History of Jewelry Eras
Antique and estate jewelry is a term that encompasses many different eras and styles. A piece of jewelry made at least 100 years ago is an antique. The term “estate”, means that an item has been previously owned. Practically all antique jewelry is estate, though all estate jewelry is not necessarily antique.
Today, most of the antique jewelry available for purchase, dates from the mid 1800's. Older pieces are rarelyseen outside of museums and auction houses.
The most common eras of Antique and Estate Jewelry are:
- Georgian 1714 – 1837
- Victorian 1837 - 1901
- Art Nouveau 1895 - 1915
- Edwardian 1890 - 1910
- Art Deco 1920 - 1935
- Retro 1940 - 1960
The Georgian Era, named for the four Hanoverian Kings of England, George I, II, III and IV, stretches from 1714 to 1837, and is sometimes subdivided into the Rococo, Neo-classical and Regency periods. Until the French Revolution in 1789, French society was considered THE most fashionable, and set the standard for all other European nations. Although post-Revolution France still continued to impact European fashions, influence slowly shifted to Great Britain, Prussia and Italy.
In the years leading up to the French Revolution, jewelry was stiff and colorful, mimicking the width and opulence of ladies’ gowns. Girandole (chandelier) style earrings were popular, and most gems were set in closed, foil-backed mountings to improve their color.
In the first part of the eighteenth century, Rococo style gave the first distinction between daytime and nighttime attire. The Brazilian diamond mines were at the height of their production, and the now-sparkling gems were perfectly suited for the flickering candle light in French salons.
The French Revolution brought this decadence to a grinding halt. Many French jewels, including some of the Bourbon crown jewels, fell into the hands of the Revolutionaries and were destroyed. Jewelry became a symbol of the despised nobility and fell out of favor.
Post-Revolution, or Neo-classical, styles were exaggeratedly simple. Women wore light, filmy, empire-waist gowns meant to show off the female figure. When jewelry was worn at all, it was simple and long. Bracelets were often simple gold bands worn at the wrists or around the upper arms. Long chain necklaces were draped around the neck and shoulders. Hair was piled high on the head and accented by long pendant earrings.
As Napoleon grew more powerful, fashion and jewelry slowly became regained favor. Heavily influenced by neoclassical motifs, jewelry became flashier and more ornate. Empress Josephine had the remaining crown jewels reset in stylized diadems and parures. Influenced by Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign, symbols such as sphinxes, pyramids and papyrus leaves joined laurels, acanthus leaves and sunbursts in the fashions of the day. Cameos and intaglios, previously used mainly in sentimental jewelry, became wildly popular. Original Roman and Greek specimens were set in tiaras, and Italian reproductions formed brooches and whole suites of jewelry.
In 1804, the Berlin Iron Foundry opened and began producing cast-iron jewelry. Lacquered a shiny black, this relatively cheap jewelry was first used as mourning jewelry. In 1813, when the Prussian states rebelled against Napoleon, gold was desperately needed for the war effort. Patriotic women lined up to turn their gold and jewelry into the State. In return, these women received Berlin Ironwork jewelry with the inscription “Gold gab ich für Eisen" (I gave gold for iron). Ironwork jewelry became fashionable till the mid-nineteenth century.
After 1820, Napoleonic classicalism gave way to a more natural and romantic style. Waistlines began to drop to a more natural position, and floral designs became less formal and stylized. Most brilliant stones, such as diamonds, were now set in a jour, or open, settings. Cushion and Old Mine cut diamonds took the place of rose cuts.
After decades of warfare, precious metals and stones were scarce. Semi-precious stones such as amethysts and topazes were mounted in delicate cannetille settings. Pink and green gold became popular. Enameling and the art of miniature portraits were revived. Romanticism and the enthusiasm for anything Middle Ages or Renaissance brought into play decorative motifs such as shields, saints, angles and heraldic figures.
The Victorian Era, spanning from Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837 to her death in 1901, was good to the jewelry industry. New gold mines discovered in California and Australia guaranteed an easy supply of precious metal. A newly wealthy middle class was eager to follow the lead of a young, fashionable royal family.
The Industrial Revolution bought rapid advancement in jewelry production methods. Machines capable of stamping whole pieces of jewelry from metal sheets were invented, leading to mass production techniques. The process of electroplating was first applied commercially in the 1840's. These techniques allowed people of all classes to buy copies of jewelry styles worn by the nobility. Personal ornamentation became affordable to all economic levels, and no longer only a sign of the very rich.
Fashion, art and literature drew inspiration from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the world of nature. Jewelry took the form of diamond-set flowers, enameled leaves and branches, and cabochon jewels set as berry clusters. Snakes and serpent designs were the most popular in early Victorian England. In the 1940’s, snakes were seen as symbols of wisdom, power, and eternal love. Upon their engagement in 1839, Prince Albert presented Victoria with a snake engagement ring set with emeralds (the young queen’s birthstone).Victoria is also generally acknowledged to have started the tradition of a white wedding gown.
Sentimental and memorial jewelry was also brought back into style by Victoria. Flower symbolism was still popular, and jewelry often used enameled flowers or gemstones to spell secret messages. Cameos and hair jewelry were still popular memorial jewelry.
Brightly colored gemstones such as coral, turquoise and carbuncles (garnets) were popular during the early Victorian Era. The rich tones of these stones was most often used to depict flowers, snakes and berries.
As the Victorian Era progressed, women’s fashion became more opulent. Bodices tightened, necklines narrowed and skirts became wide and full. The bust and neckline became the focus point for jewelry, and was decorated with heavy snake and rivière style necklaces and large brooches. Bracelets and head ornaments (diadems, tiaras, and ferronières) also continued to be worn. Hair was worn parted in the center and completely covered the ears – in the 1840’s and 1850’s, earrings became scarce. They gradually came back into fashion in the 1860’s, but in relatively small sizes.
When Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, the Queen was stricken with grief and secluded herself from court and national affairs for several years. Though Victoria was eventually persuaded to rejoin society, she remained in mourning until her death in 1901. The second half of the nineteenth century, the Late Victorian Era, reflected a somber yet opulant tone. Mourning-style jewelry, made of hair, onyx and jet, was required at the English court for decades after Albert's death, and remained fashionable for every day wear until the end of the century.
Gold was still the primary metal used in jewelry. In 1854, the use of 9, 12, and 15 karat gold was legalized. Mixed metals, such as sterling silver with gold, gold plate and oxidized silver (recently invented) and rolled gold made jewelry increasingly available to the middle classes.
The Second Empire in France, led by the new emperor Napoleon III and his consort, Empress Eugenie, brought about a revival of Napoleonic classicism. Greek and Etruscan Revival styles became popular. , Replicas of ancient Etruscan gold jewelry were spearheaded by Fortunato Pio Castellani . Castellani, along with other goldsmiths across Europe, sought to revive Greek and Etruscan styles as well as their techniques.
Neo-Renaissance styles also experienced a revival, led by the workshop of Carlo Guiliano. These style was characterized by lozenge shaped pendants, and cabochon gemstones in rich, jewel shades. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 also led to a brief revival of Egyptian styles.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, explorers such as the Commodore Matthew Perry successfully opened the Far East to European trade. Jewelry, especially enamels, was heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese motifs. Novelty jewelry, like sporting jewelry such as horseshoe brooches, whips, riding caps, and golf clubs remained in fashion till the end of the century. Insect jewelry, such as bees, dragonflies and butterflies, were embraced toward the beginning of the art nouveau style.
By the 1870’s, the perfection of en tremblant and en pampille setting methods combined with the pursuit of naturalism ushered in the age of the diamond. In 1867, the famed diamond fields of South Africa were first discovered. Now more plentiful than ever before, diamonds became the most popular gemstone.
By the last decade of the nineteenth century, jewelry experienced a rapid drop in popularity. The past several decades had all showcased elaborate “revival” styles, and mass production techniques had led to a flood of poorly crafted imitations. Ladies rebelled against this excessive decoration, and almost stopped wearing jewelry entirely. Diamonds were no longer worn during the day, and when jewelry was worn at all, preference was given to one smaller, beautifully made piece.
Inspired by Alexandra, the future Edward VII's wife, delicately layered pearl necklaces became widely popular. Alexandra favored pearl chokers, known as dog collars. These chokers could be up to 12 rows tall, and were often worn with long pearl sautoirs, or necklaces, tucked into the waist or pinned at the bosom.
Parures, extensive sets of matching jewelry, were no longer worn. A few demi-parures were still produced, but turn of the century ladies preferred to mix and match their jewelry. Brooches were usually star or sunburst designs, preferably made with diamonds. In the 1890’s, bar brooches were introduced. Novelty and sporting designs continued to be popular, as did plume, or feather, motifs.
In 1901, Queen Victoria died after a reign of 63 years and 7 months and two days. Her eldest son, Albert Edward, became Edward VII and reigned till his death in 1910. Where Victoria had been straightlaced and severe in the last decades of her life, Edward was jovial and stylish. He is thought to have introduced tweed, fold down shirt collars, and black tie to men's fashions. Under his reign, society became more lighthearted and fashionable. Ladies once again donned their pearls and diamonds. Balls, galas, concerts and teas became society staples.
Garlands, ribbons and bows were the motifs of Edwardian jewelry. The designer most associated with this new style was Louis Cartier. Cartier based his garlands, laurel wreaths, bows, tassels and lace designs from eighteenth century styles and architecture. His designs, the epitome of Edwardian style, were light, delicate, and seemingly as insubstantial as the lace they were modeled after.
The new styles were only made possible by the introduction of platinum into jewelry making . Previous jewelers wishing to use a white metal had to set stone in soft, malleable silver. To strengthen the setting and prevent the silver from tarnishing and staining skin and clothes, pieces had to be backed with gold, adding bulk and weight to the jewelry. Platinum, strong and rigid metal, strengthened jewelry and allowed jewelers to make jewelry held together by threads of metal, known as knife wires.
Diamonds became the preferred gemstone. Delicate openwork collet settings allowed more light to reach the stones than ever before. Thin knife wires replaced heavy chains in necklaces and pendants.
Second only to diamonds were pearls. Led by Queen Alexandra, Edwardian ladies were seized by a pearl craze. The perfect complement to the soft, silky dresses of the day, women wore pearls everywhere. The dog collars and sautoirs were still popular, but were now seen capped with pearl tassels. Negligee pendants, with two diamonds or pearls hung at different lengths from a central diamond, were introduced.
Memorial and sentimental jewelry gave way to small charms, used for good luck or to commemorate a special event or loved one. Mourning styles for ladies in mourning shifted to simple strands of pearls, black and white enamel jewels, or nothing at all.
Earrings remained very small. Daytime earrings were typically pearl studs, often accented by small diamond clusters. Evening wear featured diamond studs, or small garland style diamond drops. During this period, the screwback earring was invented, which allowed ladies to wear earrings without first piercing their ears.
When World War I began, the balls and galas disappeared overnight. Precious metals were commissioned by the war effort and young men vanished to the front line. Never before had a conflict been fought on so many continents at once - truly the first global war. By the time Europe and America emerged from this conflict, the world would be a very different place.
Art Nouveau was a short-lived jewelry style, only lasting from around 1895 – 1915. The desire to break tradition with the opulence of the Victorian Era led to the use of flowing, dreamy designs. The trees, flowers, insects, and snakes popular during earlier periods returned to prominence. However, artistic imagination and a free-form approach turned the naturalism of the Victorian era into fantasy. Art nouveau sought to evoke, rather than copy, nature and its association with femininity.
Exotic flowers and snakes gave sensuality to jewelry that had never before been seen. Fluid seaweeds and marine creatures, seeds, buds and decaying flowers alluded to the circle of life. For the first time, the entire female form, rather than merely the bust, was depicted in jewelry.
Preferred for their artistic merit, rather than intrinsic value, materials such as horn, opal and enamel became preferred over diamonds and other traditional gemstones.
The most significant technique of the art nouveau style was enameling, specifically the plique-a-jour method in which an open cell was filled with enamel and baked in an oven that reached 1000 degrees. This process was repeated up to twenty times, giving the finished piece the appearance of stained glass. While this technique had been used in the Renaissance, it was the art nouveau artists that revived plique-a-jour and brought it to prominence.
The greatest art nouveau designer was Rene Lalique, who earned a worldwide reputation as a master enameler. His creations, each painstakingly crafted by hand, featured soft, flowing lines, female figurines, insects and butterflies. Lalique is credited with reviving the stagnant French jewelry industry, and his designs were copied all over Europe and the Americas. Lalique is also known for his exquisite crystal sculptures and vases.
The Art Deco period was a stylistic time frame bookended by the two World Wars. The style first appeared in France in the early 1920's and soon spread to the rest of the world. At first, Art Deco was heavily influenced by Edwardian and Art Nouveau styles. As the style spread, it began to take influence from modern machines and technological progress. Art Deco designs are usually characterized by lavish details, bold colors, and geometric designs.
During the Jazz Age of the early to mid-20's, many women wore multiple strands of pearls and long gold chains that would swing with their every movement and compliment their "flapper" dress.
As rapid industrialization transformed the inter-war period, Art Deco styles embraced technology. Where Edwardian designs were airy and light, Art Nouveau detailed and organic, Art Deco styles tended to be ordered, colorful, and rectilinear. Diamonds remained the gemstone of choice, but were now set with sapphires, rubies, or emeralds in well-defined, geometrical designs. Synthetic ruby and synthetic sapphires were also widely used, as was onyx, chalcedony and rock crystal. Platinum was still favored but white and yellow gold provided more affordable jewelry toward the end of this period.
At its peak, the Art Deco style represented exuberance, luxury, and modern innovation. However, this glamorous style was short-lived. The Wall Street crash of 1929 brought the Roaring Twenties to a screeching halt. By the time the economy perked back up, World War II loomed on the horizon.
By 1939, Europe had become ensnared in World War II. As the Nazi war machine overtook the continent, all jewelry production in Europe came to a halt. Many gem cutters, metal smiths and designers fled to the United States, which was enjoying the economic boom created by supporting its Allies abroad. This mass emigration of talent caused America to emerge as the center for the jewelry trade. Jewelry took on an "American" look, influenced by the new nobility - Hollywood movie stars. Jewelry items became larger and more suitable for the big screen - bows, flowers, sunbursts and shooting star themes became the style of the day
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 thrust America into the war and dampened all jewelry making considerably. Platinum and other precious metals were devoted to the war effort and were unavailable for jewelry making. Gold became the fashion of the day, with a heavy accent on rose gold, often set with rubies. Brooches and rings were big and light and featured large semi-precious gems like citrine and aquamarine. Militaristic jewelry - tank inspired watches and tank tread bracelets - also became popular.
After the war ended, platinum slowly became available again, though money and machinery shortages still plagued jewelers and metalsmiths. The jewelry industry did not become vibrant again until the 1950's.