Buyer’s Guide to Antique and Vintage Jewelry-Part 1
inAugust 4, 2011 - 4:13pm
There are many reasons for buying Antique and Vintage Jewelry pieces. You may want a piece by a classic designer, or something that reminds you of the past. Maybe a brooch like that one that Grandma used to wear. Perhaps you are attracted to a look of bygone days that is just no longer made, or fall in love with the quality of a handmade piece from the past.
This article will give you some tools to help date jewelry accurately, and should help any jewelry detective, whether a collector or dealer.
Antique is a term that should be reserved for items that are at least 100 years old, at least where jewelry is concerned. You will often find this term applied to pieces that are made much more recently, with some sellers using the term very indiscriminately. Other terms, such as Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco, are also used rather broadly by some sellers. So let us start out by defining those terms. While not all dealers and collectors would agree completely with this dating, it does indicate the dates I will be using when referring to items.
The Georgian Era dates from the reign of the George I of England, which started in 1714, and ends in either 1830 or 1837. In 1830, William IV came to the throne, and some include his seven year reign in the Georgian Era, while others do not. The Regency existed from 1811 to 1820. King George III was ill, and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled in his place as Regent, until George III died. The son was then crowned as George IV. He was succeeded by his younger brother, William IV, in 1830. William was 64 years old at the time of his coronation. William was the last of the Hanoverian kings of England, ruling both England, its colonies, and the Kingdom of Hanover.
The Victorian Era, normally dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, lasted from 1837 to 1901. Her uncle, William, had left no legitimate children, although he was survived by 8 illegitimate children. The crown of England went to his niece, Victoria, and the crown of Hanover, to his brother, Ernest Augustus I.
The Edwardian Era, strictly dated, applies to the reign of Edward VII, which lasted from 1901 to 1910. Some sources may use the term Edwardian more as a style reference, and describe items from the late 19th century on up to 1920 as Edwardian.
Unlike the terms above, which can have clearly defined dates established by the reigning periods of various monarchs. Art Nouveau was a style and artistic movement which most date from 1890. Ending dates vary with different authorities. Some would limit the period from 1890 to 1901, while others extend it to the start or end of World War I. When I use the term as a dating guide, I mean 1890 to 1918.
This period gets its name from a 1925 exhibition in Paris, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art). Art Moderne was actually the term used for this style until the mid 1960s, when Art Deco became the preferred reference. The style actually pre-dates the exhibition, and 1920 to 1940 is often considered an appropriate range for the Art Deco Era.
Yellow Gold and Silver were the materials most widely used for the manufacture of Fine Jewelry, until the end of the 19th century. Other color varieties of gold were used, such as Rose (pink) and some greenish golds. However, white gold is clearly a 20th century innovation. You will not see white gold on Georgian, Victorian, or Edwardian pieces, as defined by the dates above. Some sources indicate that white gold was introduced as early as 1911 or 1915, but 1917 is the most widely accepted date. This is when the Belais Brothers introduced a white gold alloy into the American Jewelry market. While they, and others, undoubtedly experimented with other white gold alloys, we know of no items that can be clearly documented as white gold before this date. Their 18 karat white gold alloy actually dominated the market through the 1920s to such an extent that white gold was sometimes referred to as Bealis metal. Karl Richter, of Pforzheim, Germany introduced a 14 karat white gold alloy in 1915. However, as World War I was engulfing Europe at the time, Richter ‘s work was not as influential as the work by the Belais Brothers.
Platinum was known since the 18th century. However, platinum requires high temperatures for refining, welding, and fabrication. It was not until1870 that quality refining processes were mastered, and improvements in torch technology had to become widespread before platinum use became widespread.
Actual fineness or purity of gold varied over the years, and this fineness can help date some items.
English items are the easiest to date, and were marked by the Assay office. Marks, including a Leopard’s Head, a Crowned Leopard’s Head, and a Crown were used to indicate gold. At times, this was followed by a number indicating the fineness. Until 1854, only 18 and 22 karat were allowed. 15, 12, and 9 karat golds were allowed in 1854. In 1932, 15 karat and 12 karat were eliminated, and 14 karat was introduced. Silver items were marked with the figure of a Lion Passant. Additional marks indicate regional assay offices, and duty or special jubilee marks appear at times. A maker’s mark can often lead to the identification of the individual or firm that produced an item. Date marks were added to pieces from the 1500s on, with the system becoming consistent in the 1700s. This mark can definitively date the piece to a 1 year period. Variations exist for the marking of Scottish and Irish pieces.
Many guides and references are available that allow a consumer or collector to accurately date hallmarked items.
French items from the periods covered would have normally been 18 karat gold or sterling silver. However, the rather elaborate French system does not give many clues to precise dating. The Small Guarantee mark, normally placed on jewelry items, is an Eagle head, indicating 18 karat gold, and has been used since at least 1838. Slightly larger Eagle marks may indicate other fineness levels, such as 840 (20 karat) or 920 (22 karat). Silver items would most often be marked with Boar’s head, indicating a fineness of at least 800 parts per thousand. A Dog Head mark was added for Platinum items in 1912. Manufacturer’s marks, present in a lozenge shaped area, may help identify a maker, leading to accurate dating. French, and Swiss, marks are normally very small on jewelry items, and may be overlooked or undecipherable, either to the untrained eye or the eye lacking proper magnification tools. Regional variations exist, as well as special marks for import and export, and for second hand items that were previously unmarked. A series of larger marks, used for larger items, was similar, but not always identical.
Other European countries had different marking systems, most often involving images such as a woman’s head or animal head, along with numbers indicating fineness. While not as elaborate as the English system, some dating clues can be gathered from the marks.
Austria: One system of marks was used from 1867-1922 for silver items, with 2 series of marks: one for larger items, and one for smaller. A Dog Head, indicating 800 silver, and a Lion Head, indicating 750 silver, were most common on silver jewelry articles. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, new marks were used by the Republic of Austria, the head of a Hoopoe bird indicting three different qualities of silver: 835, 900, and 935, with variations in each mark. A Toucan head was used for 800 silver. Letters were placed on items during the earlier Austro-Hungarian period to indicate the city of the assay office.
Russia: A system for marking purity of metals was implemented in 1700, with a numeral representing zolotniki added to the piece. The zolotnik was actually a weight measure, adapted for this use. 96 zolotniki would be pure silver. 90 is equivalent to 937 silver, 84 is equivalent to 875 silver, and 62 is equivalent to 645 silver. A number of other marks were used for various purity levels, and after 1798, 84 zlotniki was the minimum purity level for silver. 84 zolotniki is also used as the mark for 21 karat gold, with a mark of 56 indicating 14 karat gold. Items also would include a maker’s mark, and assay master’s mark, and a city mark. This system was replaced in 1896, with one featuring a female head in Kokoshnik head ware. She faces left, until 1908, when her profile begins to face to the right.
Scandinavia: Sweden implemented a series of date marks in 1759. Danish assay and maker’s marks can help date items from Denmark. Norway has used a system that has incorporated city marks, maker’s marks, and assay marks at various times, and all may be helpful in dating an item.
Summary of Metals and Dating