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Estate Jewelry: The Portfolio that Glimmers

Wearing a gown made of bonds and stock certificates is both bizarre and tacky, but there is an investment you can tastefully take with you on the party circuit this holiday season.

Since the dawn of time, woman has collected jewelry....
And, judging from the amount of it on the market today, she has thrown very little away. Whatever your pleasure—turquoise, diamonds, platinum, or tourmaline-you can collect it, wear it, and sometimes make a profit on it.

What Is Estate Jewelry?
A piece of estate jewelry did not necessarily come from the estate of the deceased. Estate simply means previously owned.

What Is Antique Jewelry?
Antique jewelry was made at least 100 years ago.

What Is Vintage Jewelry?
Vintage jewelry is usually defined as older pieces, made after the 1940s and through the 1980s.

Below are the collectible periods of jewelry most readily available for beginners. High quality, pre-Victorian jewelry is rare and extremely expensive.

Victorian Jewelry

Queen Victoria reigned a long time (1837-1901), long enough to have a Diamond Jubilee, and as the Queen's tastes in fashion changed from girlhood to old age, so did the jewelry styles she popularized. The heavy, almost morbid, pieces of her widowhood are completely at odds with the lighter and more delicate designs of her first days on the throne and her happy marriage to Albert.

Common Victorian elements include cameos—carved pieces commonly used in brooches, pendants, or earrings. Cameos may be made of inexpensive, translucent shell or stone. During one period, lava rock from Mt. Vesuvius was quite popular. Later cameos were mass produced in celluloid or glass. Today's pieces may be made from plastic.

Some Elderly Oddities

Memento Mori
The theme of this class of jewelry is "Remember, you will die." The sentiment is drawn originally from Roman times and was used in jewelry from the 16th century onwards. Skull and crossbones are a typical motif.

Mourning Brooches
Keeping a strand of hair held into a locket was a common Victorian tradition, along with creating hair jewelry from the deceased family member. But mourning brooches might also be made to commemorate the deaths of famous people, including royalty.

The badge of the lady who ran the house (called a chatelaine) was a set of keys and other useful things such as scissors, held on a circle and attached to the waist that was also called a chatelaine. Chatelaines might be made from sturdy stuff or precious metals and jewels and are highly collectible. A chatelaine might include a bottle of perfume, a tea infuser, a match safe, a mirror, or aught else.

Art Nouveau

Hailing from fin de siecle Paris and featured in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, the Art Nouveau Movement wrought its influence on textiles, furniture, and clothing design. In jewelry and other decorative arts, look for ladies with long flowing hair (Mucha's works are good examples), use of semi-precious stones, enamels, as well as Asian, nature, and fantasy motifs.

The Edwardian Style

While Queen Victoria reigned long into her twilight years, Prince Edward spent a corresponding period being a man about town, enjoying himself thoroughly—much to his mother's chagrin. When he ascended the throne the fashions became lighter, quite elegant and more exuberant. Platinum and pearls came into vogue, and designers such as Cartier, Tiffany, and Boucheron rose to prominence. Edwardian styles may typically incorporate some classical (Roman and Greek) elements along with the recreation of earlier French styles: feathers, flowers, foliage, and wreaths.

Art Deco

The Art Deco period spanned 1910 to 1939. Art Deco pieces may employ ancient Egyptian motifs such as scarabs (King Tut's tomb had just been discovered), and these pieces often use a brighter, stronger palette than previous years. Art Deco found its way into everyday parts of the home, from furniture to toasters.


Retro jewelry has all the earmarks of its Depression-era and war-torn time. Platinum was needed for electronics and oil refining, so gold was back on center stage. With money tight, synthetic stones and semi-precious ones such as aquamarines and citrines became more popular. Charm bracelets became a popular form of self-expression. Designs were big, and often big on patriotism. Following the philosophy of making the most of what they had, jewelers created illusion settings for engagement rings whose settings made the stones appear much larger than they were.

A Word about Costume Jewelry

Fake can be fabulous, and some of these pieces can be quite expensive and collectible. There were (and are) designers for costume jewelry just as there are designers for the real deal, and the work of the better known designers commands a steeper price. Crystals, faux cameos, Bakelite, Lucite and other synthetics were used to create some marvelous pieces. Costume jewelry can incorporate the designs and historical significance that collectors love about pieces made from more precious materials-but without the wicked high price tag.

Estate Jewelry Sites
Examples of most every kind of jewelry can be found at online stores and auction sites, but these pages give helpful information for beginners.

Antique Jewelry Online
Their very useful Learning section has guides to these periods: Late Georgian, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco, and Retro.

Estate Jewelry Buying Guide
Another rundown of major jewelry periods which includes some different details on the periods.

Helpful Terms and Glossary
Older types of jewelry are discussed here: cut steel, Berlin iron, Essex crystals, Halley's Comet brooches, lover's eye miniatures, micro mosaic, paste, pinchbeck, pique, Stuart crystal, and Vauxhall glass.

The History of Cameos
Lots of information on cameos, including how to date them.

History of Jewelry
This short guide includes sections on buying and selling jewelry, how to recognize repairs, and a useful listing of jewelry terms.

"The History of Jewelry Design" from the article Jewelry in Encyclopedia Britannica, available through CRRL's online databases.
You will need your CRRL library card number to read this article.

The History of Jewelry, Gems, and Lapidary Artisans
"...covers history as it relates to gemstone cutting, diamond cutting, gem trading routes, lapidary history and the history of jewellery dating back to the dawn of recorded time."

Lean More About Estate Jewelry with Sources from the Library
Although some of these sources are themselves vintage, they should contain information that will increase readers' knowledge of estate jewelry.

Bakelite Jewelry: Good, Better, Best by Donna Wasserstrom & Leslie Piña

Buying and Selling Jewelry on Ebay by Stacey King Gordon (an eBook)

A Collector's Guide to Costume Jewelry: Key Styles and How to Recognize Them by Tracy Tolkien and Henrietta Wilkinson

Costume Jewelry by Judith Miller

Fabulous Fakes: A Passion for Vintage Costume Jewelry by Carole Tanenbaum

Gold & Platinum Jewelry Buying Guide: How to Judge, Buy, Test & Care for It by Renee Newman.

Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, 1868-1930 by Larry Frank

Investing in Antique Jewelry by Richard Falkiner

Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide: How to Buy Diamonds, Pearls, Precious, and Other Popular Gems with Confidence and Knowledge by Antoinette L. Matlins and A.C. Bonanno

Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay

The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide by Antoinette L. Matlins

Warman's Jewelry: Encyclopedia of Antiques and Collectibles