Knowing how to identify rare antique buttons can help you sort through the accessories bins in your local antique stores in record time. After all, you often see old buttons sold by the jar, bucket, or even the pound. Combing through all of them can take some time, but it's easier when you know some tricks for valuable old buttons identification. Before you go popping off the buttons on grandma's old church blazers, learn the top signs that an antique button may be rare, as well as tricks to identify materials, time period, and more.
How to Identify an Antique Button
Strictly speaking, a button should be 100 years old to be considered an antique. Vintage decorative buttons, made after about 1920, do have value, but antique buttons made before this period are comparatively rarer. Here are some tricks to determine whether a button is an antique.
- It shows signs of being handmade, such as a lack of uniformity.
- It displays an antique style, such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco.
- The back isn't a uniform texture.
- There are no mold lines present to indicate machine manufacturing.
Six Characteristics of Rare Antique Buttons
People have been using buttons to fasten clothing for centuries, but they're much more than utilitarian items. Rare buttons are also works of art. When a garment wore out and was destined for the rag bag, frugal housewives and maids often snipped off the beautiful buttons for use in other clothing or to trade for goods and services. Because of the care they took to look after their buttons, rare and beautiful examples still exist today. Identifying one is mostly about knowing the characteristics that make it special.
Most antique buttons will have a few of these traits.
Technically, an antique button is unlikely to be made of plastic. There are a few exceptions, especially when it comes to an early plastic called celluloid. However, the rarest buttons weren't mass-produced plastics like celluloid or Bakelite (another early plastic that is popular in vintage jewelry). In lieu of plastic or Bakelite, rare antique buttons are often crafted from these materials:
- Porcelain or ceramic - Ceramics clink when you tap them, and they feel cool and light.
- Mother of pearl and shell - Mother of pearl and shell reflect a rainbow iridescence when light is cast on them.
- Wood - You should be able to see the wood grain on the button, and they should feel relatively lightweight.
- Metal - On top of being a cheap material to make buttons out of, it can also be stamped with details and wrapped around a button's base.
- Glass - Glass will clink when you gently tap it on a hard surface.
- Jet - Jet is a black natural material that's lightweight and is often decorated using carving techniques.
- Bone - Antler, ivory, and bone buttons show grain and subtle variation.
- Tortoiseshell - Tortoiseshell is a lightweight material that will show natural color variation in shades of brown and grey.
- Stone and gemstone - Most stone feels cool and heavy to the touch, while most gemstones are cut and polished.
Metal buttons can come in everything from steel or brass to silver and gold. However, the rarest and most valuable are precious metals. While not every button will have its metal content stamped for easy identification, some will. Flip the button over and look for hallmarks and makers' marks. Sterling silver buttons, for instance, will often bear the word "Sterling" or the number "925."
Hand painting can make an antique button very special. In fact, a hand-painted button is one-of-a-kind, even if the design itself isn't unique. Hand painting means the decoration was added by a person, so no two buttons are alike. Look for florals, country scenes, miniature portraits, pictures of animals, and more. In terms of materials, these hand-painted scenes were often painted directly onto enamel and porcelain as they take color incredibly well.
A figural design is one that represents a person, animal, mystical creature, or other strong motif. You'll see Art Nouveau designs featuring women with flowing hair, buttons made to look like fruit or flowers, or even entire pastoral scenes produced in miniature. Figural buttons are among the most collectible because of this iconic and far-reaching subject matter.
Instead of being made by machine, many antique buttons are carved by hand. Even the most perfectly carved bone or shell button will have subtle signs of being carved using man-made tools. On hand-carved buttons, you should find little variations in the texture and depth of carving, as well as a slight lack of overall uniformity. When the carving is well done, these hand-carved buttons are valuable.
Micro Mosaic Art, Enamel, and Other Special Touches
Some rare buttons feature tiny mosaics made of pieces of stone or shell. Others are enameled with colored glass fused to the surface as a decoration. Special touches like this make a button rare and unique, and some collectors specialize in buttons that display these specific techniques.
Are Antique Buttons Worth Money?
A small number of antique buttons are valuable, but most sell for less than $50. However, some rare antique buttons can be worth much more, with few examples selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some of the more valuable types of buttons include:
- Inaugural buttons - Before big plastic pins with slogans and portraits were a way to show your allegiance to a political figure, there were inaugural buttons. Washington's inaugural buttons are the valuable buttons in this category, selling in the thousands. For example, this 1789 inaugural button sold for $2,750 in 2018.
- Civil War buttons - Another hugely collectible kind of antique button are Civil War ones. Civil War memorabilia has a dedicated collector base, and so these buttons always find a buyer. Individually, they're worth a small amount, but the bigger price tags come in the collections. For example, a 46-piece set sold for $2,012.50 in 2012.
- Luxury buttons - Naturally, anything that's been finely crafted with precious metal and gemstones, as well by as luxury jewelers, is going to be worth a lot of money. For instance, this 13-piece set of diamond and ruby buttons sold for about $20,000 in a Christie's auction.
Collect the Old Buttons You Love
If you're searching through your grandmother's button collection or pouring over the wares at a flea market, being able to identify rare buttons is a valuable skill. However, even if buttons aren't rare, they can be a fun and affordable antique to collect. Start by choosing buttons you like and work up from there. Soon, you'll have some beautiful examples you can display in your home, attach to clothing, or show off to family and friends.