10 Tips for Evaluating Antique Jewelry

Floral motif Victorian era silver topped gold brooch, en tremblant, set with old mine and rose cut diamonds, converts to hair ornament, French assay marks, infitted case by Henri Blanc Paris. Courtesy, Gorky Antiquites.

Purchasing antique jewelry is a bit like going on a treasure hunt. Each piece is a little bit different, you never know what you’re going to find and of course you’ll know it when you see it. Once you find “the one” you want to be sure that the piece is what it is represented to be, that it is in fact a true antique jewel — which for the purposes of this blog is defined as through the late Victorian period — and not a reproduction.

The first thing you want to do is start by working with a reputable jewelry dealer or retailer. Always ask for any gemological reports and other paperwork that may help to authenticate a piece. While it takes an expert to verify the authenticity of an item, every jewel will give you clues to its background. First you have to know what to look for and then it’s a lot like playing  detective. Careful examination of a piece of jewelry from all angles is necessary. If you’re buying a very expensive or exceptionally rare piece of jewelry, then you may want to have it reviewed by a third-party, such as an appraiser, who does not have an interest in the sale of the jewel.

To help you get started in determining if a piece is worthy of a second opinion, Gail Brett Levine, GG, executive director of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers (NAJA) offers ten tips for determining if a piece of jewelry is actually an antique. “If you want to find out more about a piece, go to an appraiser who has a jewelry history background,” she advises.

Illustration of C Clasp, used in antique jewelry, image courtesy NAJA.

• A reproduction will normally have modern safety clasps and will not have handmade pin stem and joint tube hinges unless designed to defraud.  “In an antique brooch the pin stem will be considerably longer than the catch,” explains Levine. “The pin will go one-quarter to three eights of an inch over the outline of the brooch. These early clasps were C clasps with no safety catch. The extra length on the pin was there to catch the fabric so the brooch would be held in place more securely.”

• Look at the prongs on a piece for more clues as to its age. In old pieces prongs will be worn smooth. In a reproduction piece the prongs will be large, a bit chubby, and they will show no wear.

• Hinges on a reproduction bracelet will be “wiggly” and heavy. The snap will generally be a “two piece solder” rather than a one-piece bent over snap.

Illustration of 1880 threaded post, image courtesy NAJA.

• The backings of reproduction earrings will be post and friction nut style rather than post and screw nut style. In newly made pieces the post is smooth and the back, or nut, will slide right on to the post. In an antique piece, the nut or post will sometimes have threads, similar to a screw, and the nut will screw onto the post back.

• Threaded areas should show wear and tear in antique jewelry. “With repeated wear the threading on the nut will wear out. The hole in the nut will become enlarged and it doesn’t hold well anymore,” says Levine.

• There were no cultured pearls before approximately 1910. Additionally, cultured pearls were not widely available until the 1920s. The only way to determine if a pearl is natural or cultured is to  have it examined by a gemological laboratory. Older pieces will have handset pearls, where the post is fashioned to fit the drill hole of the pearl, rather than glued pearls.

• Reproduction chains do not show the wear and tear that old chains will show. “The links, especially larger links like you will see in Georgian era jewelry will show indentations in the metal from wear,” comments Levine. “The links on pieces that were worn a lot will rub against each other and you will be able to see an indentation that looks a like a woman’s hourglass figure.”

• In a modern piece you will often find the metal karatage stamped on or near the clasp. The clasps are generally finely made and they will have a tongue that fits into a groove to open and close the jewel. “On antique pieces the clasp is often bulky and thick,” says Levine. “For the most part if a piece of gold jewelry is stamped 18-karat it is European, if it is stamped 15-karat it was made in Britain, 15-karat gold is no longer made so that is an indicator of age. It was also possible to find 9-karat gold, or silver topped gold that made the gems shine more brightly.”

• Make sure that the gemstones — type and cut — and materials are typical of the period and style represented. Various gemstones were discovered at different points in time and some gems were not discovered until the 20th century — for example, there is no tanzanite in antique jewelry. “A good rule of thumb is that generally a sharp cornered or step cut stone will not be in an antique piece,” says Levine. “The technology for that type of cut did not exist at that time. If the piece has sharp corners it does not belong. You start seeing those angular cuts in jewelry starting in the 1920s.”

• Stamped markings for gold karatage will be too crisp and clean in a reproduction, but may be somewhat worn away in an older piece.   

Every piece of jewelry has a story to tell — including its own history. A careful examination of a jewel will tell you much about it, from whether or not it has been repaired, is a reproduction or even its approximate age.

Authored by Amber Michelle

The Elegance of Edwardian Jewelry

Diamond and Platinum Edwardian Era Bow Brooch, Photo Courtesy: Paul Fisher, Inc.

Opulent, Refined, Luxurious, Lifestyles of the Rich and Royal, White, Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds all defined the Edwardian era.

WHEN: 1901-1915, the Edwardian era officially began during the reign of King Edward VII in 1901 (although he was coronated in 1902) and ended with the start of World War I in 1914/1915, historians vary as to the exact dates. Edward, the son of Queen Victoria, began to take on many official duties after Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband and Edward’s father, died. The Edwardian style began to develop in the late 1800s and blossomed during his reign. Even though this same time period was known as the Belle Epoque in other parts of Europe and as the Gilded Age in the United States, the jewelry had the same design aesthetic.

FAMOUS MAKERS: Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Fabergé, Garrads, LaCloche, Marcus & Co., Tiffany & Co.

MOTIFS: Bows, Ribbons, Garlands, Laurel Wreaths, Florals, Feathers and Tassels, Stars, Millegrain

THE LOOK: White-on-white platinum with pearls and/or diamonds, light and lacy, intricate, formal and regal

MATERIALS: Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds, Pink Topaz, Peridot, Demantoid Garnet, Amethyst, Turquoise, Blue Sapphire, Ruby , Emerald, Aquamarine, Kunzite, Opal, Moonstone and Alexandrite

King Edward was known for his love of luxury and revelry. There were many parties and celebrations during his reign and dressing up was required. Not just dressing up to look good, but dressing up to show your rank in society and your respect for the rank of those around you.

Status-conscious Edwardians were not shy about piling on jewelry. If you want to see layering at its best, look at women of the Edwardian era. They started with a choker or dog collar and then added more necklaces of varying lengths that dropped to the waist, or longer. The dog collar was particularly popular as Edward’s wife Queen Alexandra favored the style to hide a scar on her neck and others followed suit.

Brooches and pins were also popular, with fashionable Edwardians wearing numerous pins during the day on their bodice, as epaulets and in their hair. It was also customary to wear a few bracelets stacked together on each arm along with several rings.

For an evening event, along with all the other jewelry, tiara’s, jeweled combs or other hair ornaments were worn. Tiara’s were especially important if royalty (king, queen, prince or princess), or upper echelon nobility was present. And for evening, bigger brooches were worn, often a few at a time, with star motifs being favored.

There were a number of technological events in the Edwardian era and two that made a big impact on jewelry and fashion. In 1903, the high heat oxyacetylene torch was invented. The torch was able to easily heat platinum to its melting point, allowing jewelers to stretch the metal until it became very thin. Platinum, which is a very strong metal was then formed into delicate, but very elaborate settings. It was also pierced to create openwork adding to the lightness of the pieces both aesthetically and in terms of weight. Jewelry created in the Edwardian era is surprisingly light weight given its larger sizes.

A second major technical advancement was availability of electricity. It made a big change in fashion. Heavy fabrics, brocades and velvets in dark colors that were beautiful by candlelight looked dreary and drab under electric lights. They were replaced by pastel colors and lighter fabrics such as silk or taffeta. These new styles were the perfect backdrop for the intricate, openwork jewelry of the era.

Diamonds and pearls were two of the most used gems in Edwardian jewelry. Set in platinum they reinforced the era’s formal white-on-white design aesthetic. The diamond mines in South Africa were producing an abundant supply of diamonds making them readily available and cost effective to use in jewelry design.

Pearls on the other hand were much more rare as cultured pearls had not yet been perfected and brought to market. Pearls were natural and much harder to come by making them scarce and far more valuable than other gems.

When World War I erupted, the gracious and luxurious lifestyle of the Edwardian era came to an abrupt end.

Authored by Amber Michelle