As we discussed in our previous blog post, to understand the estate jewelry market, you have to study age and availability, in addition to styles, forms, and materials. Today, we’re taking a closer look at styles, forms, and materials.
Styles, Forms, and Materials
Jewelry from different time periods differs in artistic style and technical details. (You’ll learn more about this in the next section.) But – just like jewelry that’s being made today – there’s variety in every era. And if you view the field of estate jewelry as a whole, the range of beauty and creativity is truly amazing.
The proportion of women’s pieces compared to men’s is about the same for estate jewelry as it is for new – that is, women’s jewelry is far more plentiful than men’s. The same basic forms are also available and in demand. Rings, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets are always popular, while pins and other forms go in and out of favor.
The materials of estate and new jewelry are much the same too. Many estate pieces are made of karat gold, and diamonds are the gems you’ll see most often. But there are also differences worth noting, and you can find examples in every type of jewelry material – metals, diamonds, pearls, and colored gemstones.
One obvious way new jewelry differs from estate jewelry is in the growing use of alternative metals like titanium, steel and tungsten since the 1990s. But significant contrasts also exist with silver, platinum, and white gold.
For centuries, silver was the only white precious metal, and in older antique jewelry, it provides a setting for gems of all kinds. During much of the last 100 years, however, silver was largely relegated to inexpensive “fashion” or “costume” status.
Platinum became a commercial jewelry metal around 1890, and its popularity soared through the first few decades of the 1900s. The US government declared it a strategic metal during World War II (1939-1945), and removed it from the consumer market. Even after the war ended, platinum remained a rarity in jewelry for several decades, especially in the US.
White gold was developed around 1920, to serve as a more affordable alternative to platinum. In the 1940s, it became the only white metal used in mid-range jewelry. (Better stores began using palladium, another platinum group metal). During the same period, it grew to be a favorite for bridal designs, and it has kept that status ever since. Today, all three of these metals are used in jewelry. Because they are “time-specific,” however, they can serve as clues to the period in which an estate piece was made. For example, if an engagement ring is white gold, you can be reasonably sure that it wasn’t produced before 1920. And if it’s platinum, likely dates range from about 1900 to 1940, or after 1990.
Before 1900, many diamonds were cut into the styles now known as the old European cut and old mine cut. This was due to the relatively primitive technology that was available at the time.
Both styles have facet patterns that resemble the modern round brilliant, but their proportions are different, giving them a different look, and impacting their optical performance. Compared to today’s diamonds, old European and old mine cuts typically appear “lumpy.” They’re often less brilliant, but show more fire.
After cutting technology changed, the modern brilliant quickly evolved into its current form. However, many diamonds cut this way had proportion variations that hurt their beauty or durability. This problem took decades to resolve, and ultimately led to the development of today’s diamond cut grading systems.
In estate jewelry, you’ll see both natural and cultured pearls. The age of the piece often determines which of these it will be.
Production of natural saltwater pearls began to drop in the early 1900s, and almost completely stopped after World War II. As a result, natural saltwater pearls appear only in older jewelry. Necklaces of natural pearls are extremely rare, and most often sell at auction, where they can fetch astronomical prices. But you might see estate pieces with sizable pearls used singly, in pairs, or small groups. You’ll also encounter small natural pearls – known as seed pearls – in older estate jewelry.
Japanese researchers first produced modern cultured pearls around 1900, but the new product didn’t make much of a commercial impact until the 1920s. By the 1950s, akoya cultured pearls were tremendously popular. South Sea, Tahitian, and freshwater cultured pearls followed in later decades.
Although colored gemstones appear in estate jewelry from all periods, they’ve generally become more varied and high profile over the last 50 years.
It’s true that some species and varieties are less available or significant today than they were in the past. A good example is pyrope, a deep red garnet that was popular in the 1800s. A once- important source is located in present-day Czech Republic, and production is now very low.
On the other hand, tanzanite, tsavorite, Paraiba tourmaline and a long list of other new gems – plus a whole host of treatments – have all been discovered or developed since the 1960s. This is why most experts would say that the array of colored gemstones in contemporary jewelry is greater than at any other time in history.
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