Learn About Estate Jewelry

Most estate jewelry comes with an historical riddle: When was it made? Unless a piece is engraved with a specific date, patent number or hallmark, arriving at an exact date is impossible. Fortunately, we’re able to classify jewelry by so-called jewelry periods, which, while not absolutely precise, still give us a good idea of its date of origin.

In the sections below we’ll discuss the most common jewelry periods of the last 170 years or so and how you can identify jewelry from each period. We also encourage you to visit us in Spokane to see actual estate pieces up close. (If you like, you can even test yourself to see if you can guess the dates!) Our Certified Gemologists will be happy to tell you more about our collection and help you find estate jewelry that’s just right for you.

Victorian (1830s–early 1900s)

Victorian period jewelry parallels the reign of England’s Queen Victoria (1837-1901). A vast amount of exquisite jewelry was produced during this nearly 70 year span, and in fact Victorian jewelry still makes up most estate jewelry today.

Common to Victorian jewelry are themes of nature, history, and sentimentality, with a heavy dose of symbolism. Known for their closed lips, Victorians instead poured their emotions into their jewelry, including hair jewelry, mourning jewelry, name and message jewelry, hand jewelry, and love brooches, to name some examples.

Nature was a source of inspiration for Victorians, often in the form of flowers, lovebirds, animals, and insects. Good luck symbols were also popular, in clovers, horseshoes, hands, snakes, love knots, and crosses, among others.

The Victorian period saw a revival of interest in history, especially the Etruscan, Classical and Renaissance eras. Wealthier Victorians would often purchase antique jewelry such as cameos and mosaics on trips to Italy, and these ancient themes made their way into Victorian jewelry as well.

Typical Victorian motifs include stars, crescents, slides, tassels on pins, fleur de lis, stick pins, bracelets, lockets, and pocket watches. Victorian jewelry features diamonds, seed pearls, turquoise, agate, garnets, opals, moonstones, and coral. Jewelry made of onyx, jet, dyed horn, and glass, as well as blue zircon set in yellow gold and gold-filled jewelry, are also common. New technological innovations in jewelry manufacture included black enameling, man-made stones, and pierced earrings.

Art Nouveau (1895-1915)

Art Nouveau
Around the end of the Victorian period a number of craftspeople broke away from the then-common styles and motifs and created what is known as the Art Nouveau style.

A key characteristic of this kind of jewelry is its free-flowing depictions of nature. The flowing lines found in Art Nouveau jewelry suggest the movement, passion, and youthful vigor bubbling at the turn of the century.

Equally important is the portrayal of women. Gone are the static Greek and Roman images found in Victorian cameos. These are replaced by sensual and passionate women with cascading, untamed hair–certainly a reflection of women’s growing emancipation.

At the heart of the Art Nouveau movement are nature motifs, including flowers just budding or in decay, symbolizing the energy and dynamic forces of nature. Animals, snakes and birds such as peacocks are also common subjects of Art Nouveau jewelry.

An important jewelry manufacturing method in this period was the use of colored enamel, coupled with new techniques for applying enamel. Jewelry makers also turned increasingly to semi-precious materials such as opal, moonstone, amber, pearls, and non-precious materials such as horn.

Edwardian (1890-1920)

Queen Victoria’s son finally ascended the throne as Edward VII in 1902, but Edward and his wife, Alexandra, had been influencing jewelry well before that time.

The royal couple helped inspire a shift in demand from yellow gold to white, and hastened the introduction of platinum. Edwardian motifs included garlands, bows, tassels, bar pins, tiaras, lavalieres, sautoirs, and multiple strands of seed pearls in choker length called dog collars. Many of the bar pins have a two-tone look, with a white metal top and yellow gold bottom.

Diamonds were king during this period—diamond rings, diamond bracelets, and diamond pendants, for example—and jewelry often featured large diamonds of 1-3 carats. Monochromatic looks were popular, so diamonds and pearls were often set together in white metal.

Other popular gems included amethyst and peridot, the favorite stones of Alexandra and Edward, as well as some sapphire, both natural and synthetic. Lacy, intricate filigree work, often seen on bracelets, pins and rings, is another hallmark of this era. Edwardian jewelry is very much in demand today mainly for the filigree and engraving work on white gold or platinum rings.

Art Deco (1920-1935)

Art Deco
The period between the World Wars witnessed new interest in jewelry innovation. While the Edwardians drew from the past for inspiration, the designers of the Art Deco period welcomed the clean lines of the machine age. Forms inspired either by nature or abstract sources followed geometric patterns, in marked contrast to both Edwardian and Art Nouveau jewelry.

Typically found among Art Deco period jewelry are the dress clip, with the double clip patented by Cartier in 1927, screwback and clip back earrings, circle pins, diamond and platinum link-style bracelets, sport jewelry, Egyptian-themed jewelry (King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922), and sautoirs.

Unlike the Edwardians, this period’s artists were seeking chromatic contrasts. As a result they used diamonds matched with primary color gemstones like sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. Marcasite, glass beads, and even plastics also appear in this period.

At the same time, new kinds of diamond cuts were introduced to accentuate the Art Deco interest in geometric patterns, including the emerald cut, triangle cut, trapeze cut, and marquis cut.

Retro (1935-1955)

Even before World War II, jewelry was changing, but the war hastened a shift from white gold back to yellow gold as the government needed silver and platinum for war production. Jewelers experimented with various alloys to produce rose and green gold as well.

Diamonds became a symbol of unseemly luxury at a time when the nation was putting all its resources into the war effort. As a result, semi-precious gemstones such as aquas, citrines, and amethyst grew in popularity.

The Retro look is a fusion of old and new, blending the curves of Art Nouveau with the clean, simple look of Art Deco, but in a scale not seen in either before. Big is beautiful when it comes to the jewelry of the Retro period. Retro motifs include bows, ribbons, flowers, birds, patriotic themes, clips, large floral sprays, and suites of jewelry.

Mid Century (1950–1965)

Mid Century
After World War II there was a pent up demand for jewelry with a “new look.” This “new look” took two directions: avant-garde studio artists working in sterling silver explored modern/postmodern styles, while the traditional designers created extravagant displays of gems and diamonds.

Diamonds were often set alone in open, airy pieces made of platinum. They were also combined with other gemstones, then yellow gold, in various configurations: textured, florentined, rope twisted, braided wire, mesh, and piercing. Floral motifs were popular, as well as sprays for pins, animals motifs, domed cluster rings, as well as suites of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and pins.

Contemporary (1965-present)

Dodson’s also presents jewelry of today. Anything previously owned is considered estate jewelry, which means we carry current styles including white gold and platinum pieces with princess-cut diamonds, three-stone diamond jewelry, journey diamond jewelry, as well as antique-style filigree and engraved jewelry made in the modern period.