Just like fashion, jewelry design morphs and changes, reflecting the culture of that time. Here we will cover the design periods that span the last 100 years, anything older than that is considered antique.
Here is a video showing some of the eras of vintage and antique jewerly. Continue below to read and learn more about each time period.
Victorian Era 1835 - 1900
The era is bordering on antique, but it is such a popular style that we include it here.
Romantic, bold, and feminine, this period is known for intricate designs with exquisite craftsmanship. Nature-inspired designs were widespread, with jewelry featuring foliage and floral patterns. With more gold resources being discovered, jewelers were able to experiment with new techniques such as filigree and engraving to create stunning pieces of gold jewelry.
Engagement rings often featured a center stone other than a diamond. Diamonds were rare at this time, so different stones were used, including sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. Sometimes a "halo" of diamonds would encircle the central gemstone, a style that is still popular today.
When Queen Victoria's husband Albert died, she lived the remainder of her life in mourning. Many rings from this period reflect this time of mourning and dark stone such as onyx were paired with gold. Black enamel and gold jewelry was also popular.
Near the end of the Victorian period, diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa, leading to a surge in diamond popularity. Popular diamond cuts were the cushion-shaped old mine cut, followed by the Old European cut.
Art Nouveau Era 1890 - 1915
Art Nouveau jewelry is light, soft, mystical, and romantic. It is characterized by pale colors and curving, flowing lines. Inspiration was heavily taken from nature as well as the sensual curves of the female body. Japanese art was another big influence. During this time, jewelers were seen as artists rather than just craftsmen, and unique, one-of-a-kind pieces were common.
Rather than focusing on gemstones, Art Nouveau jewelers emphasized settings. Jewelers experimented with enameling techniques, as well as different gemstones and materials such as horn, shell, ivory, and copper.
Diamonds and other expensive gemstones were used sparingly, stones cut "en cabochon" were favored over faceted stones. Moonstone, amethyst, opal, amber, citrine, peridot, and freshwater pearls were popular.
Because much of the jewelry from this time was made with fragile glass or enamel, not many pieces remain intact today.
Art Nouveau Jewelry Designers:
- Georges Fouquet
- Henri Vever
- René Lalique
- Eugène Feuillâtre
- Léopold Gautrait
- Lucien Gaillard
Edwardian Era 1900 - 1915
The Edwardian era is characterized by light, graceful, and elegant designs. Platinum was just starting to be used in jewelry, because of its strength, jewelers could work it into delicate, lacy filigree designs. Women of the time preferred light and airy fabrics in pastel colors. The jewelry of the time had to be lightweight to be worn on these new, delicate fabrics.
Pearls, diamonds, and platinum were key components of Edwardian jewelry. A popular Edwardian engagement ring style was "white-on-white," a central pearl, surrounded by sparkling diamonds and set in platinum, this design was considered the epitome of sophistication and class.
Edwardian jewelry used simple, classic motifs and palettes to highlight the inherent beauty of the gemstone. The use of platinum metal allowed jewelers to create invisible or "Millegrain" settings that secured stones with tiny metal ridges, beads or grains in a lightweight, unobtrusive manner.
Art Deco Era 1915 - 1935
Art Deco jewelry is stylish, forward-thinking, and fun. Styles were bold, sharp, and more masculine than previous design periods. Jewelry was seen as another way to express your individuality. Brighter colors, futuristic motifs, geometric forms, and straighter designs replaced the lacy look of Edwardian jewelry and the curvy lines of Art Nouveau.
During the 1930's "white jewelry" was very popular. Metals such as platinum, white gold, and silver were used for their white appearance and set with diamonds. Diamonds could now be cut into round brilliants, maximizing their sparkle. Diamonds became the focus in art deco engagement rings.
Retro Era 1935 - 1950
The Retro period is characterized by chunky styles that emphasized large colorful gemstones cut in oversized rectangles. Sometimes called "cocktail jewelry", the retro era saw jewelry that was dazzling and larger than life. Jewelry from this era was playful and whimsical, it was bigger, bolder and more exciting than ever.
During this time, platinum could no longer be used in jewelry, as it was needed for the War. This forced designers to experiment with colored gold such as yellow, rose, and green gold.
Engagement rings used elaborately carved illusion settings, giving the central diamond a larger appearance for a modest price tag. During these hard times, women wanted jewelry that was eye-catching and extraordinary.
Modern Era 1950 - 1990
Throughout the 1950's abstract designs were common, starburst and atomic designs reflected the nation's fascination with space exploration. Gold was often textured, and artists used jagged edges and detailed surfaces. Plain gold jewelry was considered "daytime" jewelry, whereas diamond and gemstone pieces were considered "nighttime" jewelry.
Color was important in this era and stones were used for their hue rather than their value. Animal jewelry was elaborately detailed, birds were given brightly colored feathers and jeweled eyes, fish were given jeweled scales.
In the 1960's jewelry became even bigger and more colorful. There was a return to geometric shapes and what was considered vulgar only a decade previous, was now considered the peak of fashion. Cabochon gemstones were incorporated with round brilliant cut diamonds and other gems in yellow gold.
Shopping for and Collecting Vintage Jewelry
I want to help you make a sound investment when shopping for vintage jewelry because there are plenty of fakes out there. That is why I created my Vintage Designer Buying Guides to help you identify and learn how to purchase vintage designer jewelry.
If you are looking to purchase an engagement ring, I have created a guide to teach you how to buy an engagement ring on Etsy. I have also made lists of The Best Vintage Jewelry Shops on Etsy for fine jewelry as well as costume jewelry. And be sure to check out The Best eBay Shops for Buying Fine Jewelry.
Happy Vintage Hunting!