How to... identify antique jewellery

Antique jewellery may be considered a very respectable tangible investment. There is little chance that a well-preserved, carefully crafted Victorian diamond necklace is going to abruptly lose all its value.

However, some of the value of such jewellery naturally does come from the fact that it is an antique, and from the particular period from which it was from. So being able to identify when a given piece you have you eye on was made is crucial.


The majority of early jewellery used silver, with yellow gold as an alternative, or pinchbeck (a form of brass with the copper and zinc components mixed to resemble gold as closely as possible).

Platinum was not used until the first decade of the twentieth century, and white gold not until the second, so the appearance of these tell against a piece of jewellery being Georgian or Victorian.

Early jewellery also made good use of mother-of-pearl, shell, jet, coral, tortoise shell and ivory. These might be embellished with precious and semi-precious stones, paste stones, enamel, painted gold or micro-mosaic tiles - possibly even hair, depending on the exact time of manufacture.


The devil is in the details. Omega Back earrings, for example, are a style of clasp involving a loop somewhat resembling the Greek letter omega. They were not used until the 1970s. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Clip Back earrings, Barrel Clasps (that is, specifically two-piece clasps that screw into each other to form the barrel - some barrel-like clasps are earlier) and Double Pin Stems (clips) came into being around about the time of WWII, or a few years before.

Diamond and Turquoise necklace
Diamond parure, enhanced by turquoise given to Princess Maria José in 1930 as a wedding gift (sold at Christie's for £120,000 in 2007 against a £30,000-40,000 estimate)

Even Lever Back earrings were not developed until roughly 1900!

Conversely, particular styles can indicate that jewellery is antique, and which period it was made in.

If the gems in a piece are surrounded by elaborate and colourful enamelling, that might suggest the piece is genuinely early - 16th to 17th century.

The Georgians took a rather bling attitude to jewellery, and pieces from this time include items which you might not expect to find bejewelledfrom most other times. Not only brooches and (newly) pocket watches, but buttons, shoe buckles, chains and fobs - for both sexes.

Diamond Enamel Bangle
Mid-19th century diamond and enamel bangle owned by Tsar Nicholas I

The Victorians concentrated on more typical jewellery: brooches, earrings and bracelets. They were particularly keen on lockets, however, and also some more atypical pieces: hair jewellery, and necklaces which could convert into earrings.

Victorian jewellery also has symbolic themes. Snakes and lizards, for instance, represent love.

With a little care and attention, antique jewellery can be a fascinating and lucrative investment - and remember, a thing of beauty is a joy forever (or at least as long as you look after it).

Paul Fraser.

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