamel characterized the aesthetic and allowed jewelry to take on bolder colors with greater dimensionality. Additionally, jewelers of the day were particularly adept at manipulating gold and silver to look like something else, something alive. Glass could be made unrecognizable from gemstones. Organic elements such as horn, bone, and ivory could be molded and carved into typical curving Art Nouveau shapes.

The Movement symbolized both the artistic inclination toward natural aesthetics and the relentless industry's push toward globalization, mass production, and maximum profits.

 

The Edwardian Era

Like the Georgian and Victorian decorative periods, the Edwardian era gets its name from English King Edward VII (1901-1910).  However, stylistically, the period, also known as La Belle Époque, began during the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and ended with the start of World War I.  Opposite his mother, Queen Victoria, King Edward was a lighthearted, luxury-loving gambler and playboy who surrounded himself with socialites and members of the nouveau riche.

Edwardian-style jewelry emerged as some jewelers chose not to participate fully in the delicate and whimsical Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts Movements but still borrowed some of the airy, fluid, and detailed aesthetics in their designs.  Additional inspirations for Edwardian Jewelry were the Court of Versailles, Parisian architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, and 18th-century ornamental motifs.

Many designs of Edwardian jewelry can be attributed to the advances in platinum fabrication. While some platinum was still backed by gold and silver, the invention of the oxyacetylene torch allowed platinum to reach a temperature where it could be worked and made into jewelry without the need for additional metals. Due to the strength of platinum, jewelry could be made to resemble “petit point” embroidery and diamond-encrusted lace. Millegraining, a decorative technique made possible through the rigidity of platinum, showcases small beads that border diamonds or sharp edges to make jewelry look lighter and softer.

While Edwardian fashion and jewelry trends were mostly black and white, colored gemstones became popular due to Eastern influences around the 1910s. According to AJU, “Amethyst, turquoise, Montana sapphires, opals, and demantoid garnets all in newly designed cuts; calibré, baguette, and marquises, along with briolettes, breathed new life into jewelry styles.”

In terms of neckwear, high collars dominated fashion, and so did diamond “dog collars” in France and England towards the end of the 1800s. These tight-fitting choker necklaces were made in materials such as platinum, black velvet, ribbons, and rows of pears— they often displayed buckles, flowers, diamonds, and other decorative elements in the center.

A shift in fashion sensibilities in the first decade of the 1900s ushered in the increasingly popular long simple chain and pendant. Some styles of long necklaces included the simple lavallière, the double pendant négligée, and the sautoir that wrapped around the neck and had tassels at both ends. Similarly, earring trends shifted from simple studs to complex and elaborate dangling or drop pieces that swayed with movement.

While the Edwardian, Arts and Craft, and Art Nouveau decorative eras shared many similarities in terms of material and manufacturing methods, they were vastly different. Despite their differences, the three movements ended abruptly with the onset of World War I, four years after King Edward's death. The atmosphere became heavier, darker, more conservative, and serious; jewelry became an afterthought for most.

 

The Art Deco Movement

The Art Deco movement between the 1920s and ’30s pushed aesthetics towards geometric modernism. Art Deco is characterized by the streamlining of Edwardian design as the world became more mechanized and less sentimental.

After years of wartime austerity, the cultural boom cast aside the horrors of the past to introduce sleek and bold jewels with sharp edges and regularity of surface, line, and volume. Geometric patterns, pavé settings, carved gemstones, and a range of diamond-encrusted accessories took center stage as women refused to be relegated to restrictive roles or relinquish their newfound freedom.

Exchanges between the East and the West went both ways, and archeological discoveries led to a resurgence of ancient styles and motifs. The “Egyptian Revival,” one of many, was sparked by the opening of King Tut’s tomb.  Additionally, Cleopatra was seen as a style icon, and jewelry of the style showcased scarabs, the eye of Horus, pyramids, and lotus blossom motifs.  Furthermore, Indian jewelry with carved gemstones, Islamic art, Persian art, Pre-Colombian South American art and tribal African art influenced the new design aesthetic.

Surprisingly, the Great Depression did not hurt the popularity of jewelry. Rather, designers made their pieces even bigger—possibly to inspire confidence at an uncertain time. The flamboyant and dazzlingly bold style of Art Deco jewelry perfectly reflects an era that refused to look back, only forward.

 

Retro

The Retro decorative era is defined by the glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1930s to 1940s, as well as ingenuity and creativity during World War II.

Due to the scarcity of platinum, jewelers began experimenting with palladium and low-karat gold alloys that allowed for iconic multi-colored gold jewelry. Chunky “snake” and “gas-pipe” chains were popular accents to jewelry or made up of an entire necklace or bracelet.

With the inaccessibility of large gemstones and diamonds, jewelers opted for citrine, aquamarine, moonstone, topaz, and other fun-colored gemstones available in large sizes.

Figurative brooches of ballerinas and realistic animal and floral imagery made a comeback during the 1940s with an emphasis on movement. Charm bracelets were also abundant, with charms of anything you could imagine.

Despite only lasting a few years, the Retro style has had a massive impact on jewelry.

 

Mid-century

 

Vintage Buccellati Cuff

 

Opulence and optimism during the “Atomic Age” reigned in the Mid Century decorative era from the 1950s to the mid-'60s. Yellow gold jewelry from the Retro era remained in vogue but gained twists and textures.

Large gemstone ear clips, figurative brooches, matching sets, charm bracelets, and eclectic accessories were also favorites of the time. Fitting in with the ultra-feminine aesthetic, rows of pearls with diamond studded clasps were worn as chocker necklaces.

Brooches were an outlet for creative self-expression, and figurative brooches often showcased whimsical animals, berries, sea creatures, insects, flowers, and plants. With the global obsession with space impacting every aspect of design, sunbursts, starbursts, Sputnik imagery, and rockets were some of the favorite motifs in jewelry.

Furthermore, the lifting of regulations on materials post World War II led to a resurgence of large brilliant-cut, especially marquise, diamond engagement rings, and diamond-covered cocktail rings. The splashy and fabulous ‘50s left no gemstone unturned.

 

 

Resources:

 https://www.langantiques.com

https://www.metmuseum.org

https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections?type=featured 

https://www.britannica.com/art