Antique and Estate Jewelry; Its Time Has Come
By Edward Lewand, GG, ASA, AAA
Over the last few years, having an interest in antique and estate jewelry has become a new trend. This may be due to all the TV shows or because it is feel-good jewelry; grandma had the brooch or a great aunt had a watch just like that. It reminds some of their childhood and others of a fond memory. Regardless of the reason, it has become a new force in the jewelry industry. Jewelers have “Trunk Shows” and are learning how to turn what they have bought off the counter into profit.
Overview, markets, research
This article covers an overview of periods, trends, markets and identification. I hope it will give you the insight on how to examine a piece and research its value. Be sure to view the transaction from both sides of the deal. Remember that because of the resources available on the internet, both you and your client can find similar pieces online and see what they are selling for. Believe it or not, eBay has a tremendous listing for antique and estate jewelry. One can even research on other auction sites to see what similar items might have sold for. The internet can also help you find the right market for your item. The trick with the internet is typing in the right keywords. Also don’t be so fast to buy subscriptions to sites that offer auction results, they may not have everything and most of the time, if you spend a few minutes searching, you can get the results you need directly from the auction sites yourself. Watch for an upcoming article on internet research in a future issue of The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.
Another thing to note are the many different markets offering antique and estate jewelry. Making sure the item is priced accurately and placed in the appropriate market is very important so one can obtain the best price for the item. There is a common principle in valuation theory that an item in the wrong market will reflect that market’s price. A simple example: if we took a Tiffany & Co. brooch and placed it in a flea market it would bring a lower price: where as if we took a common brooch and placed it in a Fifth Avenue jewelry store in New York it would bring a higher price. So finding the right market for yourself or your client is very important. You don’t want to take a fine diamond necklace that is signed and place it in a local auction without large exposure and sell it for $50,000 and have your client find the necklace two weeks later in a Christie’s auction where it brought $200,000. Would you be liable? Could the smaller auction house be liable? Aren’t you both supposed to be professionals so this could be something a court might have to decide? In brokering or advising a client, check various resources and do the required research. Jewelry is a specialty item and a professional independent appraiser should be consulted. Be sure to check their background and make sure they are up-to-date on the current antique and estate jewelry market. Another rule is to check the various markets yourself by getting several offers from reputable dealers (I usually recommend three offers). If they are legitimate offers then they will be there while you shop for others. Don’t let anyone pressure you by saying if you leave the offer is no good.
Auction catalogs can also be a wealth of knowledge and learning how auctions work is very important; do they pay referral fees, what commissions they take, etc. They are also a great resource for pricing. Keep in mind, if a price is too high when compared to similar sales, find out why. Additional research might be needed; was the item sold to the public or a dealer? Some items, when sold at a wholesale level, are priced depending on results, such as large diamonds, and fine colored stones.
Developing relationships with dealers is very important. Many dealers will give you estimates based on a photo and gemological information. Also a note that gemologists from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) are not appraisers, the GIA teaches no appraisal theory. Find someone who is a certified appraiser from one of the major appraisal organizations who is also a member of the Appraisal Foundation. Checking facts and doing your own research is very important. You should even be checking other’s information for accuracy and making sure you understand the market.
Art historians who understand and study jewelry are also very helpful in the identification of periods; what styles were used during a certain period and what materials were or were not used. They can tell you why and what the item might represent. As a professional appraiser I use several art historians as consultants and they have saved me both time and embarrassment.
Overview of the more common periods
One of the important things regarding antique jewelry is having the knowledge of the periods and motifs. Knowing the different periods requires education and learning over time. A library of books is very helpful to the identification of style and motifs, but taking hands-on classes and attending antique shows to see the jewelry first hand is also important for research and in the development of a network of contacts for sale or purchase.
The following is just an overview. Check with an expert to see if the items are actually period or if they are reproductions. I will be pointing out some indications of reproductions but nothing is as valuable as experience and study. For the purposes of this article we will start with the Georgian period. In the early days when England ruled and had providences all over the world periods were done by the reigning monarch – Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian. After these periods, the style of the times was used – Art Deco and Retro. Following are brief descriptions of the periods and photos. More details of the periods will be covered in future articles.
Georgian – 1710s-1830s
Various styles were propagated throughout the period. Named “Georgian” after the four English kings, George I- George IV, who reigned during the peak of the British Empire and global influence on the aesthetics and customs of its colonies. Three main styles dominated the period; architectural trends set the course for jewelry and decorative art styles at the time. During George I reign from 1714 to 1727 Rococo, an off-shoot of the elaborate decorative ornamentation of Baroque architecture and design, was the prevailing style. This gave way to Gothic Revival which took its inspiration from surviving medieval structures and having a decidedly structural and rigid appearance. Neoclassical began in the latter half of the 18th century as a reaction against the sharp, overly-ornamented styles of the previous two movements. Harking back to the Classical Western artistic canon, a return to purity was sought emulating the idealized images of beauty and clean fluid lines of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Victorian – 1830s to 1900s
The Victorian era, so named after Queen Victoria (the longest reigning British monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901), marked an era of prosperity and the rise of industrialization and the middle class. The Victorian era in England has three distinct periods, Romantic, Grand, and Late Victorian, while jewelry of the time throughout Europe took on a variety of Revival forms. The end of the Victorian era coincided with the rise of Belle Époque in France and the beginnings of Art Nouveau. Transitions in style during the period were not abrupt and some pieces exhibit multiple influences. Jewelry during this period not only reflected wealth, but social standing and status. Rules were set to deem appropriate jewelry. Young, unmarried women could only wear the simplest of jewelry, where as diamonds and gems could only be worn by women “of a certain age.” American women were lax in following these European standards, and as a result were criticized for being inappropriate in their jewelry displays.
Art Nouveau – 1890 – 1914
Coinciding with “La Belle Époque” in France and the Late Victorian Period in England, Art Nouveau was a style intended to stand against the industrialization of jewelry and decorative arts. The style marked the turn of the century and the coming of the “modern age.” Although the period was short lived, the jewelry and art from that era was a radical shift from the somber mass produced style of the Victorian era. The designs were innovative and intensely creative, refusing to reference the past but instead incorporating fluid, sinuous lines and soft curves. The nude female figure or female head with long flowing hair was a popular motif, as were nature themes of butterflies, dragonflies, insects, orchids, irises, water lilies and poppies. The peaceful fluid style was often produced in pastel colors.
Edwardian – 1901-1910
After the death of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and his Queen, Alexandria, ascended the throne of England and brought a cosmopolitan update to society, fashion and jewelry. The period was a time of great social change and witnessed the rise of an extremely wealthy upper class, and coincided with “The Gilded Age” in America. The period included a mix of styles, those from the earlier Victorian era, the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movement. The hallmarks of true Edwardian design include light and airy pieces, created in delicate filigree of diamond and platinum or white gold resembling lace. Pearls were also in fashion along with chokers, jewels for the hair, and long dangling earrings. Monochromatic and white pieces were very popular, made possible by the use of platinum which lent itself to very delicate sculpting. Motifs included garlands, bows, and tassels formed into bar pins, tiaras, multiple strands of pearls worn as a choker. Scalloped edges were also common in jewelry.
Art Deco – 1920-1939
“Art Deco” as a term was coined in 1960 by art historian Bevis Hillier to describe the movement known as Style Moderne. The distinctive style of the 1920s and 30s borrowed heavily from other Modernism movements of the time and was established as a distinct style by members of the French artist collective known as La Société des artistes décorateurs, following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels held in Paris. Though birthed in France, Art Deco was almost entirely an American phenomenon, fueled by the decadence of “The Roaring Twenties.” The movement affected the decorative arts most profoundly, the commercial fields of architecture, graphic arts, industrial design, and jewelry design. The style is easily recognizable by the use of clean lines, trapezoidal shapes, stepped edges, and arched corners. Unlike the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, Art Deco emphasized linearity and geometric form.
Retro – 1935-1950
The Retro jewelry period, or Cocktail jewelry as it is sometimes called, took place during World War II. As a reaction to the dire world conflict, jewelry became bolder, brighter, and more light-hearted. Unlike the Art Deco style, Retro jewelry has soft curves and feminine motifs, set off against the severe silhouettes of women’s war-time wardrobes. Gold regained popularity, as platinum was essential to the war effort and scarcely available for commercial use. Different colors of gold, such as yellow, rose, and green, were used in striking combinations. Popular gemstones included aquamarines, topaz, and citrines, as well as synthetic rubies and sapphires, in huge rectangular cuts used in cocktail rings, oversized bracelets, and watches. Patriotic themes were also popular, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies were often paired together, and three dimensional sculptural ribbons, bows, and folds made out of metal were common.
Other periods are Arts & Crafts and the 1950s and mid-20th century. These will be covered in future articles. One other interesting fact that should be noted is that white gold was developed around 1915 or so, to be used in place of platinum (cost and war effort). White gold does not occur in nature it is done my mixing alloys with the gold to give it a whitish color.
Hallmarks and Trademarks
Collectors should also study and learn the hallmarks and trademarks of the jewelry and the difference between them; how they affect the value of a piece and assist in dating the item. The Hallmark Research Institute book “World Hallmarks” Volume 1, by Whetstone, Niklewicz and Matula, is a must for any collector, if you deal in jewelry or not. The book offers photos and drawing of hallmarks that can help you period/date the piece and other valuable information. A hallmark is a government stamp of standards and that the taxes, if required, were paid. A trademark is the mark of the manufacturer or retailer of the piece.
There is so much to cover when discussing antique jewelry. One thing to consider is the cut of the diamonds. Old mine-cut diamonds were cushion shape in general or followed the outline of the rough diamond. It wasn’t until the late 1800s, during the industrial revolution, that diamonds become round “old European Cuts.” After 1917, the proportions of the modern diamond were developed. The older style cut diamonds are very popular today and are being cut again and used. Left is a photo of a cushion-shaped diamond.
(See my prior article in the March 2013 issue of this publication on how to figure the price of gold.)
Gold does play a factor in determining price… but the style, period and design are, in some cases, just as important.
Other things to keep in mind: platinum was not really used until 1900. You might see pieces with platinum over gold but a simple test can identify that. Also, the layer of gold will be thicker. In silver-over-gold pieces, the gold was a thin layer backing.
Learning periods, styles and construction are all important to understanding antique and estate jewelry. How to price and understand the market is learned by doing. If you’re selling retail, the more research and romance you can give to the easier the sale, but remember to double check your facts because the public can and will be checking the internet too. If you’re a private collector check your facts before you sell or buy something.
Another new trend that is happening is divesting; people over 65 are starting to sell off their assets that the kids might not want or are converting them into cash so they can enjoy life. They are looking for expert advice. If you are considering doing this, check out the consultant you are hiring and do your research as I have mentioned.
Edward Lewand, GG, ASA, AAA. Private independent Appraiser, Consultant Appraisal Service, LLC., New York and Georgia. He is also an Instructor at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies “The Art of Jewelry Appraising”.
Mr. Lewand along with his wife Sandy are the directors’ of the “Antique Jewelry and Art Conference, Inc.” known As “Jewelry Camp” www.Jewelrycamp.org now in its 37th year in New York and Atlanta a conference of lectures and hands-on sessions pertaining to antique, estate and costume jewelry.