Aspiring jewelry collectors—or those who are simply interested in purchasing a few quality items for their own personal use—should be aware of the different terminologies dealing with pre-owned jewelry, as well as older pieces in particular. Three key terms to understand in this market are “estate,” “vintage,” and “antique.”
Here, we’ll explore the differences and similarities between these types of pieces.
The word “estate” comes pre-loaded with its own set of connotations. Terms like “estate sales” and “estate tax” tend to deal with the property or finances of deceased owners. When it comes to jewelry, however, the meaning is much broader: estate jewelry simply means any jewelry that has been owned before.
To qualify as “vintage,” a piece must have a minimum age of twenty years. Some people still only consider it to encompass pieces from the 1980s and earlier, but technically speaking, the description can be applied to any jewelry made before 1995.
According to RubyLane, the world’s largest vintage/antique marketplace, vintage jewelry should also “be somewhat representational and recognizable as belonging to the era in which it was made.” Some styles that are older than twenty years but still too young to qualify as “antique” include Art Deco (which began in the twenties and ran through World War II) and Retro (a French-American fusion style overlapping the end of Art Deco and running until about 1950).
Usually considered the most valuable type of estate jewelry, antique jewelry must be at least 100 years old. Don’t confuse this with “antique-style,” a term used to describe replicas. The majority of antique jewelry sold or traded in today originated no earlier than the Georgian period (approx 1700s to mid-1830s). Other popular antique styles include Victorian (approx 1830s-1900), La Belle Epoque (approx 1870s-1915), Art Nouveau (approx 1895-1915), and Edwardian (approx 1900-1915).
You can read more about jewelry periods and styles in this article.
Keep in mind that any or all of these terms can overlap with one another. In fact, it practically goes without saying that vintage and antique jewelry will also be estate jewelry, as they must have had at least one owner over the course of their existence. It’s also true that a piece can be vintage and antique, since anything that’s 100+ years old is, of course, also 20+ years old. However, if a piece is truly antique, most dealers will avoid labeling it as “vintage,” since the word does not fully highlight the age and value of the jewelry.
When shopping for antique, vintage, or any type of pre-owned jewelry, make sure to use reputable sellers and have a professional verify the quality, so you can be sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.