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.
The following is a video showing some of the eras of vintage and antique jewerly. Continue on 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.
- Popular Gemstones: Opals (a favorite of Queen Victoria), turquoise, garnet, amethyst, coral and seed pearls. Black onyx was popular as a mourning stone. Diamond deposits found in South Africa in 1867 made diamonds a favored gemstone of late Victorian times.
- Metals: Gold is the era's prominent metal.
- Motifs: Flowers, hearts, serpents, stars, dragons, crescent moons, bows and birds.
- Popular Jewelry: Elaborate hat pins, mourning jewelry, aesthetic movement chains, necklaces, tiaras, bracelets, brooches. Jewelry that could come apart and worn in multiple ways was popular, for example, a necklace with a stiff rod that could be used as a tiara.
- Gemstone Cuts: Old mine cut, Old European cut, Rose cut, Table cut.
- Ring Settings: Typical Victorian settings are cluster, bezel, buttercup, and carved half hoop.
[Read: What is Victorian Jewelry?]
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.
- Popular Gemstones: Amber, opals, moonstones, citrines, and peridot, and pearls were used along with other interesting materials like carved glass, seashells, horn, copper, tortoise-shell, ivory, pearls, and gemstones cut in cabochon.
- Metals: Much of the jewelry in this period was made of less precious metals including silver, low-grade gold, and even steel.
- Motifs: Orchids, irises, lilies, ferns, snakes, insects, dragonflies, and butterflies. The nude female figure or female head with long flowing hair.
- Popular Jewelry: Long necklaces made of pearl were common. Sterling silver chains punctuated by glass beads or ending in a silver or gold pendant.
Art Nouveau Jewelry Designers:
- Georges Fouquet
- Henri Vever
- René Lalique
- Eugène Feuillâtre
- Léopold Gautrait
- Lucien Gaillard
[Read: Art Nouveau vs. Art Deco Jewelry]
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.
- Popular Gemstones: Peridot, emeralds, green garnets, and amethyst were almost as popular as diamonds and pearls. Moonstones and opals were also popular.
- Metals: Platinum was the metal of choice. White gold was also used.
- Motifs: Tassels, bows, laurel wreaths, garlands of flowers, and scrolls. Roman, Ancient Greek, Napoleonic, and French Baroque influences.
- Popular Jewelry: Chokers were popular during this period, as were tiaras combined with beautiful dangling earrings.
- Gemstone Cuts: Rose, old mine cushion, and old European cuts.
- Ring Settings: Typical Edwardian settings are cluster and bezel.
[Read: What is Edwardian Jewelry?]
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.
- Popular Gemstones: Diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, onyx, green chrysoprase, and carnelian.
- Metals: White gold and platinum.
- Motifs: Triangles, rectangles, octagons, and other geometric shapes.
- Popular Jewelry: Long pendants and earrings, bold cocktail rings, diamond watches, multiple bangle bracelets, elaborately decorated accessories such as cigarette cases, and the double-clip brooch which could be worn together or taken apart and worn on lapels or belts.
- Gemstone Cuts: Old European and transition cuts.
- Ring Settings: Typical Art Deco settings are cluster, prong, and box.
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.
- Popular Gemstones: Synthetic rubies and sapphires, citrine and aquamarine.
- Metals: Colored golds, rose gold, yellow gold, and green gold. Sterling silver.
- Motifs: Curved designs and feminine motifs such as bows, ribbons, ruffles, and flowers—but almost always on a grand, Retro-era scale.
- Popular Jewelry: Charms worn on link bracelets, oversized cocktail rings, bracelets and necklaces.
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.
- Popular Gemstones: Amethyst, turquoise, coral, cabochon gemstones, and cultured pearls for daytime wear.
- Metals: Yellow gold, platinum, and silver.
- Motifs: Florentine finishes, twisted rope, braided wire, mesh, reeding, fluting, and piercing were all employed in jewelry design.
- Popular Jewelry: Fox-tail chains, button earrings, costume jewelry, long gold chains, multi-stranded beaded necklaces.
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!