5 Easy Clues for Dating Antique or Vintage Jewelry
Jewelry mirrors time, culture, and societal values. It reflects the taste and attitude of every period in history.
Luckily, there are definitely clues that can be used in deciphering how old your jewelry is. The older and more rare the piece of jewelry, the more valuable it will be. There are many more clues than just five, but these are quick and easy ways to help determine the age of your jewelry.
5 Clues to Help Identify the Date of Jewelry
1. Look at the findings and fittings on earrings.
2. Look at the findings and fittings on brooches.
3. Identify the material.
4. Use color to guess the time period.
5. Look at marks and hallmarks.
Clue 1: Fittings and Findings for Earrings
The invention of different earring findings will help date your jewelry. Jewelry findings are ready made pieces that jewelers use such as clasps, pin stems, hinges, etc. Fittings refer to the parts that can be custom-made for a piece.
This drawing shows the styles when they were introduced into the market. In order of date, the styles are named as follows: shepherd hook, image two is not named, kidney wire, screw-back (pierced), lever back, screw-back, post & butterfly, spring clip, and omega back.
Some of these styles are still made today. Thread stud earrings from 1890 are thicker in diameter and the nut is much heavier than those that are made today. Screw-back non-pierced earrings that were made in 1900 are still made today but they are not that common on newer pieces. Kidney wires were invented in the 1870s and are also still used today. The shape has been modified in the modern earring. Knowing the difference between all of these can be helpful when determining the date of your jewelry.
Clue 2: Fittings and Findings for Brooches
Most answers to understanding jewelry can be found by looking on the backs or undersides. Brooches have evolved over one hundred years, and the backs provide much of the information we need to date the piece. Again, this drawing shows the different types of clasps used on brooches or pins with the approximate date as to when they first appeared.
I have found that the trickiest thing about dating a brooch is not necessarily the kind of clasp, but an altered back. Look for any suspicious solder. Pools of solder would only be on a piece that has been altered or repaired. Another thing to look for are oval or round metal pads where the pin has been attached to the back of the brooch. This is also a sign that the piece has been altered.
When I first started buying jewelry I came across this unusual 14k gold-filled piece with a "c" clasp pin and a "hook" on the backside of what looks to me like a pendant. After some research I learned what it really is. Is this a brooch or a pendant? Have you seen this before? Take this poll and leave a comment.
Do you know what this piece of jewelry is?
Clue 3: How to Identify the Materials of Black Jewelry
Black jewelry can be found in abundance at flea markets, estate sales, and antique stores. Identifying what the black material is can make a big difference in determining when it was made and how much it could be worth. Black jewelry most likely made of one of the following: plastic, glass, stone, jet, gutta-percha, crepe stone, bog oak, and bakelite. There are ways to test each one of these materials to determine what it is.
- Plastic is the most obvious of all materials to decipher. Plastic is very lightweight and you can tap it on your tooth to hear a "click" sound. Use your loupe to look for a mold line. A mold line will go all around the piece splitting in two.
- Glass will be heavier and reflects light. Holding it in your hand will warm up the material.
- Stone would remain cold if you held it in your hand.
- Jet is as light as plastic, and hard and coal-like in material. This material is a type of fossilized wood that was first mined in Whitby, England in the mid 1800s. Carving jet was so popular that by 1870 there were more than two hundred jet shops in the small town of Whitby. Today, jet is in the seams of the cliff walls on which the town is built. Nowadays, it is illegal to mine for jet, which makes the material extremely valuable. To test for jet, rub the material on concrete or clay pottery. If a brownish black mark line is left, then it is jet. Just a note: jet breaks easily.
- Gutta-percha can also be black. It is made from the sap of a Malayan tree. It was used primarily in the Victorian Era. Running this material under hot water will cause it to emit a strong burnt rubber smell. You can also rub a piece on your clothes to create friction. This material was introduced into England in 1841.
- Crepe stone is another black material and is made of glass. It was introduced in 1883 by the Fowler brothers in Providence, Rhode Island. It was called English Crepe Stone. It has a very distinctive look. See photo show.
- Bog oak is also another black material that is very easy to identify because it is oak wood that has been preserved in the bogs of Ireland. This jewelry is visually identifiable because of the Irish motifs.
- Bakelite can be made black, but not all Bakelite is black. It is a phenolic plastic that was popular in the 1920s and 30s. A good test for Bakelite is to put 409 bathroom cleaner on a cotton swab and touch a small hidden area. If the cotton swab is yellow after touching the surface of the tested piece than it is Bakelite.
eBay Is a Great Source for Buying Antique Jewelry
Auctions on eBay are fun to watch. I like to look up different styles and periods of jewelry to see what comes up and how much it sells for. This helps me to understand the market better. Then when I shop at estate sales, auctions, and antique stores, I have a better idea of what I am looking at. I also come in with a price in mind.
Clue 4: Using Color to Date Your Jewelry
The use of color gemstones and enamel correlates to architecture and decorative art of the times. For example, color in the Renaissance was almost gaudy, while the use of color during the Victorian Era was somber because the death of Prince Albert caused Queen Victoria to declare an extended period of mourning. After the Victorian Era, the period of Art Nouveau utilized soft and delicate colors with rich gold and silver metals. This was short-lived as the Art Deco era moved to the forefront with its use of bolder colors and geometric designs. A devil-may-care attitude influenced the look.
Color palettes dominated different time periods throughout history. Knowing which color gemstones were predominant at certain times in history goes a long way in helping to date a piece of jewelry.
Clue 5: Marks and Hallmarks
Hallmarks and markings are an important clue to help date a piece of jewelry. Most often these marks are hidden on the inside of a shank on a ring, the inside of a bracelet, or on the inside back of an earring. Using your loupe, you will often find some kind of mark identifying the jeweler, designer, retailer, or manufacturer. If you bring this to a jeweler, they may be able to date the piece based on the marks.
These marks can also make a tremendous difference on the value and collectability of the jewelry. Remember that the value is not always about the intrinsic value. The trademark can also provide information about when and where a piece was made. Good sources for this information can be found at: Researching Costume Jewelry History and the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers' Marks
How I Analyze and Date Jewelry
The photo shown here is a sterling silver filigree camphor glass necklace. Dated about 1900, it features the "Order of the Eastern Star" in the center. The center star has five enamel points and with five different images. However, this piece is not all authentic. The open center panel has been taken off and replaced with this rectangular piece. You can see how it does not fit perfectly. Look on the outer edges and you will see the inconsistency of the space around it. On the back is a small screw that attaches this shape from the frame. I showed this to my jeweler. He said these pieces were designed so that different pieces could be changed out. It is bothersome that the center shape does not fit properly within the framed shape. This does affect the value and aesthetics.