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Vintage Jewelry Guide: Historic Eras and Antique Diamond Cuts

Antique jewelry can be both a beautiful investment and a fascinating glimpse into the style of the past.

From intricate engraving and milgrain details to shimmering colored gemstones and fantastical geometric designs, there are many design elements from history that continue to inspire jewelers today. Read on to learn more about some of the most distinctive hallmarks of the vintage jewelry design eras!

The 7 Vintage Jewelry Design Eras: At a Glance

Learn about the seven historical periods that make antique jewelry so distinctive:

1. Georgian: 1714-1837

Opulent and regal. Early styles were ornate while later styles ranged from Neoclassical to Gothic. Georgian jewelry is extremely rare today.

2. Victorian: 1837-1901

Named for Queen Victoria of England. Jewelry from the era is as exquisite as it is varied, reflecting Victoria’s changing tastes.

3. Art Nouveau: 1890-1910

Soft and mystical. Art Nouveau jewelers, thinking of themselves as artists, took extra care to craft beautiful settings.

4. Edwardian: 1901-1920

Graceful and elegant. In the Edwardian era, jewelers used filigree techniques to give their jewelry a wonderfully lacy look.

5. Art Deco: 1920-1930

Stylish and fun. Bright colors and geometric patterns expressed the confident and free-thinking tenor of the Roaring 1920s.

6. Retro: 1930s-1950

Bold and dazzling. With Hollywood in its golden age, jewelry became bigger, almost larger-than-life.

7. Modern: 1950s to Present

Light and textural. Modern jewelry designers had the ability to work with advanced tools and technology which created evolved designs based on pivotal fashion statements of past eras. Many of our Modern era pieces are previously owned, and some are newly made reproductions of past eras, as described on the product page.

Vintage Jewelry Design Eras: A Closer Look

Georgian Jewelry Era

Learn about Georgian jewelry, which is as rare as it is regal and ornate.

History & Style

Jewelry from the Georgian era, defined as the period between 1714 and 1837, has an opulent and regal flair. During the Georgian era, named for Kings George I, II, and III of England, fine jewelry was worn almost exclusively by the wealthy. These were the years of the American and French Revolutions, but the world of Georgian jewelry might best be imagined as the England of Jane Austen. As her heroines participated in the elaborate courtship rituals of the time, they adorned themselves with stately, hand-crafted Georgian jewelry.

The Georgian era spanned more than a century, and for this reason its jewelry is as varied as it is sumptuous. An ornate and playful style known as Rococo was favored in the early part of the era, while Gothic and Neoclassical designs took precedence later on. Diamonds initially were the gemstone of choice, with the most prevalent cuts being the rose cut and old mine. Colored gemstones such as emeralds, sapphires, and rubies became more common beginning in the mid-1700s. A distinctive feature of early Georgian jewelry is the use of closed back settings where gemstones were mounted in a way that enclosed their entire pavilion, or bottom half. To help reflect light and adjust a gemstone’s coloring, foil was sometimes placed underneath the mounted stone.

Rarity & Value

Sadly, few pieces of Georgian jewelry have survived to the present. Never mass-produced and sometimes falling victim to jewelers who valued it mainly for its components, Georgian jewelry has become extremely rare and precious. Brooches and rings are the most common types of Georgian era jewelry still in existence. Earrings and necklaces remain available to a lesser extent.

Victorian Jewelry Era

Learn about the Victorian era and its confident, joyful designs.

History

The Victorian period is named for Queen Victoria of England, the monarch who presided over the British Empire for more than six decades between 1837 and 1901. Until Victoria’s reign, fine jewelry had been mostly the province of aristocrats. However, during these years, jewelry became more broadly accessible, as an emerging middle class in Europe and the United States began to wear jewelry that was luxurious enough to be fit for kings and queens.

The Queen’s Influence

Because jewelry happened to be one of Victoria’s favorite realms, her exquisite taste helped guide public preferences. Victorian jewelry styles mirror the phases of Victoria’s life, as she moved from joy, to despair, and then back to joy again. In the Romantic Period, from 1837 to 1861, Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were deeply in love. Jewelry from these years expressed confidence, serenity, and romance. Hearts, bows, flowers, and birds were common motifs, as were enameled serpents and snakes.

Upon Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria entered a long period of mourning. During the Grand Period, from 1861 to 1880, jewelry became darker and more melancholy. Black jewelry made of jet, a fossilized coal, became popular, as did jewelry made of black onyx and black enamel. It was also during this period that revivalism became a trend; Victorian jewelers adopted designs inspired by ancient and Renaissance art. Eventually, Victoria emerged from her mourning. The Late Victorian period, from 1880 to 1901, was characterized by a return to more whimsical, buoyant designs. Stars, dragons, griffins, and crescent moons made their way into jewelry, and Japanese influences were notable.

Metals and & Gemstones

An important factor behind the evolution of Victorian jewelry was increased availability of gemstones and precious metals. By the mid-1800s, a series of gold discoveries had reduced the price of gold. Victorian jewelers were freed to try techniques, such as engraving and filigree, which enabled them to create splendid pieces of gold jewelry. Although silver was also becoming less expensive, it was gold that became the era’s preeminent metal. Diamonds, likewise, were becoming more abundant. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 permitted diamonds to become a favored gemstone in Late Victorian jewelry.

Art Nouveau Jewelry Era

Learn about the romantic, nature-inspired designs of the Art Nouveau period.

History

As the 20th century was approaching, an imaginative and original style of jewelry-making burst forth from the vibrant European arts scene. The Art Nouveau (literally “New Art”) era, lasting from 1890 to 1910, overlapped with the Edwardian and Victorian eras and was relatively brief, though it made a lasting contribution to the meaning of magnificent jewelry. Art Nouveau was actually a broad artistic movement, with one of its key tenets that art should be a part of daily life. Thinking of themselves as artists more than jewelry-makers, Art Nouveau jewelers took extra care to craft exquisite, breathtaking jewelry.

Inspiration & Style

The mood of Art Nouveau jewelry is soft, mystical, and romantic. Pale colors and flowing, undulating curves helped to establish a soothing aura. Victorian and Edwardian jewelers often borrowed ideas from ancient and classical art and architecture. Art Nouveau jewelers, greatly influenced by depictions of nature in Japanese art, looked to the natural world for inspiration. Orchids, irises, lilies, ferns, snakes, dragonflies, and butterflies were all prevalent motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry, as were depictions of the female form.

Metal & Gemstones

The established viewpoint during the 1800s had been that a gemstone was the most important element in a piece of jewelry. Breaking from tradition, Art Nouveau jewelers placed more emphasis on settings. This philosophy gave jewelers license to experiment with beautiful enameling techniques as well as with different gemstones and materials. Diamonds were used cautiously, while moonstone, amethyst, opal, amber, citrine, peridot, and freshwater pearls became common in Art Nouveau rings and jewelry. Materials such as horn, shell, and copper also were sometimes used, all in pursuit of the jeweler’s artistic vision.

Edwardian Jewelry Era

Discover the classic and refined appeal of graceful Edwardian designs.

History

Light, graceful, and elegant designs were characteristic of the Edwardian era, named for King Edward of Britain. Running from 1901 to about 1920, the Edwardian era is perhaps best known for extensive use of filigree techniques. By applying threads of gold, platinum, and other precious metals to the surface of their settings, Edwardian jewelers gave their jewelry a wonderfully lacy look. A piece of Edwardian jewelry was thus the perfect complement to the Edwardian woman’s ensemble, with her dress of lace and silk and hat topped with feathers.

Inspiration & Style

The Edwardian era was a time of both continuity and change. Although the 20th century was beginning, the culture of Victorian times had not completely receded, and jewelry was still designed to convey femininity and decorum. Edwardian jewelers preferred simple, classic motifs and palettes able to highlight a gemstone’s inherent beauty. Roman, Ancient Greek, Napoleonic, and French Baroque influences were all evident in Edwardian jewelry styles. Tassels, bows, laurel wreaths, garlands of flowers, and scrolls were also prevalent motifs that illustrated the refined yet energetic sensibility of the era.

The Edwardian Trio

Diamonds, pearls, and platinum were key components in Edwardian rings and jewelry. Pearls and diamonds were prized for their understated elegance, and jewelry was designed to showcase their natural beauty. Platinum, likewise, was an Edwardian favorite. Strong yet lightweight, it permitted jewelers to create “invisible” settings in which little metal was needed to secure a gemstone. Together, diamonds, pearls, and platinum—or some combination thereof—were an unbeatable combination. The white-on-white appearance was considered the epitome of sophistication and class.

Art Deco Jewelry Era

Learn about the Art Deco era, a period of expressive, bold and high-spirited styles.

History

The Art Deco era, running roughly from 1920 to 1935, was a high-spirited era of gangsters, flappers, and speakeasies. During the Roaring Twenties, the economy boomed and jazz blossomed just as Prohibition heightened the urge to cast aside Victorian restraints.

Inspiration & Style

Art Deco jewelry is stylish and fun. Jewelry, like other areas of fashion, became a realm in which women felt free to express their individuality. Styles became bolder, sharper, and more masculine than in previous periods. The lacy, filigree patterns of Edwardian jewelry and the soft pastels and curves of Art Nouveau jewelry gave way to brighter colors and straighter lines. A signature characteristic of Art Deco jewelry is the use of futuristic motifs and geometric forms, reflecting the confident and free-thinking spirit of the times. The soaring Empire State Building and Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso perfectly embodied the new design choices of the Art Deco era.

During the Art Deco era, advancements in cutting techniques, including the advent of the modern round brilliant cut style, allowed for diamonds to become more dazzling and scintillating than ever before. Meanwhile, prosperity was permitting more people to afford diamond jewelry and engagement rings. New casting techniques further increased accessibility, as jewelers discovered more efficient ways to produce the most intricately detailed of settings. With platinum becoming a popular material, jewelers began using white gold—an alloyed form of gold—that was more affordable than either platinum or yellow gold though with a hue that was nearly identical to platinum.

Retro Jewelry Era

Learn about the retro era jewelry and its larger-than-life spirit.

History

Retro jewelry, sometimes called “cocktail jewelry,” refers to the style of jewelry that became popular beginning in the mid-1930s and continuing through the end of the 1940s. With the twin crises of economic depression and war, it might be expected that Retro jewelry would be minimalist and restrained. In fact, jewelry from the era was bigger, bolder, and more exciting than ever. In the midst of hard times, women sought jewelry that was eye-catching and extraordinary. This was also Hollywood’s golden age, and women wanted jewelry that reflected the glitz and glamour they saw on the big screen.

Retro jewelry was dazzling, almost larger-than-life. Cocktail rings, bracelets, and necklaces tended to be oversized, lending the jewelry a playful and whimsical dimension. However, larger did not mean less feminine. As World War II brought women into the work force and required them to adopt straight-fitting business attire, they chose jewelry that allowed them to express their femininity. Retro jewelry is characterized by curved designs and feminine motifs such as bows, ribbons, ruffles, and flowers—but almost always on a grand, Retro-era scale.

Metals & Gemstones

Creativity went hand-in-hand with Retro boldness. Partly this was due to war-time realities. A scarcity of platinum led jewelers to use more gold, but when they did so they experimented with exquisite new alloys. By mixing yellow gold with other metals like silver and copper, they produced gold with beautiful shades of rose and green. Budget-conscious jewelry shoppers as well as a limited supply of precious stones during the war fostered greater use of synthetic rubies and sapphires. Semi-precious stones such as aquamarine, citrine, and topaz were also prevalent in Retro rings and jewelry.

Modern Jewelry Era

Learn about the modern era jewelry and its sleek sophistication inspired by the past.

History

Modern era jewelry, also known as the Contemporary Era, spans a significant amount of time starting in the 1950s and spanning to present day. Unlike more micro trends like Art Nouveau or Art Deco, modern estate jewelry encompasses diverse styles spanning many decades of transformation. For example, stylish cocktail parties became fashionable between the 1950s-1960s, leading to the rise of the cocktail ring. These Mid-Century styles were larger than life and often featured oversized colorful gems. In the 1990s and 2000s, the joyful excess of mid-century designs were scaled back for sleeker and more modest styles. This era of jewelry history is still continuing and evolving, and we will better be able to define it when looking at it in the future.

Inspiration & Style

There are many factors that have affected and inspired jewelry styles of the Modern Era – including every style trend that preceded it. The 1950s were heavily inspired by “atomic” culture after WWII, and there were many rings, earrings, and brooches that featured shimmering precious metal rays that loosely resembled the structure of an atom. The advent of television also greatly affected trends and allowed people more access than ever before to celebrities, advertisements, and world news. Classic pearls like those worn by Lucille Ball and Donna Reed on their favorite sitcoms were on trend.

Another notable factor that affected women’s fashion in the Modern Era was the early feminist movement and the dramatic increase of women in the workforce. Because of this societal change, casual pieces became more in-demand from women who wanted everyday jewelry they could wear both to the office and on the town. “Day to night” looks and adaptable pieces dominated fashion magazines for decades. Bangles were a must-have for the 1960s, and “flower power” inspired a resurgence in floral, nature-inspired jewelry and natural materials like wood, amber, and ivory. The 1960s also reinterpreted many of the styles that first became popular during the Art Deco era. The decadent 1970s saw a renaissance for Art Nouveau styles, with an emphasis on carved, molded, and textured fashions. The earthy hippie culture inspired many to wear crystals like amethyst and quartz or Native American inspired pieces in silver and turquoise. The excess of the 1980s favored large and chunky pieces in bright colors. Big hair is best balanced out by equally large earrings, after all! Cocktail rings came back in style during this decade as well, and often served as a symbol of wealth or financial independence as a right hand ring. In the 1990s, styles returned to more muted and classic styles with a focus on creating a wardrobe with essential basic pieces. In the 1990s and beyond, the arrival of internet culture – and internet shopping – encouraged more self-purchasing and personalized pieces than ever before. Today, self-expression is the most important hallmark of the Contemporary era. There are no strict rules, and access to more culture and media than any other period of time allows us to pick and choose the styles we love the most for ourselves from everything that has come before.

Metals & Gemstones

Modern jewelry has the benefit of all the precious metals and gems of previous decades, plus even more options. While different metal types have been in vogue in different decades of the Modern era, shades of white gold, platinum, yellow gold, and rose gold were and are widely popular. From the mid-1990s through the early 2010s, white gold reigned supreme as the metal of choice for diamond engagement rings and wedding bands. When fictional style icon Carrie Bradshaw on the show Sex and the City complained to her friends in dismay that her boyfriend bought her a yellow gold engagement ring, it was a cultural moment that cemented the idea that stylish modern women wouldn’t be happy with anything less than the silvery tones of platinum or white gold. However, the tables have now turned with yellow gold seeing a booming resurgence in popularity in the past few years. Rose gold also had a strong moment with romantic brides in the 2010s who loved the warm golden hues that were unique to what they were used to seeing from the older women in their family. The Modern era has also been the most flexible when it comes to mixing different metal types. Actress and style icon Audrey Hepburn famously received identical textured white gold and rose gold engagement rings from actor Mel Ferrer, who knew that Audrey would not be happy tied down to only one metal color. From meteorite and tungsten to ceramic and resin, even more materials are being creatively used to make rings and fine jewelry today.

White diamonds have been the most popular and sought after gemstones of the Modern era by far, with some notable celebrity exceptions. One of the most famous jewelry pieces of the Modern era is Princess Diana and Kate Middleton’s stunning 12-carat blue sapphire diamond halo engagement ring. Actress Elizabeth Taylor was world famous for her stunning jewelry collection which featured a literal treasure trove of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. We have seen more and more celebrities in the 2010s through the present choosing colorful gemstones or colored diamonds for their engagement rings, as well, including Katy Perry, Elizabeth Olsen, Blake Lively, Lady Gaga, and many more. White moissanite, a gemstone with a similar appearance to diamonds but with a more flashing rainbow brilliance, is also becoming a popular gemstone choice in the Contemporary Era.

Alternatives to natural diamonds first became available during the Modern Era, and continue to increase in popularity. The first lab created diamonds were invented by General Electric engineers in the 1950s for commercial use, but it wouldn’t be for a few more decades that the process would be refined enough to create diamonds of high enough quality to be used in fine jewelry. Now, more and more people are opting for lab created diamonds as a more responsible alternative to mined diamonds.

Learn About 5 Antique Diamond and Gemstone Cuts

Diamond cutters in past centuries used techniques that are no longer common today. Often cutting diamonds by hand, they gave diamonds shapes and dimensions that capture the character and essence of their eras. Diamonds cut using the old techniques may exhibit less fire and brilliance, though they sometimes are preferred for their warmer, more romantic glow. In recent times, antique diamond cuts have enjoyed a renewed popularity. Diamonds cut using the old techniques are becoming increasingly sought after and desirable.

1. Single Cut

A single cut diamond has a large table and an octagonal girdle. The culet, or bottom edge of the diamond, may be pointed or it may be flat. A single cut diamond usually has 18 facets. The single cut is an extremely old diamond cut dating to the 1300s.

2. Rose Cut

The rose cut features a flat bottom with a dome-shaped crown, rising to a single apex. With anywhere from 3 to 24 facets, a rose cut diamond resembles the shape of a rose bud. The rose cut dates to the 1500s and remained common during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

3. Old Mine Cut

Diamonds with this cut possess a squarish girdle with gently rounded corners. Old mine cut diamonds have a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. They are similar to today’s cushion cut. The old mine cut dates to the 1700s and was most prevalent during the Georgian and Victorian eras.

4. Old European Cut

Like the old mine cut, diamonds cut into this shape possess a high crown, small table, and a large, flat culet. However, the old European cut has a circular girdle. With 58 facets, it is the predecessor of today’s modern round brilliant cut. The Old European cut dates to the 1800s and was used mostly during the Victorian, Edwardian, and Art Nouveau eras.

5. Modern Round Brilliant Cut

In the early 1900s, diamond cutters began to experiment with new techniques. A breakthrough came in 1919 with the introduction of the round brilliant cut. Due to its ability to maximize fire and brilliance, the round brilliant cut has become the standard and most popular way to cut diamonds. Like the old European cut, a round brilliant cut diamond has a circular girdle and 58 facets. However, the round brilliant cut lacks a culet. The round brilliant cut became prevalent during the Art Deco and Retro periods.

Final Thoughts

Do you have a favorite era when it comes to vintage and antique style? Let us know in the comments below or on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

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Vintage Jewelry Guide: Historic Eras and Antique Diamond Cuts - Brilliant Earth Blog