Antique Eras

The history of jewelry closely follows that of other fine and decorative arts. Many of the stylistic eras get their names from the reigning English monarch of the time, but this by no means designates the beginning and end of that era or that it only occurred in England. Many of these periods overlap, blend together and influence each other. Below is a guide to the major stylistic periods from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, outlining their primary characteristics and stylistic influences.


A period of history running from 1714 to 1830, named after the English kings George I-IV. Moving away from the heavy enamels of the seventeenth century, Georgian jewelry became lighter and more airy. It is a period generally characterized by exquisite goldwork and the use of Old Mine-cut, rose-cut and table-cut stones. Common motifs are stars, ribbons, scrolls and flowers. Popular trends were memorial jewelry, cameos and intaglios, neoclassical motifs, Berlin iron and painted miniatures. Many Georgian pieces were later re-set to reflect more contemporary Victorian design, making original and intact pieces highly collectible.


The Victorian period is named after the reign of Queen Victoria, who was on the English throne from 1837 until 1901. Within this period there are three distinct phases: early, mid and late Victorian. As Victoria came to the throne and began her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert, the early Victorian period focused more and more on sentiment and tokens of love. Jewelry was soft and delicate, with a focus on floral and sentimental motifs. Then with the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the whole country was thrown into mourning and memorial jewelry came to center stage. Jewelry became strong and bold, reaching massive proportions in the 1860s and 70s. Finally, towards the end of the century, jewelry began to lighten up again, focusing on diamonds and feminine shapes. Popular Victorian motifs are flowers, nature and especially serpents, which are considered a symbol of eternal love.


A movement in the decorative arts that began in England in the 1880s and continued until the first World War, although its effects were felt into the 1930s. The movement was based on the philosophy of William Morris, who rejected mass-production and focused on craftsmanship, simple design and truth to materials. The movement originally intended to bring quality design and craftsmanship to the common man, but with the rising cost of materials and labor it quickly became an expensive aesthetic embraced by the upper class. Arts & Crafts jewelry focused on abstract natural motifs and humble materials. Artists used silver, copper, enamel and cabochon-cut stones to enhance the design of the pieces, preferring them to precious metals and faceted stones. Common motifs are thistle, peacocks and Renaissance and Celtic designs. The style was made especially popular by the work of C.R. Ashbee, who brought the style to Liberty & Co. where it was mass-produced for the public, and Dorrie Nossiter, who is known for her curvaceous gemset pieces.


A decorative style that began in the 1890s and lasted until the early 1900s, taking its name from the Parisian gallery of Samuel Bing: Maison de l’Art Nouveau. It took on many guises throughout Europe: Jugenstil in Germany, Stile Liberty in Italy (after Liberty of London), the Glasgow School and the Vienna Secession. Art Nouveau artists reacted against what they saw as the uninspired mass-produced copying of historic styles, choosing instead to focus on flowing lines, asymmetry, and superior craftsmanship. They took inspiration from the natural world and the arts of Japan, often utilizing insect, floral and female motifs. Instead of encrusting pieces in faceted stones, jewelers chose to use enameling, semi-precious stones (usually cut en cabochon) and unusual materials such as moonstone, opal and horn to enhance the beauty and originality of their design. Soon, copies of artisan pieces were being mass-produced and extravagant style began to decline. Major craftsmen of the Art Nouveau period were René Lalique, Tiffany & Co., Maison Vever, Georges Fouquet and Lucien Gaillard.


The ‘beautiful era’ in France, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and lasting until the first World War, when peace prevailed and technology blossomed. People embraced luxury and elegance. Like the Edwardian period, design was influenced by the neoclassical and a restrained Rococo revival. Jewelry was characterized by garlands, swags, flowers, lace and bow motifs.


The dominant decorative style at the turn of the twentieth century, named after Edward VII of England, who was on the throne from 1901 to 1910. This was a time of luxury, elegance and refined beauty. Fashion became light and airy, with an emphasis on ethereal white layers, delicate lace and a feminine silhouette. Jewelers recreated Belgian lace and downy feathers in platinum, diamonds and pearls. Common motifs were garlands, swags, bows, tassels and wreaths. Peridot, demantoid garnets and amethysts were favorites of King Edward and Queen Alexandra and gained popularity during their reign.


A decorative style that originated in France just before World War I and gained popularity in the 1920s and 30s, taking its name from L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Art Deco emphasized geometric design, abstract pattern and exotic motifs, leaving behind the sensuous curves and soft colors of the nineteenth century. Craftsmen embraced modern streamlined designs, with geometric gemstone cuts and bold color combinations taking center stage. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires were the gems of choice, embellishing the long necklaces and dripping earrings of the time.


Retro is a term used for jewelry from the late 1930s through early 50s derived from the term ‘Retrospective of Art Deco’. It is characterized by large, glamorous designs utilizing yellow and rose gold. Synthetic and semi-precious stones were popular as precious stones were scarce. During World War II and the post-war years, metals and stones were harder to come by so jewelers creatively used small amounts of material to make chunky cocktail jewelry. Retro jewelry is still wearable and en vogue today.


Jewelry from the 1950s and later is referred to as estate. While not old enough to be considered antiques, these pieces have unique style and flair.