Wondering how to identify vintage and antique gold jewelry? Learn about gold marks, types of gold, design eras, and more in this article.
Gold has been coveted since the beginning of time. Archeological digs have unearthed gold jewelry and objects buried in tombs of the past. Gold has always symbolized wealth and status.
Antique gold is any gold more than 100 years old. These pieces of antique gold or “old gold” have a higher value than newer gold, depending on the condition of course. Vintage gold refers to any gold more than 20 years old. How can you identify antique gold pieces and vintage gold pieces? How can you judge the value?
How to Identify Vintage and Antique Gold Jewelry using Marks
What is The Troy Ounce?
The troy ounce is a measurement for the weight of gold and other precious metals. Every troy ounce is 31 grams of gold. Troy ounces are marked on pieces of jewelry, silverware, and other items.
What are Gold Hallmarks?
As far back as the 13th century, gold hallmarks were created to affirm the cartage and quality of gold. These are added to the back or a discrete area of the jewelry. The word “hallmark” originated in England, at London’s Goldsmith Hall.
Hallmarks can be tricky, as each country determines what must be part of a hallmark. In the United Kingdom for example, a piece of gold must be marked with the Assay Office Mark. This is the office where the gold is evaluated. Additionally, it needs a Maker’s mark. This could include the designer, logos, trademarks, or company name.
Finally, gold needs a fineness mark. A fineness mark shows the purity of the gold. It’s measured in parts per of gold per thousand such as 375, 585, 750, 916, or 999. Fineness may also be marked in karats.
Additionally, vintage jewelry may have an Assay Office Mark from an office that no longer exists. Identifying antique gold is not as simple as one might think. This is because gold assaying wasn’t strictly enforced until the 1900s.
Another example is gold jewelry in France. In 1883, the process began where a stamp bearing the head of an eagle, indicated it was 18 karat gold. The Paris Assay Office used a boar head stamp, while offices outside of the city used a crab.
Watch to see an explanation of numeric gold markings:
Understanding Gold Karats and Fineness
Karats are a way of identifying a gold’s purity. The purity of the gold effects the value of the gold jewelry. The purest gold is 24 karat gold, which is 99.9 percent pure. However, this gold is too soft to craft jewelry from, and it is easily bent.
Most gold jewelry is made from gold with an alloy, which means a mix. This alloy allows gold to be harder. The more alloy the gold has in it however, the less expensive the gold is. The most common golds in the United states are 18, 14 and 10 karat gold.
Next is durable 18 karat gold, which is 75 percent pure gold, with the rest made with other metals including silver, copper, and zinc.
Marks include 18 Karat, 18K, or .750 indicating 75 percent gold. Meanwhile the popular 14 karat gold is comprised of 58.3 percent gold and 41.7 percent other metals. Stamps include 14 Karat or 14K or .583 indicating the percentage of gold in the mix.
A lessor quality gold is 10 karat. It has an appearance that is duller, with only 41.7 percent gold. This gold is also stamped with 10 Karat. 10 K, or .417 indicating the level of gold.
What is the Color of Yellow Gold?
Yellow gold is the most popular gold, yet it can be slightly different tones depending on the alloys used. A lighter toned gold will be a mix of more silver. Zinc and nickel alloys will allow for a softer yellow tone. A yellow gold with a tint or red, has a higher copper content.
What is Rose Gold?
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) the famous Russian jeweler, who opened the House of Fabergé introduced rose gold into the Russian Imperial Court, in the late 1800s. This blend of yellow gold and copper, with a bit of silver was first called “Russian Gold”. Most rose gold is crafted in 18 karat or 14 karat gold. The later contains more copper making in pinker in tone, however 18 karat rose gold is shinier.
Rose gold became extremely popular during the 1920s and jewelers like Cartier began incorporating it into their high jewelry lines. You’ll find rose gold engagement rings and other fine jewelry.
In 1924, Cartier designed their famous “Trinity” ring made of intertwining bands in yellow gold, white gold and rose gold. It symbolizes fidelity, friendship, and love.
What is White Gold?
White gold is a precious metal that looks like platinum, but with a lower price tag. More neutral than yellow gold, and rose gold, white gold will match with anything. Additionally, it is up to more wear than silver.
White gold was not available until 1900, but quickly became popular in engagement rings. White gold uses yellow gold as a base, with combination a of other white metals. In palladium white gold, yellow gold, palladium and even silver will be used. In nickel white gold, yellow gold, nickel, and copper are used.
What is palladium? It is one of the precious metals with a gray-white tone. It does not tarnish and is easy for jewelers to work with. When mixed with yellow gold, it produces the highest quality white gold.
In 18 karat palladium white gold, the silver content can be up to 10 percent. Or it may not contain any silver at all. Palladium content will range between 15 to 25 percent. In 14 karat palladium white gold, it contains even more silver, up to 35 percent, with lessor amounts of palladium, at between 8 to 14 percent. Meanwhile, 10 karat palladium white gold can contain almost 48 percent silver and only up to 11 percent palladium.
In the lower quality nickel white gold, 18 karat gold has the highest amount of nickel, up to 20 percent, with only trace amounts of zinc and copper, if any. Conversely, 10 karat nickel white gold will contain greater amounts of zinc and copper in the alloy.
Is there 8 and 9 Karat Gold?
International standards for gold can differ. In American vintage and antique gold, gold standards could only be met with a minimum of 10 karat gold. In other European countries, 9 and even 8 karats met the standards to qualify for gold.
What is Gold Plating and Gold Filling?
Not everyone could afford real gold, so costume or fashion jewelry became popular. Basically, this jewelry is made by a coating, using a small amount of gold, through a mechanical process. This gives it the shiny look of gold.
Gold filled jewelry will be marked with GF or 1/20 14K meaning it is 5 percent 14 carat gold. This process uses melting so it can stay shiny for years. It is the thickest kind of gold coating. Meanwhile, rolled gold uses only 2.5 percent gold coating. Common stamps include RG for rolled gold and RGP for rolled gold plate. It may also be stamped with the percentage of gold such as 1/40 14K.
From the 1840s onward electroplating was developed. This subjects the jewelry to an electric current to bond the gold to the jewelry. The term vermeil means gold electroplate over silver. Eventually the gold wears away. These pieces will be stamped with Vermeil or .925 the symbol for silver.
Gold plated jewelry also uses electroplate but involves a much thinner application of gold than vermeil. This is considered the lowest quality. Some common stamps include GP which stands for Gold Plate, or GEP which means Gold Electroplate. Then there is HGE for Heavy Gold Electroplate and HGP for Heavy Gold Plate.
- GF = Gold Filled
- RGP/RG = Rolled Gold Plated
- GEP = Gold Electroplated
- HGP- Heavy Gold Plated
- HGE - Heavy Gold Electroplate
Antique Georgian Gold Jewelry
The Georgian period in jewelry lasted between 1714 and 1837. Five English kings ruled during this time including George I,II,III,IV and William IV. Goldsmiths were highly trained and skilled crafting gold in 18 karat and higher. However, authentic Georgian antique jewelry will not contain hallmarks. Enlist the help of a skilled specialist and pay attention to what was prevalent in style and craftsmanship.
One of the pluses of handmade Georgian gold jewelry, beyond its beauty, is that it is less porous than gold jewelry set in modern casting molds. This eliminates pitting.
Before 1750, goldsmith apprentices had to hammer out gold ingots to the desired thickness. The rolling mill enabled gold to be rolled out into a uniform sheet, eliminating manual hammering. A goldsmith technique that was popular was cannetille. Gold wires were embellished with granulations of gold rounds to form delicate scrolls, tendrils, and rosettes.
The beauty of Georgian gold jewelry is that they are handcrafted and highly ornate. Prior to 1750, heavy Baroque jewelry dominated. Afterwards, the Rococo style was lighter.
Lockets were popular, as were miniatures crafted into jewelry. Motifs that help identify Georgian gold jewelry include complicated knots, beautiful flowers, foliage, ribbons, bows and feathers.
Remember, white gold was not available until after 1900, so you will not find it in Georgian or Victorian antique jewelry.
Antique Victorian Gold Jewelry
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was an influencer of jewelry trends. During her long reign, there were three jewelry periods. The Romantic Period (1837-1860), The Grand Period (1860–1880) and The Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period (1880 -1901).
The good news about identifying Victorian gold jewelry is that much of it is marked, even though it wasn’t yet required by law. During the Romantic Period in Victorian jewelry, gold was the metal of choice, especially in 18 karat and 22 karats. Gold was still highly expensive. Until the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) gold was a commodity in short supply.
Some jewelry crafted in gold, in Great Britain, during The Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period is marked 15 karat or 625. This mark means the gold is 62.5 percent pure gold. You will note, 14 karat gold has a paler color than 15 karat gold. With almost 4 percent more gold, 15 karat gold has a more golden hue.
Jewelry marked with 15 karat gold is rare to find today. The practice was discontinued in 1932. Therefore, 15 karat gold has become in demand for collectors of both antique and vintage jewelry.
With the industrial revolution, jewelry did not have to be made by hand. Additionally, the middle class were expanding, and gold jewelry was being made in lessor quality karat gold. This opened the market in Great Britain for 9 karat gold.
[Read: What is Victorian Jewelry?]
Antique Edwardian Gold Jewelry
Edwardian style of jewelry was named after Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the British monarch King Edward VII (1841-1910) who ruled from 1901-1910. While many people began to wear costume jewelry, Edwardian jewelry became more delicate in design to indicate it was fine jewelry, that was handmade.
While there are fine examples of yellow gold Edwardian jewelry fashion changed. Women’s clothing became lighter in color dominated by white and pastels. White gold, available after 1900 and platinum were the precious metals of choice, matched with pearls and white diamonds. Throat high necklines from Victorian times dropped, enabling women to wear lacey necklaces.
Styles from the 17th and 18th centuries and the Court of Versailles were all the rage. Cartier, the official jeweler for King Edward VII encouraged their jewelry designers to walk the streets of Paris looking for inspiration from architecture. If you are looking for a beautiful pieces of antique white gold jewelry, consider buying Edwardian jewelry.
[Read: What is Edwardian Jewelry?]
Antique Art Nouveau Gold Jewelry
Art Nouveau (1890-1915) was an ornamental style of decorative art, in both Europe and the United States, that also was showcased in jewelry. Art Nouveau jewelry was primary set in gold. While Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian designs focused on precious stones, Art Nouveau jewelry focused on imagery, recreating elements from nature, in highly artistic ways. Enamel was extremely popular, as were opals, as well as baroque pearls, prized for their irregularity in shape.
During this period in art history, jewelry went beyond necklaces, rings, bracelets, and earrings. Elaborate jewelry designs were seen as women fastened on hair ornaments, tiaras, belt buckles and even collars for dogs.
If you are looking for an artists work of gold art antique, jewelry consider a piece from the Art Nouveau era.
Collecting Gold Jewelry
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