How To Collect and Purchase Antique Jewelry

How To Collect and Purchase Antique Jewelry

How To Collect and Purchase Antique Jewelry

At our event at The Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City in July, and again during The Original Miami Beach Antique Show held in early February, Jewelry Historian, author, journalist, curator and collector, Beth Bernstein, was kind enough to give guided tours to a select group of jewelry enthusiasts.

Within minutes of sending out the invitation to attend, the limited space for attendees was filled! In NYC, and again twice in Miami, we had to put several people on a waitlist, and after the tours, my email box was flooded with attendees thanking U.S. Antique Shows for organizing the tours, and asking for us to organize tours at future events.

During the tours, Beth provided broad stroke information about a variety of jewelry periods, gave advice on how to set a budget, how to find the best bargains and the rarest pieces, and how to best research and seek relationships within this unique world. She also provided a handout with useful information that attendees could bring home with them. The information, which is excerpted from this article on Beth’s magazine, Bejeweled Magazine, is provided below.

How To Collect Period Jewelry

There are no rules that can teach you everything on the road to becoming a collector. In the beginning there’s a lot of trial and error. Therefore it is important to be around antique and vintage jewelry.  Attending shows like this and talking to dealers is extremely helpful in gaining knowledge as I hope this tour will be.

To pack all of this information into one 45-minute tour is not possible but I hope that it will give you some basic knowledge, meet some wonderful and trustworthy dealers and learn what you can.

Most importantly, when it comes to purchasing pieces from the past, it is important to become familiar with the characteristics and styles of each period in history.

Here in this handout I describe certain pieces of jewelry that define the times from the 18th century onwards and then give tips to help you feel more confident in purchasing. This provides more information than I will be providing in the tour so I do hope you find it useful.

The Georgian Period (1714-1830) is typified by floral and organic motifs, and silver fused to yellow gold. Rose-cut diamonds defined the era, as did flat-top garnets and colored gemstones set in closed backs and mounted with foil to enhance their hue. Parures – matching antique jewelry sets – are now popular, as are antique necklaces, which can detach into either earrings and a brooch, or two antique bracelets. Also flourishing in the Georgian period were sentimental pieces including portrait and lover’s eye miniatures, posy rings with poetic verse engraved into gold bands, and acrostic jewelry in which the first letter of the gemstones spelled out words of affection such as “Regard” and “Dearest”.

The Victorian Era (1837-1901) witnessed the heightened popularity of these sentimental love tokens, and also spans three important periods. The Romantic Period covers the earlier years when Queen Victoria married her Prince. Sentimental motifs continued to dominate: hearts, lover’s knots, flowers, bows, crescent moons and serpents (which Queen Victoria wore as an engagement ring, signifying enduring love).

This era also marked a major change due to the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of the diamond mines in South Africa. Women of all social status were now able to wear fine jewelry. The Grand Period encompassed the two decades when the Queen mourned the death of Prince Albert. Dark, somber Whitby jet, onyx and deep garnets came into vogue, with mourning and memorial jewels comprising personalized rings and lockets. Revival Etruscan, Greek and Renaissance influences were also fashionable. The later Aesthetic Period reflected a return to lightheartedness with symbols of luck, good fortune and naturalistic forms.

Art Nouveau (1880-1910) represented a revolt against the industrial age in pure artistic expression with the rebellious use of precious and non-precious metals, combined with unusual colored gemstones in depictions of nature – primarily insects, birds and floral motifs. Sensual and ethereal versions of the female form were also a recurring theme. Intricately detailed pieces displayed bold uses of color, daring materials and several types of enameling, such as plique-à-jour, in groundbreaking designs. The Art Nouveau movement began in France and influenced all of Europe and the United States, while overlapping with other periods. The pioneers included Rene Laliqué, Falize, Maison Vever, Georges Fouquet, and Tiffany & Co.

The Edwardian & Belle Époque Era (1901-1915), the shortest period in the history of antique jewelry, reflected the elegance of King Edward VII and the delicacy of French Rococo décor.Platinum was introduced and influenced new settings for diamonds. The “garland” style of flowers and leaves, and millegrain, pierced and engraved metals gave jewelry of this period the appearance of airy lace and embroidery. Old mine-cut diamonds and natural pearls offered a monochromatic white look for earrings, brooches and necklaces.

Art Deco (1920-1939) reached its height in 1925 after the Decorative Arts Exhibition in Paris, and coincided with women gaining the right to vote in America. Industrial, linear and sleek, Art Deco captured the new world with streamlined forms – all white diamond and platinum looks, inspired by speed and skyscrapers. Influences from a global mix of cultures – Asia, Africa and Egypt – softened the geometric lines with stylized floral motifs and carved cabochons. Vibrant rubies and sapphires as well as onyx, jade, lapis and frosted quartz contrasted against diamonds and produced some of the most influential looks, which continue to inspire contemporary designers. Cartier, René Bovin, Boucheron, Raymond Templier, and Tiffany & Co.  and Suzanne Belperron were just a few of the prevailing jewelers.

The Retro Period (1939-1950) came about due to World War II when platinum and gems became scarce. Jewelers turned to lower-carat gold and semi-precious or synthetic stones, and rose and yellow gold took on the feel of fabrics, lending fluidity and movement. After the war, brooches became all the rage, and aquamarine, citrine and amethyst are now fashionable again in large stone antique rings.

The Mid-20th Century (dating from the 1950s through to the 1960s) offered up the “cocktail party” as a stylish event throughout the US, and jewelry became more extravagant. Three-dimensional, whimsical and stylized animals set with vivid semi-precious stones also heralded this time frame, characterized by leopards and panthers from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels’ winged creatures, and Serpentini jewels from Bulgari. These houses as well as Boucheron continued to shake up their earlier visions with new innovations, while the U.S. saw the rise to fame of designers such as Paul Flato, Fulco di Verdura, David Webb, Jean Schlumberger  for Tiffany & Co.  All who were wildly creative and had a roster of customers, which included film stars and socialites.

Seventies Vintage (The 1970s) There was much happening in the 70s in the U.S.—The end of the Vietnam War, Watergate and  Nixon’s impeachment and the feminist movement all brought with it a new casual attitude toward jewelry. House such as Bulgari, Cartier and Tiffany & Co kept up with the changing times—Iconic pieces include Bulgari’s coin necklaces and Cartier’s Love Bracelet. Elsa Peretti came onto the scene and  redefined jewelry for a new generation with her bold sculptural shapes  and pieces in clean polished sterling silver in silhouettes that are once again popular today—in their new versions—the bone cuff, the perfume bottle pendant, the open heart—but when you can find the original pieces,  my advice is to invest in them. 

10 Tips For Purchasing Antique Jewelry

Tip 1: Identify the era or eras you’re attracted to: There is a brief synopsis of the time periods above, but you can find out more information by browsing shops and researching the time periods in books, museum exhibits and auction catalogs and online sites to see which eras you are drawn to. Also look at examples of the most popular pieces and prevalent details of each era and get familiar with them.

Tip 2: Ask other expert questions: If the dealer/shop owner is honest and trustworthy and passionate about what they do—they will be happy to talk to you about whether a piece is an original or has been ‘put together or reproduced’, about the stones and settings, the provenance and hallmarks. All of this has to do with the investment you are making as authentic original pieces in excellent condition appreciate with time. All aforementioned points to go over will affect the value of the piece.

Tip 3: Learn how to tell if it’s a reproduction: The more you shop around, the more you will begin to learn. In addition to a trustworthy dealer, learn to read hallmarks, learn how pieces from different eras are supposed to feel to the touch, hold and try on as much and you can. Go to auction previews and shop the various antique shows and fairs that are in your area.

Tip 4: Decide if the piece can take everyday wear? For example, Georgian rings are silver topped and closed back with foil between the stone and the setting to enhance the color of the earlier diamonds and colored gemstones. They are beautiful, but beware you cannot wash your hands with them or you will ruin the foil and the color will fade and show the earlier stone cuts’ imperfections. Anything that is over 200 years old should be handled with care and should not be worn on your hands, fingers or necks every day.

Tip 5: Before you shop, set your budget: For new collectors, the Victorian era is a safe place to start thanks to the industrial revolution and the ability to produced a variety of sentimental and symbolic pieces that are quite detailed. They have a language all of their own and they are highly wearable without worry. They command less tony prices than earlier, rare Georgian jewels in excellent condition, Art Deco designs, and /or signed pieces of the early 20th century.

Tip 6: Learn where the bargains are: When hunting for a bargain, it’s all about where you are scouting out your antique and vintage piece. Flea markets, which don’t cost much for set up and booth space are great for starter jewelry enthusiasts to find some unique treasures. Some of the fairs are perfect for this as well. You can bargain — but first-time buyers should shop around and, if possible, bring a seasoned collector they trust the first few times.

Tip 7: Research and Seek Out Relationships: If you are looking for something specific, research dealers who specialize in at least the time period the piece was made or at least the country of origin. Building relationships with retailers and dealers should not be underestimated. If you are a repeat customer and they sense loyalty — they will offer the same back.

Tip 7: Wear, don’t save, your jewels: My advice to friends when they ask (or sometimes I give it unsolicited) is to buy jewelry you don’t have to “save” for a special occasion. Invest in ‘wear now” unless you plan on having a shop or a museum showing of your own.

Tip 8: Read as much as you can: there are many great books out there about collecting antique jewelry. I recommend those by Claire Phillips for a glimpse into varied time periods and jewels. I would stay away from price guides as they change with supply and demand.

Tip 9: Learn the tools of the trade: Purchase a 10x jeweler’s loupe and learn how to use it to look at the stones to see if there are chips or cracks as well as looking at the shanks, to check if there are hallmarks –this will help you to ask questions and become your own expert along the way.

Tip 10: Mistakes are part of the learning process: We all buy a piece that’s not right from time to time, which allows you to know better when the next fair rolls around. In the meantime beware of memento mori pieces, portrait jewels and Giardinetti rings as they are being reproduced like crazy. Only go to dealers you feel you can trust for these kinds of pieces.

Beth Bernstein is an antique expert. She is available for questions through email at or and you can follow her on Instagram at @BethBjeweled.

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