How can you tell if a piece of jewellery is actually antique?
Furthermore, how can you find out the era in which it was made?
There’s nothing better than when you have a piece of antique jewellery that is properly hallmarked with date letters, leaving any doubt out of the question. This is often too good to be true, however, as items are rarely so clearly hallmarked, and dating them can be very difficult. So, how do you know when an item is genuinely as old as it claims?
One of the first things to approach when dating jewellery is the design of the item. As we know, fashion and popular culture change over time, and this is one of the most effective ways to recognise if something is from a certain era.
So, let’s look at a few eras, with examples of jewellery from that period .
Georgian (1714 – 1820)
During this era, London was becoming an established city for trading in rough diamonds imported from India. The discovery of a diamond deposit in Brazil in 1725 meant more were being imported throughout Europe. The upper classes of Georgian society liked to be decorated from head to toe when attending their social functions, and so the market for gems was thriving in 18th century London.
Faceted and colourful gemstones – including diamonds – are synonymous with the Georgian period. One distinguishable trait of Georgian jewellery is the very fine craftsmanship: the vast majority of jewellery was handmade, before advances in diamond cutting progressed. The cut of a diamond or gemstone may therefore be related to a period of manufacture. Unfortunately, the art of bruting* had not yet been discovered, and so most diamonds resembled a round rectangle cross section and were given the term “cushion” cut – today they are known as old mine cut.
Jewellery design in the Georgian era was largely inspired by nature. Birds, floral designs, bird designs incorporating bows and crowns, and beautiful portraits were popular. The Georgians were also fond of wearing certain colours, and popular coloured stones used to enhance items of jewellery included pearls, turquoise, coral, malachite, and aquamarines.
Another distinguishable trait of Georgian items was Memento Mori jewellery, the phrase Memento Mori means ‘remember that you will die’. This specific style of jewellery – to some – may seem quite morbid, as it would feature motifs such as skulls or coffins.
*Bruting is the process whereby two diamonds are set onto spinning axles turning in opposite directions, which are then set to grind against each other to shape each diamond into a round shape. This is also known as girdling.
Victorian (1837 – 1901)
Jewellery crafted during this era was more widely available to the new middle classes, as the industrial revolution allowed manufacturers to employ mass production technologies. Most mass produced jewellery however, was cheaper costume jewellery, and the introduction of electroplating supported this development.
The Victorian era spanned over two thirds of a decade, and saw Great Britain’s longest-standing monarch until Queen Elizabeth II, who has currently been reigning for 65 years. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the country saw transition from great romance and prosperity to tragedy. This was reflected in the design of the jewellery, which differed greatly, and in effect may be categorised into three separate periods.
Early Victorian – Romantic Jewellery (1837 – 1860)
Early Victorian jewellery reflected Queen Victoria’s youth, and her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert. The style still reflected that of the Georgian period, and jewellery was still inspired by nature and floral designs. Hitting its peak in the 1840s, the snake motif was also very popular; the Victorians felt the ophidian symbol stood for eternal love and union. Queen Victoria’s own engagement ring was shaped after a serpent. The vast majority of early Victorian jewellery was very decorative and mostly handmade until the expansion of production technologies.
Changes in fashion and high-necked garments meant large brooches became very popular – as did lockets, in which a lock of hair or keepsake could be treasured. Victorians believed wearing bangles and rings made hands appear more delicate, which very highly desired.
Gemstones which were popular during this period were colourful stones such as amethyst, turquoise, pink topaz, chalcedony, rubies, and the most sought after: garnet. The Victorians prized deep red garnets as a symbol of loyalty and love, the stone representing the goddess Venus herself. Victorians often used garnets for engagement rings. Diamonds on the other hand were only worn as a sign of wealth and maturity, and were only worn in the evening for court. Diamonds were always cut by hand as old European, cushion, or rose cut.
Gold used for early Victorian jewellery was usually at least 18 carat. It wasn’t until after 1854 that a lower grade or fineness of gold such as 9ct, 12ct, and 15ct was legally recognised. This is a very useful fact when dating Victorian jewellery. In the 1850s, new techniques were introduced – die-stamping and advances in gemstone cutting meant jewellery could be further mass produced. Once again, electroplating made relatively cheap jewellery available to the general public.
Mid-Victorian – Grand Jewellery (1861–1880)
The Victorian era started with great promise and prosperity, and the nation celebrated this. In 1861, however, Victoria’s mother, The Duchess of Kent, passed away, as did Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert. The nation mourned along with their queen, and a strict protocol was brought into place which only allowed black to be worn in both jewellery and clothing. Thus mourning jewellery, featuring dark, heavy stones such as jet and onyx was introduced. After a year of mourning, softer colours like grey and deep purple reflected in amethysts and garnets became more popular. The mourning jewellery is certainly one of the most striking categories of Victorian jewellery.
Opals had the reputation for bringing bad luck. A huge discovery of opal was made in 1870 in Australia (a British Territory), however, helped dispel this unfortunate reputation as opals were used in new jewellery worn by Victoria. Other stones used during the late 1800s consisted of cabochon garnets, diamonds, onyx emeralds, pearls, rubies, black glass, ivory, and tortoiseshell. Silver was introduced as a polished and oxidised metal. A discovery of silver deposits in America greatly reduced the price of silver which allowed jewellers to create pieces affordable to a growing middle market.
In order to balance out the mourning jewellery trend, alternative motifs were produced to reflect the birth of Victoria’s son Edward VII in 1841. Such motifs included designs in the form of acorns, anchors, hearts, birds, and flowers, and good luck symbols such as horseshoes and clover leaves were also featured. Astrological designs such as stars and crescent moons became more popular. Jewellers modelled items to reflect Edwards’s pursuits, such as horse racing and hunting.
Late Victorian – Aesthetic Jewellery (1885-1901)
Prior to Victoria’s death in 1901, women’s roles in society were changing and the birth of the “Gibson Girl” and newer activities led to a change in fashion. The Gibson Girl was seen as a strong-minded individual – hair combs were a must have, and the choker was popularised by Victoria’s daughter-in-law, Princess Alexander of Denmark. During this period, Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, which also steered jewellery to more naturalistic designs such as dragonflies, insects, and butterflies. The use of brightly coloured gemstones such as pearls, dermantoid garnets, peridots, moonstones, turquoises, opals, aquamarines, and chysoberyls resurfaced.
Queen Victoria died on January 22nd 1901. King Edward VII was crowned and the Edwardian period commenced.
The Victorian era should be perceived as one of the most influential and revolutionary eras for the production of jewellery, its designs, and the associated techniques contributed to making the antique jewellery industry what it is today.
The styles identified above, which touch on gemstone cuts, colours, and craftsmanship should assist you when trying to identify pieces of antique jewellery from the Georgian and Victorian eras. I wish you good luck in your search for that special piece of antique jewellery. Please let me know if you have success, and please share details of the items you find.
Claire Hall – Senior Sales Assistant
Claire is the Senior Sales Assistant at AC Silver. Claire commenced her career in 1999, undertaking various roles within the jewellery industry in addition to successfully gaining qualifications in the field.