Treasure Box Antiques: What to Look for When Identifying Antique Jewelry

If you are going to invest in a piece of antique jewelry, especially in these hard economic times, it is extremely important that you educate yourself before you buy. To properly identify antique jewelry, you must become familiar with the following four items: 1) materials used, 2) types of fasteners used, 3) cuts/settings of stones used, and 4) craftsmanship/styles used in Georgian (1714-1836) and Victorian (1837-1900) times.

To determine if a piece of jewelry is an antique, it is first important to identify the materials used in composition of the piece. Most early (Georgian through Victorian) pieces were made out of silver, which has an earthy, metallic smell! Pieces could also be made out of yellow gold (possibly gold filled or incorporating rolled gold), or pinchbeck, followed by platinum in Edwardian (1901-1910) times. White gold did not appear on the market until the 1920’s.

Stone, bog oak, jet, mother–of-pearl, shell, coral, lava, tortoise shell and ivory were also used in the composition of early jewelry. In addition, depending on the era or style of jewelry, these materials were often embellished with hair (both human and horse), enamel, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones, paste stones, painted gold, micro mosaic tiles, Pietra Dura, cut steel and marcasite (iron pyrite).

Second, it is important to know the types of fasteners used in antique jewelry. For instance, if a brooch pin back extends beyond the mounting, it is an indication that the piece is early. Brooches from the 1800’s often have simple “c” catches on the back. Screw back earrings were developed in the 1890’s.


If you come across the following items, you are not looking at a piece of antique jewelry:

  • Riveted hinges on pin stems did not come about until approx. 1900.
  • Lever back earrings were not developed until approx. 1900.
  • Fold over latches came about in approximately 1901.
  • Tongue-in-groove clasps came about in approximately 1910.
  • Post and clutch earrings came about in the 1920’s.
  • Clip back earrings were not developed until the 1930’s.
  • Barrel Clasps were developed in the 1930’s.
  • Double pin stems (clips) are circa 1940’s.
  • Omega back earrings were not developed until the 1970’s.

Third, it is important to know the cuts of gems and paste, and how they were set in antique jewelry. Table cut and cabochon stones can be found in some of the earliest hand crafted pieces. Old mine cut diamonds, which are irregular in cut and lumpy in shape, but amazingly brilliant, especially under low light, were extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. European and rose cut gems were also very popular in antique pieces. The diamonds and other gems and pastes of the time were all individually hand cut until the mid 1800’s when machines were invented to do the cutting. No antique piece could have a modern cut of gem. The baquette cut was first used in the 1920’s. The invisible set was not developed until the 1930’s.


The following points can also help you identify antique pieces:

  • Antique Portuguese and Spanish/Columbian pieces have very high collars around the gems.
  • Garnets were often set into pinchbeck.
  • Georgian pieces often have large foiled paste stones.
  • Most paste and real gem pieces prior to 1800 have closed backs to hold the foils in place. (Yes, they often enhanced real gemstones with foil! The foils were delicate and susceptible to tarnish in air, so airtight sealing around them was crucial.)
  • Cut steel pieces were riveted to the base metal.
  • Marcasite was most commonly pasted onto silver.
  • In Edwardian platinum pieces, the jewels were held in place by fine milligrain details.


Fourth, it is important to understand the craftsmanship/styles of antique jewelry. Until the mid 19th century, jewelry was hand made with great pride and craftsmanship. Two symmetrical sides of a piece were not identical in these hand made pieces. Precious stones and paste were each individually hand cut, so all were different. Great pride was taken in the making of a piece of jewelry, and the back of the piece was often as lovely as the front-and as ornate. Also, well-made antique jewelry is very smoothly finished on the back and front. The pieces do not catch you fingers as you run them over the front and back surfaces of a piece.

Ornate and colorful enameling around the gems of a piece can help date the piece to the 16th or 17th centuries. Enameling was replaced by engraving in Georgian (18th and early 19th century) jewelry.

In Georgian times both men and women wore a lot of jewelry. Shoe buckles, brooches, buttons, pocket watches, chains, and fobs were very popular. Georgian chains were 60 inches long! (Beware, however. Many old pendants have been married with commercial modern chains.) In addition, women also wore full parures and demi-parures, stomachers, and chatelaines. Paste stones became very popular as wealthy travelers chose to wear paste in case holdups by highway robbers. The paste pieces were as elaborate and done in the same cuts as real gems and diamonds.

In Victorian times, hair jewelry, earrings, lockets, brooches, multiple bracelets, necklaces that converted to earrings and bracelets and mourning pieces were all very popular. Animal and symbolic themes in jewelry were widely utilized. For instance, lizards and snakes were symbols of, “Love”. Victorian earrings were often elongated and ornate with granulation, engraving, etc. Modern reproductions do not have the intricate detail that the originals do.

In summary, to correctly identify antique jewelry, become familiar with the 1) materials used, 2) types of fasteners used, 3) cuts/settings of stones used, and 4) craftsmanship/styles used in Georgian and Victorian times.

By Danielle Lapidus of Treasure Box Antiques


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