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Want to learn the differences between vintage, antique, and estate jewelry? Learn how they are different and where to find them online.

Understanding the Difference Between Estate, Vintage and Antique Jewelry

You may find, as you learn about vintage and antique jewelry, that it is a much more fascinating study than you ever imagined. To discover how jewelry designs and materials fit into the culture of a period brings a whole new perspective to the historical eras that are otherwise familiar to us.

However, beyond that, knowing the finer points of jewelry allows you to shop with confidence and savvy. The more you know, the less a vendor will be able to get away with providing false or inadequate information. And the sooner that you see the “red flags” that are warning you away from that particular vendor.

Trust is paramount in your relationship with a vendor—and that works both ways. A reliable vendor will welcome the opportunity to share with you “insider” information, particularly about the nuances of design and the qualities of various gemstones. He or she will never resent or be uncomfortable with your questions. 

Also, knowing what you are looking for and being able to identify pieces from different eras not only makes browsing more fun but it also can save you a considerable amount of money. Here we will explain what makes a piece of jewelry vintage and what makes it antique, while we “break the code” of just what estate jewelry is.  

estate vs antique vs vintage jewelry

What is Vintage Jewelry?

Simply stated, vintage jewelry is at least 20 years old and no more than 100 years old. But there is so much more to know than that. A common misunderstanding is that “vintage jewelry” is another term for “costume jewelry.” Not at all.  Some vintage jewelry is costume jewelry, but much of it is among the finest and most beautifully crafted pieces produced between the 1920s and 1980s.  

Art Deco Jewelry

Take the Art Deco period (1920-1940). The prosperity that followed World War I was reflected in extravagant jewelry with bold colors and geometric shapes mirroring the decorative arts and architecture of the time.

Cocktail rings arrived on the scene—the birth of bling! Right-hand rings that were large and loud, usually with a brilliant and colorful center stone surrounded with small round diamonds or, the height of diamond fashion, the new rectangular baguettes. Such a splendid ring needed to be accompanied by an equally splendid array of bangle bracelets on the wrist.

Long drop earrings shimmered and shimmied on the dance floor, highlighting the short sassy hairstyles. More difficult to find may be the Art Deco lavalliere, a necklace with two pendants on a chain that hang at different lengths.

In the 1930s, Art Deco jewelry remained popular but styles were adapted in accordance with the significant changes in disposable personal incomes—from greatly reduced to non-existent. Costume jewelry took center stage, but, even so, simpler designs reflected the austerity of the times, while bold colors and geometric shapes kept alive the heart of the Art Deco movement. 

Retro Jewelry

Retro jewelry (1945-1960) was an intriguing combination of the jewelry of the preceding periods and a view to the future. Bracelets, as an example, retained the geometric styling of Art Deco while stylistically incorporating the tank treads and assembly lines of the war years. 

Other designs blended Art Deco with the romance of the Victorian era with gem-set butterflies, flowers and bows. Beautiful, decidedly feminine brooches pinned onto a lapel, dress, hat or handbag softened the severity of wartime garb, and flamboyant cocktail rings, bracelets and necklaces seen on the silver screen were especially popular. The metal of fine jewelry was gold due to the restrictions put on platinum during the war. 

vintage jewelry - strands of pearls

The 1960s had drastically different cultures. In the early 60s, Jacqueline Kennedy was the style icon, including for jewelry. She liked elegant pieces with minimal design and an astute attention to detail. She was rarely seen without single or double strands of pearls and favored tasteful bracelets fashioned from gold and enamel. 

The latter half of the decade into the 1970s was a whole different matter. Independent and free lifestyles translated into jewelry styles. Tradition was spurned. A shortage of nickel made wood, lucite and plastic jewelry popular. Turquoise for the first time became highly desired. Interest in Eastern philosophies resulted in an Indian influence in designs and materials. Color was as spirited as the flower children and heavily drawn from the Pop Art movement.

The 1980s were the “greed is good” decade as pronounced by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. And the greed or, more accurately, the robust economy was displayed in dramatic jewelry: audacious bracelets, powerful necklaces made with colorful beads entwined with gold beads, and the cocktails rings that seem to accompany periods of prosperity. Gold has always symbolized grandeur and glamour, and it was the most popular metal for jewelry—even when it was gold plate.

What is Antique Jewelry?

Antique jewelry is at least 100 years old. Fine antique jewelry is generally made of yellow gold or platinum, high quality gemstones and the finest craftsmanship. Many pieces are one of a kind and prized for their beauty and individuality.

Pieces typically come with an intriguing history that adds to the appeal and value. In fact, the origin of a piece is very often the major reason that collectors are anxious to acquire it. In that same vein, usually the era of origin is the first thing you will learn about a piece, such as Georgian, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Edwardian, and Art Nouveau.  

The Georgian Era (1714-1837) predates the Industrial Revolution; therefore, the pieces are handmade. There are few of these delicate pieces that have survived the centuries, and they are very rare and very valuable. They tend to feature nature themes and precious stones, primarily diamonds, set over a foil (a thin sheet of gold used as a backing).

what is antique jewelry

Victorian jewelry (1837-1901), obviously enough, refers to jewelry made during the reign of Queen Victoria: brooches and link bracelets made of gold and decorated with enamel, romantic motifs, inexpensive gemstones, such as garnets, and coral, tortoise shell and ivory. Don’t fret if you love a piece that is partially tarnished. Of course, the tarnish can be removed, but the piece is more valuable with the tarnish on it—it takes many years for that patina to develop. Think of it as aged like a fine wine. 

The Arts and Crafts Era (1894-1923) was a rebellion against the jewelry made by machine during the Industrial Revolution. Jewelry was simple and handmade. There was no excessive decoration, and there was a pride in displaying the “imperfect” manner of construction, such as in the hammered metals that were used.

Art Nouveau Era (1895-1915) was a rebellion against mass-produced jewelry in a different way. Master jewelers created more elaborate techniques done by hand. The predominant theme was the free-flowing line, known as the “whiplash” line by serious students of jewelry. Jewelers delighted in combining the female form, face or hair with the sensuous lines of, say, a plant, flower, butterfly or animal to create a beautiful and innovative mythical image.

Edwardian jewelry (1901-1915) was very popular but only for a short time. Edward VII, Victoria’s son,  reigned for only nine years, and the jewelry fell out of favor not long after. The designs were extravagant and complex and richly decorated with diamonds, rubies and emeralds—no inexpensive gemstones or simple, handmade jewelry as in the Victorian and Arts and Craft eras. To add to the grandeur, platinum was implemented to create delicate lace patterns for items such as tiaras.

What is Estate Jewelry?

Estate jewelry is, simply enough, pieces that were previously owned. That’s so much more appealing than buying “used” jewelry. Vintage jewelry and antique jewelry (previous ownership assumed) are both estate jewelry. There is a common misconception that estate jewelry is only those pieces bought during an estate sale. Not so, though it’s easy enough to understand how that fallacy came to be.

Where to Shop for Vintage Jewelry

Conclusion 

Your next step is to start using your new-found knowledge and see what treasures you can find and recognize. Click here to browse through the best vintage jewelry shops on Etsy.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below, I will do my best to help you out! And make sure to share this article with all your vintage loving friends. 

Happy Jewelry Hunting!

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About the Author

Andrea

I am here to help you find the best vintage jewelry!

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  1. And I thought I knew a lot about jewelry! Thank you for this very informative article. I even thought that estate and vintage were the same.  This is super helpful, as I collect cameos and many of them are antiques.

    This is a great in-depth article. I really learned a lot by reading it.  

  2. Hi Andrea, 

    Your post was so very helpful, thank you for such a thorough review of antique vs. vintage vs. estate.  I have a family heirloom ring that has been handed down to me through the years.  I’ve always wondered where it came from and when.  My mom doesn’t know and we’re not able to get the story from previous generations.  Your article helped me pinpoint it to the Edwardian era and style.  Thank you!  

  3. Thank you for this informative post, I get to learn new things through this platform most especially the jewelry eras, I have heard about the Edwardian jewelry before but I never knew it didn’t lasted that much. Your post also clarifies the misconception of the Estate jewelry . In my opinion I will rate the estate jewelry above any other. Thanks

  4. I love vintage jewelry, especially the Retro fashion. All the ladies from that time were dressed so elegant, yet so simplistic – I’m talking in terms of accessories. 

    I have a few pearl necklaces in my home, but I rarely wear them because I have the feeling that they can’t match any of my clothes. They’re such an elegant piece that it’s hard to find some suitable clothing. But I have a birthday party coming soon so I think that’s the right opportunity to get them out of the closet.

    Since the party is going to be an elegant themed one, do you think pearl jewelry would look fine? Could I wear a necklace and also a pearl bracelet, or this would be too much? 

    1. Slather on the pearls! I don’t think you can really overdo pearls, wear the bracelet and the necklaces. They look amazing with a little black dress 🙂

  5. Thanks for helping me understand that estate jewelry is something that is previously owned by another person. I guess it is interesting to own one depending on the history of the item. I would like to gift myself with one on my birthday this coming August, so I hope I can find one that I can buy from.

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