Among today’s jewelry shoppers (and sadly, among many merchants), the term that may be used most often – and misused most often – is “vintage jewelry”. It’s used to describe pieces created a century ago, created a decade ago, and even created last week.
Unfortunately, there is no rigorous definition to explain exactly what vintage jewelry is. That’s why so many people use the phrase – or misuse it – simply to fit their purposes. We’ll do our best to clear up the mystery, but since there’s no universally-accepted meaning it’s easier to first explain what vintage jewelry isn’t, and then arrive at a general definition for the term based on “what’s left”.
Here we go.
What Is Not Considered “Vintage”
To start with, pieces which have recently been manufactured to recall or mimic the jewelry styles of classic periods are not vintage jewelry. They may be labeled that way in order to boost sales, but they’re not vintage. They should be properly described as “vintage style,” “vintage-inspired” or “vintage reproductions,” and reputable designers and jewelry houses use those terms (or similar ones) to clearly indicate that the pieces are newly-created. Some pawnbrokers, antique dealers, local jewelry dealers and online sellers, however, simply attach the term “vintage” to a vintage-inspired piece and hope that buyers won’t notice or know the difference.
Next on the list is previously-owned jewelry. You’ll often hear a ten-year old ring or necklace referred to as “vintage” just because it is being resold after having been owned by someone else. However, a pre-owned piece of jewelry isn’t automatically vintage. It’s automatically pre-owned, but whether it’s vintage or not is a different matter. In the same vein, many equate the terms “vintage” and “estate” jewelry. The term “estate jewelry,” though, is usually used today to refer to previously-owned jewelry, so estate pieces aren’t necessarily vintage either.
Now, let’s consider jewelry from the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and early Art Deco periods. You could call these pieces vintage (and many people do), and you would literally be correct. But that would be like bringing home an expensive, pedigreed Yorkshire Terrier as a pet and telling friends you just got “an animal”. Here’s why.
Just as with the term “vintage”, there’s no universally-accepted definition for antique pieces, but most experts consider an “antique” to be at least 100 years old. (Some stretch the definition a bit to cover time periods instead of years, so they might call a 90-year old piece from the late Arts and Crafts era or the early Art Deco era an antique.)
Now let’s go back to our pet Yorkie to explain why antique jewelry is not properly called vintage. All pedigreed dogs are animals, but not all animals are pedigreed dogs – that’s why you wouldn’t simply describe Fido as an “animal,” you’d boast that he’s a valuable, pedigreed breed. Similarly, all antique jewelry is vintage, but not all vintage jewelry is antique – you wouldn’t call an antique “vintage” if you want people to know that you are talking about a truly rare, valuable piece that’s more than 100 years old.
OK, so “vintage jewelry” doesn’t properly define pieces that are new, really old, or pre-owned. So what does it mean?
The most commonly-accepted definition for vintage jewelry is that it was created at least 25 years ago. Some set the dividing line at 20 years, others set it at 30 years, and you will even find a few who say a vintage piece has to be at least 50 years old.
An easier way to look at the term, though, is by looking once again at jewelry eras. Most will agree that pieces from the Retro Era of the 1940s through the first decades of the modern period (up through the 1980s) are properly called vintage. Art Deco jewelry not old enough to be called “antique” is also be described as vintage, and some might call 1990s-era pieces vintage as well.
There is one important qualification. The jewelry has to have some intrinsic worth in order to properly be called vintage. You won’t get very far trying to sell a pair of nickel-plated earrings you bought for $5 at a street fair in 1983 by describing them as “vintage”. But don’t despair; that doesn’t mean that cheap hand-crafted pieces or costume jewelry from the 1930s aren’t valuable; they can actually be worth a great deal of money. In that case, they’re definitely vintage.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s take a look at the stylistic eras that define vintage jewelry.
The Jewelry Eras
Most of the pieces from each of the time periods which produced vintage jewelry have very distinctive features. Here’s a brief rundown.
Art Deco Era
This period didn’t get its name until after a famous 1925 Paris exposition, but it is considered to have begun around 1920 and ended in the mid-1930s. It was an era greatly influenced by the excesses of the Roaring ‘20s and what was seen as the “modernism” of the time.
Designs commonly seen in vintage Art Deco jewelry are clean geometric or stylized shapes. Sharp angles and sweeping curves were common, and symmetry was worshipped. The predominant materials were a strange mix of expensive and inexpensive natural stones (from jade and ivory to clear quartz and coral) and modern hand-made materials like enamel, Bakelite, and other plastics. Diamonds were featured frequently in early, over-the-top Art Deco pieces, but receded into the background as rubies and other precious gemstones became prevalent. Tne contrasting use of colors, such as black onyx and either diamonds or white rock crystal, was also a hallmark of this period.
Themes varied considerably as well. There were pieces which reflected the influences of Japan, Africa and Egypt (this was the period when King Tut’s tomb was discovered), as well as those which drew inspiration from Native American designs and from nature. Animals (both real and mythical) were often depicted, as were flowers and the sun; yet many other pieces simply featured geometrical designs. In most instances, however, the goal was to create sleek, sophisticated jewelry.
The most-common forms of vintage Art Deco jewelry found today are bracelets (women often wore many at the same time) and necklaces (chokers were very much in fashion), although bold double-clip brooches, screw-back dangle earrings and bandeaux (the flat, jeweled headbands seen on flappers in movies like The Great Gatsby) are also seen on the vintage market. Some of the other signature pieces of the era included straight-line bracelets and very long, rope necklaces showcasing Venetian beads, amber, or pearls (real or imitation).
One other interesting type of jewelry from the period which can bring big money today is what can be called multi-functional: a piece which may also be split into two, such as a necklace that can be separated into a pair of matching bracelets. Costume jewelry was also very much in fashion, particularly once the Depression arrived; Coco Chanel led the way in this design area, and some of her pre-owned pieces are still for sale today. Another type of Art Deco jewelry is also noteworthy: men’s cufflinks were carefully designed as statement pieces and are quite desirable, if you can find them.
Major design houses like Tiffany and Cartier are said to have produced some of their greatest work during this era, and their Art Deco works can bring enormous sums. Overall, vintage Art Deco jewelry has experienced a major resurgence in interest over the last two decades, and is now in very high demand.
The period during and after World War II saw enormous changes in every area of modern culture, and jewelry design definitely took a new direction during the Retro Era, loosely defined as running from 1940-1955. The world was focused on the future, and designs largely reflected that bold approach while redefining some of the motifs of earlier times. There was a definitely “American” feel to many pieces from the period, not just because of the country’s leadership position in the world but because the war caused a down period for major European jewelry companies.
Retro Era jewelry designs brought gold (yellow, white and even green) back to the forefront, as platinum was reserved for military use during much of the period. The war also disrupted commerce and transportation, so new semi-precious stones like topaz, citrine, tourmaline and aquamarine became common choices for many high-end pieces. Retro jewelry was colorful, large and often elaborate, whether it was created with a modern, futuristic look or took its cue from Victorian themes. Joining traditional motifs like animals, flowers and hearts were patriotic ones like flags, eagles, and even geometric designs shaped like tank tracks.
Just as important as the shift in materials and styles was the shift in public focus. No longer did royals primarily create demand for jewelry styles; the fashion choices of Hollywood actresses were primarily responsible for shaping consumer views on jewelry and couture. When Ava Gardner wore oversized cocktail rings in her movies or Joan Crawford was seen wearing her stunning brooch set in magazines and newsreels, the fashion landscaped shifted.
Speaking of Retro Era brooches, they were extremely popular then and are very much in demand today. Flowers, scrolls and bows accented with gemstones were commonly seen on those brooches, which were generally large but very feminine – as was most Retro jewelry, in order to provide a distinct counterpart to some of the more manly outfits worn during the period. Earrings from the era were still clip-on style and set primarily on the lobe; most had dramatic looks with colorful stones, fancy shapes or large flowery designs.
The popular cocktail rings of the day were similarly colorful and striking, with diamonds often used as offset stones alongside a large and bright semi-precious gemstone. Geometrically-shaped rings were also in fashion. Necklaces were mostly short because of the high-collared dresses and gowns popular in this era; they ranged from striking chokers to longer pieces featuring gems or other adornments, as well as the faux pearls which were so common among those who wanted at least a small piece of the period’s glamour. Also popular were Retro Era cuff-style bracelets, and large lockets and pendants. Charm bracelets were favored as a less-expensive way to show style during the period.
During this period came the enormous surge in popularity of diamond engagement rings, spurred by DeBeers’ famous 1947 mass marketing campaign. Vintage diamond engagement rings from the 1940s and ‘50s are among the most-desirable pieces of jewelry now available to those willing to spend big money for them.
Retro Era vintage jewelry appeals to today’s buyers not only because it carries the aura of old Hollywood glamour so popular today, but because the imagination that went into the designs was so groundbreaking, and because some of the large and futuristic pieces of the period provide just the right “funky” accent to many outfits.
The years between the late 1950s and the end of the 1980s were a time of upheaval throughout the world. Just as it is virtually impossible to define these years with a simple phrase, it’s virtually impossible to attach a unified description like “Art Deco” or “Retro” to the vintage jewelry of these years which ran the gamut of organic and synthetic, simple and ornate, tasteful and outrageous. There were Jackie Kennedy’s classic triple-strand pearl necklaces and Cher’s absolutely enormous Native-American inspired turquoise necklaces, and there was fine jewelry that grew out of ‘60s love beads, ‘70s gold chains, and ‘80s huge hoop earrings. There were celebrities showing off costume jewelry and there was Princess Diana wearing a priceless diamond-and-emerald choker as a headband.
And naturally there were traditional diamond engagement and wedding rings. and fine bracelets, necklaces and other pieces crafted by name jewelry houses during the Modern Era, which are intrinsically valuable and still considered vintage items because of their age.
The one common denominator that most Modern Era vintage jewelry has is that it is tremendously in vogue today. Most pieces are not as valuable as those from the Art Deco and Retro Eras, but they are still a way for today’s buyers to feel a connection to earlier generations – and display that connection in a very public manner.