How to recognize antique jewelry

Written by graham rix
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How to recognize antique jewelry
Bar brooches such as this were very popular in the 1920s and '30s. (antique brooch image by Alison Bowden from

The history of fine jewellery dates back well over 4,000 years, to the master goldsmiths of the city of Ur who, working in 2,500 B.C., developed the art of assembling earrings and headpieces from hundreds of tiny golden spheres. Although in all likelihood you will only see that kind of antique jewellery in museums, it is still possible to fine good Victorian examples in vintage jewellery stores, auctions and online. Here are some tips to spotting jewellery from an earlier age.

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  1. 1

    Look at the clasps of necklaces. The circular clasps familiar to everyone from modern necklaces date back to after World War II. Before then, clasps had a variety of shapes, some screwing together, while the most common was a pin that fitted into a cylindrical chamber. The presence of such a clasp will thus place a necklace in the 1940s at the very latest.

  2. 2

    Check the pins of brooches. As with clasps, pins were updated in the post-war era with modern safety fittings. A brooch where the pin slides under a simple hook will again be from the 1940s at the latest. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the pin in comparison to the size of the brooch, the earlier the piece of jewellery is likely to be.

  3. 3

    Examine a piece of jewellery for a hallmark or maker's name. A British hallmark, complete with a date letter, can tell you exactly when a piece of jewellery was made, while a maker's name can also be researched in any good jewellery guidebook and, depending on how long that maker was in business, might pinpoint a particular time of manufacture. Also look for pieces marked 14 carat. This particular caratage was largely phased out in the 1920s except in the U.S., and would hence suggest an earlier date.

  4. 4

    Consider the colour of gold jewellery. Examples from the Victorian period often have a reddish tinge because they are made from rose gold -- that is, gold with an admixture of copper. Rose gold is comparatively easy to spot and a strong indicator of age.

  5. 5

    Look at the style and function of the jewellery. From the 1870s until the 1950s, brooches, necklaces and bracelets were all very popular, while in the earlier part of the 19th century, the trend was for jewellery worn in the hair. Jewellery from the 1880 to 1910 period is desirable for its elegance and use of trembling, spring-mounted decoration.

Tips and warnings

  • It's much easier to spot an antique piece of jewellery if it comes in its original box, because fabric shows its age much more than metal, while the inside of the lid might also be printed with the jeweller's name and address -- useful for research. Although with small items of jewellery, such as rings, it can be hard to know if the box is original, it should be obvious whether a large item such as a necklace is in the correct fitted interior or not.
  • With jewellery, age doesn't necessarily dictate value. Value is much more dependent on a piece of jewellery's intrinsic worth in terms of bullion and gems, on the craftsmanship it displays, and on how wearable it continues to be. For instance, because they are perceived to be versatile, a good pair of diamond earrings will be worth substantially more than a necklace or ring of a similar caratage.

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