Collecting Antique Jewelry

Embodying the wealth and treasure of bygone days, the antique jewelry pieces available today include some of the world's most valuable artifacts. Of course not all collectible jewelry is stratospherically expensive, and it is certainly possible to assemble a satisfying and noteworthy collection of more accessible pieces. Beyond the question of worth, the collection or study of antique jewelry provides unique perspective into the cultural and artistic environments in which the works were created and worn. Opportunities for specialization abound, with the added dynamic that collectors might wear certain pieces from their collection. Collections might focus on specific time periods, specific metals and stones, or even specific types of jewelry.

The Early History of Jewelry

Although people have adorned themselves with decorative and ceremonial art since the dawn of civilization, the first evidence of what might be considered an established jewelry craft comes from Ancient Egypt where artisans developed techniques for working with gold and other metals as well as glass and stone. Throughout the ancient world, cultures developed jewelry of metal, stone, glass and other materials. The jewelry produced by these cultures reflects a combination of the materials available locally and their technological advancement in working those materials. Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China and India all reveal an established jewelry craft.

Across Europe, metal work and jewelry craft continued to develop during the Medieval Ages. The Celts, Moravians, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and the Byzantines all left significant artifacts.

The single most notable historical development in western jewelry craft and trade was the advent of facet-cutting for precious stones in the 17th century. Prior to this development jewelry craft was largely focused on metal work and enamel. Facet-cutting moved the precious stone to the forefront of jewelry and defined the general appearance of western jewelry from that point forward.

Relatively few pieces of Renaissance jewelry survive but a good bit of knowledge of the styles has been deduced for the detailed portraits and other paintings of that time. As with other arts such as painting and sculpting, jewelry making flowered with jewelers striving for and achieving significant mastery of their craft.

Major Periods in Jewelry

During the Renaissance, regional distinctions in the jewelry styles of Europe began to disappear. Post-Renaissance jewelry is most often considered in terms of a number of commonly accepted eras or periods. These periods define stylistic trends as much as they do actual time; the dates associated with them are somewhat arbitrary and there is overlap.

The Georgian period (1700-1837) spans the successive reigns of four Kings of England - George I, II, III and IV. As with Renaissance jewelry, few pieces of this time survive with most of it having been reworked into new items in subsequent generations. Styles were characterized by a fascination with classical Greek and Roman themes. Gold was still relatively rare in the Georgian era and silver is much more prevalent.

The Victorian period (1837-1901) spans the reign of Queen Victoria of England and is typically further divided into three periods - Romantic, Grand, and Late Victorian. Jewelry of this time is romantic, sentimental and often symbolic. The technological advances of industrial revolution also played a role in setting the tone for Victorian jewelry craft.

The Arts & Crafts period (1890-1920) embodied a rejection both of the mechanical age and its opulence. The work of the period is characterized by the use of modest materials such as silver, copper and brass, and cabochon cut stones.

The Art Nouveau period (1895-1915) was a brief but explosive movement that affected all the arts. The period overlaps with Arts & Crafts and like that movement is considered a reaction to the mechanistic atmosphere of the industrial revolution. Art Nouveau is characterized by nature themes and sensuous, curving lines, as well as a reflection of Japanese influence.

The Edwardian period (1880-1915), also known in France as the Belle Epoque period, is associated the brief reign of England's King Edward VII (1901-1910). Edwardian jewelry is associated with a light, ethereal mood frequently featuring diamonds with white gold or platinum.

The Art Deco period (1915-1938) is associated with the modernizing trends between the two World Wars and the continued extension of jewelry ownership into the growing middle class. Diamonds remained a favorite during the period but were complimented by rubies, sapphires and emeralds as the jewelry makers experimented with exotic color combinations and geometries.

Antique Jewelry Terminology

Alloy - the mixture of two or more metals.

Articulated - flexibility through the use of hinges, joints or jump rings.

Baguette - a small gemstone cut in a narrow rectangle.

Brilliant - a gem cut with 58 facets, 33 above the girdle and 25 below.

Briollete - an oval teardrop shaped cut.

Cabochon - a cutting with a smooth domed top, frequently seen in 19th century antique revival jewelry.

Cameo - a style of carving in which the surrounding surface is cut away leaving the design in relief - opposite of intaglio.

Cannetille - a filigree ornamentation made of open coiled wirework, popular during the early 19th century.

Carat - a measure of the weight of a gemstone where one carat is equal to about 200 milligrams (see karat a measure of gold purity).

Channel Set - a style of setting wherein gemstones are secured in a grooved channel giving a smooth finish with no metal between stones.

Chasing - a technique wherein a design is hammered into metal.

Crown - the top portion of a cut stone.

Doublet - two stones, or a stone and other material such as glass, cemented together. Often used to create the impression of a more valuable gemstone either for fakery or effect.

Enamel - a glass-like surface produced by fusing colored powdered glass to metal.

Girdle - the widest part of a cut stone dividing the top (crown) and bottom (pavilion) sections.

Granulation - a technique wherein patterns of minute grains (or beads) of gold are soldered to a plain surface.

Intaglio - a style of carving in which the design is cut into the surface of the material - opposite of cameo.

Karat - a measure of the purity of gold with 24 karat being pure (see carat a measure of the weight of gemstones).

Marquise - a stone cut in an oval shape with rounded sides and pointed ends.

Paste - a term used for imitation gem stones made of glass.

Pavilion - the bottom portion of a cut stone.

Patina - a greenish discoloration that forms on copper and brass.

Pave Set - a jewelry setting style in which the surface of a piece is covered (or paved) with small gemstones held in place with beads of metal.

Pinchbeck - an alloy of zinc and copper that resembles gold in appearance and was used in the making of inexpensive jewelry named for its inventor Christopher Pinchbeck.

Pique - a method of decorating tortoise shell with an inlay of gold or silver.

Repousse - a metal working technique in which a design is raised by punching or hammering from the reverse.

Rolled Gold - made by a process of fusing gold to an inexpensive base metal for the manufacture of inexpensive jewelry.

Vermeil - silver with a fine plating of gold.

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