Styles & Eras of Antique Jewelry (Circa 1800 - 1950)
Below is an overview of the some of the styles of antique and estate jewelry from the 18th century to the 1950s. Many designations are based upon the names of Kings and Queens, most from the royals of the English monarchy. Others terms are derived from a variety of sources. However, countries such as France have their own classification for many of the same time periods - a number are noted here. Dates provided are only a guide. There is no precise year or moment when one stylistic period ended and another began. Gradual transitions and shifts waxed and waned, new styles came into play, others continued, many fell from favor.
Styles of this period in estate and vintage jewelry are characterized by the use of gold, and often rose gold. Platinum, popular in prior decades, was scarce due to its use in World War II. Bold, chunky styles with arrays and clusters of gems grabbed the imagination of the people. But rather than the most expensive of gemstones, more often they were brightly colored, less costly stones such as citrines, aquamarines, topazes and tourmalines. Diamonds were decidedly out of favor, except as small, accent stones. Clip-on earrings made their debut at this time. Earring styles were often close up on the ear or just below - long dangles of the 20's were out. Plain gold or the combination of alternate yellow and rose gold made its appearance in large, wide bracelets, dress clips, earrings, brooches and collar necklaces. With women working in greater than ever numbers (while men were away for the war), fashion and jewelry took on a decidedly strong profile.
The years which comprise the Art Deco era vary with any number of sources. Sometimes cited as the years between the world wars, even the term “Art Deco” was coined not in the early decades of the 20th century but in the 1960s. Derived from the 1925 Paris L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the style was then referred to as “Art Moderne” or “Modernistic”.
The period itself may be divided into the early (1915 to 1929) and the late (1930 – 1941) period. Although an overlap of specific characteristic defined both intervals, certain style differences emerged. The later time frame made a shift to a mono and bi chromatic color scheme, a more horizontal profile and a chunkier, wider and bolder interpretation of design.
While a brief period of history, its impact on jewelry design was resounding and long lasting. Known for its innovative designs, the wellsprings of creativity for this period were often derived from the sultry and frenetic music, performances, current events and arts of the day. The great Jazz Age brought color back into jewelry and made geometry the basis for much of the work of the times. Oriental and exotic themes also wove their way into the antique jewelry. The use of platinum and white gold were still popular from the previous Edwardian era. Yellow gold not often seen.
Strong, linear designs embellished with color - so gems of every sort were employed. Androgynous fashion and bobbed hair served as a backdrop for surprisingly ornate, yet sleek jewels. Long, lean earrings, stacked bracelets, rings, and long "flapper" beads all abounded. Screw-back earrings invented in the very late 19th century, were now used almost exclusively as pierced ears were considered taboo.
So named for England's King Edward, this era was known for its use of platinum, pearls and diamonds...and more diamonds. In France, this time span was termed La Belle Époque (or "the beautiful epoch" or era). Renowned for it exquisite craftsmanship with an airy feminine style and rich restrained designs, it was an era well named. Platinum had finally come of age. While it had been discovered nearly a century earlier, its use in jewelry was virtually unknown. Making dating simple, a piece of platinum jewelry is almost always from the turn of the 19th century or later, used mostly during this period and forward.
A color scheme of white and white metal was the foundation for this grand and eloquent era of antique jewelry. Based upon styles found in the 18th century Georgian era, these were now reinterpreted through a different sensibility. A lighter airier framework and mount was possible due to the remarkable properties of platinum (strong even with the use of very little metal). The garland style took swags and flowers and translated them into jewels in which gems were at the forefront and their settings almost invisible. A new “royalty” emerged that was based on wealth rather than lineage. As a result American jewelry came into its own.
Although it often became an umbrella term for a number of varied styles and movements, Art Nouveau jewelry is one of the most common names. Known as Jugenstil in Germany and Austria, Arts & Crafts in Britain, and Art Nouveau in France, these do, however, share some similarities and overlap in many ways. In general, all these styles were a rebellion or counter weight against much of the rigid and sometimes formulaic designs of the mid and late Victorian period. Also too was a surge toward hand made, rather than machine made work propagated from the industrial age of the mid 19th century. Less expensive materials were chosen and combined with hand made craftsmanship (or what appeared to be hand crafted). Harkening back to the individual, rather than the mass produced, led to a radical form of jewelry not seen before. Silver, enamels, moonstones, even horn and natural materials, were combined in organic and sinuous forms, with metals being prominent and used artfully in the naturalistic designs. Insects such as the dragonfly, women's heads and flowing hair, plants and flora dominated much of jewelry design.
In her days of ruling England, Queen Victoria also presided over and greatly influenced much of the fashion of the world. Although this era spanned many decades and a plethora of styles and materials were used, some broad themes emerge.
Initially, sentimental or romantic jewelry with floral motifs and symbolic themes flourished. Mid century brought the Grand Period and with it many revival styles. Late in the century, the Aesthetic Period blossomed. For the first decades, gold was the preferred metal. However, it was at this time that gilded metal, rolled gold and manufactured gold plated techniques were perfected. Gems including pearls, citrines, amethyst and garnets were popular. By the mid century and with the death of Prince Albert, the Queen went into a long period of mourning. This resulted in black jewelry becoming the fashion. Gold was often decorated with black enamel. All genres of black material were used to produce bold and strong designs for everything from brooches to necklaces and pairs of bracelets. Additionally, along with the mid century came revival jewelry styles. Using antiquity and the Gothic and Renaissance periods for example, jewelers incorporated those designs elements as the basis for much of the jewelry. Later in the century, silver jewelry again took its place as diamonds and pearl set jewelry were once more in vogue.
Spanning no less than the reigns of the four kings of England (George I, II and III and IV), this period was a grand and elegant era in jewelry history. Stemming from the consummate and regal designs of the late 17th century France, the eighteenth century carried on in much the same excessive tone. Mainly of gold and silver, large jewels held diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. Colored gems such as garnets, topazes, amethysts and citrines all were used. Frequently gems were set in closed backed metal with foiling beneath. Metalwork tended to be greater in proportion to the stones than in more modern jewelry and most jewelry was handmade. The back of the jewelry was sculptural and weighty and were usually bulbous.
Many of the designs were composed of bow motifs as well as the teardrop shape. Quintessentially 18th century, the ever present girandole motif consisted of a surmount, bow and a three-drop form. Late in the century, a rise in Neoclassicism led jewelry designs into a different world. This realm of clean lines, simplicity and geometry distanced itself from the now out-of-favor aristocracy of the Revolution. Less costly materials and semi precious gems were in favor. Early in the 19th century, a softer romantic tone emerged. A rising middle class continued to present themselves with the luxury of jewels and finery of the aristocracy. Understandably, a great deal of jewelry was produced and a surprising amount, although scarce, can still be found today.
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