Nearly every consignment store has an assorted bin of mismatched rings, necklaces, and bracelets, but it begs the question of how to determine the value of vintage jewelry when these rings, necklaces, and bracelets don't have a clear point-of-origin? Many factors can determine how much vintage jewelry is worth, including its age, design, inclusion of semi-precious and precious gemstones/metals, and current fashion trends. Knowing what to look for when assessing vintage jewelry can help you know which pieces of that consignment bin to throw to the side and which ones to sprint to the register with.
How to Identify Vintage Jewelry
'Vintage' generally refers to items that were created within the past 100 years, and small elements of craftsmanship can indicate whether jewelry is authentically vintage. Clasps, chains, patina and the like can be useful for any buyer and collector in determining what type of vintage jewelry they have and what it might be worth.
Metallurgical materials show their age in much the same way that humans do; they get dark spots. Checking for these dark spots can be an early indication that you have an older piece of jewelry. Metals which exhibit a green and/or brown film on their surfaces have a 'patina,' and this is an oxidization process that only happens over a long period. Similarly, silver will sometimes show its age spots by turning gray and black, while gold can display its age through acquiring a brassy look to it.
Many vintage clasps are still in use by modern jewelers, but different styles can give you better insight as to when your jewelry might have been made.
- Hook Clasp - Resembling a shepherd's hook, this clasp was commonly used in the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate multi-stringed necklaces.
- Barrel Clasp - A common vintage fastener, the barrel clasp refers to the literal barrels which screw into one another and are connected to the ends of necklaces or bracelets.
- Fishhook Clasp (decorative variation of the Box Clasp) - This clasp resembles a shepherd's hook and fastens by locking the horizontal hook into a decorative 'fish' shaped box. Its delicate appearance made it incredibly common for jewelry of the early 20th Century.
- Lobster Claw Clasp - Coming to popularity in the 1970s, this spring-loaded clasp resembles a handcuff which fastens into the links of the accompanying chain and is still widely used today.
Along with clasps, various chain styles and materials can indicate that a piece of jewelry originates from a specific historic period.
- Sautoir - A French term for a necklace which suspends a tassel or other ornamentation; these necklaces were incredibly popular at the turn of the 20th Century.
- Brick-Style - Aptly termed, the brick-style chain is crafted to resemble layers of bricks using rectangular brick links, and brick-link bracelets grew fashionable in the 1940s.
- Bakelite - A non-metal material, bakelite chains and jewelry were at the height of style during the early and mid-20th Century.
- Filigree - This delicate process involves jewelers taking threads of metal and twisting/weaving them into designs which are then soldered in place. Filigree chains were particularly sought after during the Edwardian period.
Dating Vintage Jewelry by Style
A few notable periods from which your vintage jewelry can come from include Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco, Retro, and Mid-Century. Pieces made in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are usually identified by the decades they were popular in, and are less valuable than jewelry from these aforementioned eras. Since each of these periods has jewelry with distinctive characteristics, it's important to know what they are in order to better identify the value of your vintage jewelry.
Art Nouveau (1890 -1910)
Traits of Art Nouveau jewelry include:
- Inclusion of brightly colored semi-precious gemstones like peridot, opal, and pink pearl
- Representations of organic motifs like insects, plants, vines, and so on
- Porcelain enamel highlights that accompany these colorful gemstones and organic motifs
Edwardian (1901 - 1914)
You may be able to recognize Edwardian jewelry by the following characteristics:
- The use of white metals and white gemstones such platinum, white gold, and diamonds
- Millegrain details on necklaces, rings, and bracelets; this technical process involves adding tiny metal beads to create ornate borders on jewelry
- The use of filigree on necklaces, bracelets, and rings
Art Deco (1920 - 1935)
Art Deco jewelry has distinct characteristics, as well:
- The inclusion of geometric lines and shapes, often seen on ring settings
- The presence of "calibre" cut gems which are gemstones that are specifically cut to fill the arrangement of a jeweled piece
- New gemstone cuts like asscher and bauguette; these rectangular and multi-faceted shapes reflected this era's fascination with geometric lines
Retro (1935 - 1945)
Retro jewelry features over-the-top themes and styles:
- The use of semi-precious metals like rose gold and gold fill, due in part to the wartime rationing of the 1940s
- Over-the-top designs of bold jewelry influenced by the flamboyance of Hollywood life
Mid-Century (1945 - 1969)
Jewelry from the mid-20th Century might include the following traits:
- Post-war economic prosperity inspired the proliferation of luxury brands like Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Harry Winston, and Oscar Heyman
- A return to the use of expensive metals like platinum and gold
- The use of bright and bold colors
How to Determine the Value of Vintage Jewelry
As with vintage fashion, the quality, cut, and rarity of vintage jewelry will determine its monetary value. Most importantly is the age and materials used in jewelry pieces. Jewelry from the 1910s will have a greater value than jewelry from the 1980s, and platinum (one of the rarest metals) will be worth far more than nickel or bakelite.
For example, a diamond eternity band from the Edwardian period is listed for $2,100 at Isadoras Antique Jewelry shop, and a set of Tiffany & Co. wedding bands sold for $1,950 at Three Graces Fine Jewelry. Yet, this emerald paste ring from the 1950s is only listed for $200 at rubylane. Of course, not every piece of vintage jewelry is going to be worth thousands of dollars, but that shiny silver necklace in the consignment bin might be worth much more than its $5 price tag.
When to Keep and When to Sell Your Vintage Jewelry
Selling vintage jewelry does not always feel like an option for some; the sentimental value of jewelry passed down from generation to generation can make relinquishing any piece into an outsider's hands feel like a betrayal. Yet, knowing the story behind your great-grandmother's necklace that has sat untouched in your jewelry box for years can bring you even closer to those from the past. Also identifying your vintage jewelry's value can help you better care for these fragile items to ensure that they last for generations to come, and if you find yourself wanting to sell any of your pieces, you will be prepped with the knowledge to get the most for your jewels. Next, consider collecting some valuable vintage costume jewelry because sometimes it's as beautiful as the real thing.