Jewellery described as either antique or period in style might imply that it is somehow old-fashioned - but this perception couldn't be further from the truth. James Nicholson, Dreweatts' Deputy Chairman and International Head of Jewellery, Silver and Watches department has put together an invaluable guide to demonstrate just how wearable and affordable period jewellery can be today.
The 140 lots of antique and period jewellery in our Jewellery, Silver, Watches, Objects of Vertu, Coins and Medals auction on 12 August offers a wonderful selection of pieces dating from 1800-1910. At inexpensive price points from £100-1,000 (+fees), and mostly estimated below £500, the sale offers young or new collectors the opportunity to begin collecting without breaking the bank.
With unique designs and brilliant, lively coloured stones, antique jewellery can add a certain unique sophistication to any style or occasion. From big statement yellow gold and chunky 18th and 19th century silver pieces, to the light and airy designs of the Edwardian period, all of which have stood the test of time.
Such variety in this sale offers any buyer an opportunity to engage with the current jewellery trend of “stacking” that be found in many a Jewellery Instagram feed: the art of wearing multiple necklaces, bangles, bracelets and rings of differing periods, designs and materials together, to create your own individual statement - just as Coco Channel did in the 1920s and 30s.
It is quite hard to find jewellery made before 1800, as much of it was remodelled to suit prevailing fashions. Amongst the small amount of 18th century jewellery that survives is Mourning jewellery, which is a specialised collecting area all of its own. However, many 18th century families would have ordered paste copies of their most valuable jewels made by the same jeweller. Paste jewellery (coloured glass stones, usually set into silver or non-precious gilt metal mounts), made to the same high standards as fine diamond set jewellery, does survive, making it possible to find magnificent 18th century paste set jewels for a fraction of the price of a Georgian diamond and gem jewel - such as the two silver set colourless paste pendants in Lot 154.
Garnets have always been popular stones from the earliest pieces of jewellery but they were hugely popular in the 18th century, and Georgian garnet necklaces and brooches appear from time to time at auction, such as Lot 210.
With its heavy emphasis on symbolism and sentimentalism, including forget-me-nots, flowers, hearts, lover’s knots, bows, crescent moons, stars and serpents, you can find Victorian jewellery in bold silver and gold designs, and also set with a rainbow of brightly coloured gems, or highly unusual materials such as scarab beetles (Lot 193)
Antique gem necklaces worn as a stack, as popularised by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, can make an undisputed style-statement with their bright colours.
As well as bold gold and silver collars and gem necklaces, Victorian bangles and bracelets can often offer both style and good value, with their chunky statement piece designs and bright, sweet coloured gemstones.
Victorian and early Edwardian plain gold padlock bracelets have been making a notable comeback. Often made into charm bracelets in recent decades, you can still find and buy them in different widths to stack with each other, or mix with other bracelets (say a diamond tennis bracelet) and bangles, and wear alongside your watch.
Towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1890s, newer, lighter jewellery designs came to the fore. With the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements and the emerging garland style emerging from the jewellery workshops of Paris, especially those of Cartier, a delicacy of leaves, swags and festoons became the predominant style.
Edward VII and his Danish wife Queen Alexandra, were a breath of fresh air to fashion at the close of the 19th century. Changing dress necklines brought articulated drop necklaces and pendants having movement in open work designs. Edwardian femininity, fluidity, and fineness are unmistakeable in these jewels.
Hugely popular was the half pearl jewellery associated with this period, of which there are 20 Lots of necklaces, bracelets and bangles to choose from in this sale. As natural pearls were becoming very scarce, pearls of 3.5mm or smaller were cut into two useable halves and flush mounted into gold settings. Half pearl jewellery is unmistakably Edwardian and was often set with coloured stone highlights or removable pendants.
The newly found use for platinum in jewellery meant fine, almost invisible millegrain settings could be pierced and engraved to give jewellery of this period the appearance of airy lace and embroidery.
Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau jewellery thoroughly eschewed the mass-produced jewellery from the enormously successful jewellery factories in cities such as Birmingham and reverted to an emphasis on the hand made and the master craftsman. Although the movement was enthusiastically promoted by Liberty in London, the Birmingham factories still took up Arts and Crafts designs with gusto and made mass-produced jewels inspired by the designs of the master craftsmen for a more mass market.
The condition of piece of jewellery is one of the first things to consider before buying. A thorough inspection of the front will reveal how good the setting edges and claws around the stones are and if there are any chips, nicks or scuffs to any of the stones, or any losses to enamel for example. Just as important is to inspect the back of the piece as this can tell a thousand stories. Indeed, when you take a piece to a jeweller for repair, or you see a jewellery dealer looking at pieces in an auction preview, or perhaps one of our specialists inspecting a piece of jewellery to value it, you will notice one of the first things they do is to turn the piece over and examine the back. When we inspect the back of the piece, we are looking at the history of each individual item. The back shows us any repairs or alterations that may have taken place. It also tells us if the piece is genuine as we can see how it was made, and whether it is correctly manufactured for the period, or if it is a reproduction.
When buying at auction, you should always ask for the jewellery specialist’s condition report from the auction house. The specialist who initially valued and then catalogued the item will have spent a good deal of time looking at the piece - appraising its good points and researching any marks or faults, such as damage to the mount, scratches to the stones, and any repairs or additions. Auction house specialists will be more than happy to share this information with interested customers to ensure potential buyers are fully aware of any issues a piece may have and so can bid and buy in complete confidence.
The back of a piece is also where you will find the hallmarks or assay marks that indicate the origin, the authenticity etc. Many countries have used a method of officially testing the gold in jewellery to guarantee its purity for many, many years. Each country has a distinctive set of punches which, when struck on a piece of jewellery, enable us to identify the country of manufacture, and often to help us date the piece. There are also manufacturers and retailers' marks, stamps and signatures which can give us the compete history of an individual jewel.
In the case of British hallmarks and Registry marks, these enable us to date the piece to a definite year. However, placing hallmarks on jewellery was not a full legal requirement until 1973, so you often find just a standard mark on a piece of antique British jewellery, and occasionally a maker’s mark.
Likewise, it was not always a legal requirement in many countries to assay or hallmark jewellery, and the absence of any marks does not mean the piece is neither old, nor of a certain standard of gold.
As fashions and styles in jewellery come and go, the popularity of a certain style will usually make a comeback. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, a plethora of Art Deco style diamond and gem rings appeared on the market, as did reproduction Victorian style gold earrings. Often, these were not meant to deceive, and were merely supplying the demand from buyers. There are deliberate copies of most styles of jewellery, which are intended to deceive and can easily be passed off as period jewellery, especially Belle Epoque and Edwardian diamond style jewellery that has been produced over recent years in South America.
Again, careful inspection by a specialist will reveal some of the nuances that can identify these copies. The copies are often not as well finished and polished as the original and may be set with modern cut stones that did not exist when the originals were made. They will also exhibit a lack of wear that one would expect to see on an original period piece.
Repair, Re-size and Re-polish
When one buys a piece of antique jewellery, it will have been worn and loved, so it may need some sensitive repair or restoration. Rings may need to be sized to fit, and in some cases, the shanks may have worn very thin, so the ring may need a new shank. Stones can get scuffed and scratched, and may need to be unset to be re-polished by a professional polisher to bring them back to life. Clasps on bracelets and necklaces may have worn, and may need tightening or replacing, so they remain secure.
All of these things will not detract from the value of an antique jewel, but any work should be carried out by a qualified jeweller who has a deep knowledge of antique jewellery and knows how to restore it sensitively.
As with any collecting field, learning about antique jewellery takes passion and time for any worthwhile research. There are many wonderful books about the different periods of jewellery design, which are beautifully illustrated with wonderful examples of the jewels.
The internet, including dealers, auction houses and jewellery historians' websites and posts on Instagram and many other good sites, provide rich images and information of where to begin your jewellery journey. Auction house catalogues and auction previews, now mostly all available online too, can provide detailed information about each piece, as well as opportunities to visit the auction or viewing rooms in person to inspect and handle the jewellery for yourself, and to speak at length with the auction house jewellery specialist.
You should to familiarise yourself with the feel and look of different materials and motifs of different time periods, so you can decide if you are a ‘thematic' or 'historic' collector of a certain period/maker. Remember, jewellery is meant to be worn, not to be saved and put away in a safe. When buying, you should decide if a certain piece is for occasional wear, say at a cocktail party a few times a year, or something different that you could wear every day.
What’s On Trend Now?
Social media posts, as well as magazine editorials, are a fantastic way of keeping on top of jewellery trends. These allow us to see what styles are current; what colours and types of stone are in demand; and how jewellery is being worn around the world, both by celebrities and by some of us mere mortals.
Care For Your Antique Jewellery
Jewellery is made from extremely durable materials that are resistant to chemical and physical damage, which is why gemstones and precious metals have been valued by every civilisation in history. However, jewellery, especially antique jewellery, needs care and attention not allow it to deteriorate or to get damaged so it is strongly advised that you don’t wear your jewellery to do DIY, gardening, sporting activities and housework, or wear whilst swimming. You need to protect your jewellery from sharp blows, scratches, sunlight and heat and cold, as well as chemicals that are found in chlorine, nail polish remover, hair spray and cosmetics.
You should keep your jewellery in velvet or suede pouches or individual jewellery cases, rather than letting it all roll around together in a drawer or jewellery case, where it will definitely get scratched, and quite possibly tangled and damaged.
Some stones such as opal, pearl, coral and turquoise can be quite porous, so you shouldn't leave these types of stone in any liquid for too long. Similarly, take care when using cosmetics, hair spray and other household chemicals near these stones, or they may become discoloured.
From time to time, you can give your jewellery a very gentle wash in warm water and mild detergent, such as washing-up liquid, to remove grease and other build ups that may make it tarnish or look dull. A gentle brush with an old toothbrush can work wonders, but be careful not to dislodge any of the stones in their settings. A deeper clean and polish should only be undertaken by a professional jewellery workshop.
Your pearl jewellery should be wiped from time to time with a soft lint free cloth to prevent the build-up of dirt and cosmetics dulling their lustre. Antique jewellery set with foil backed stones should never be immersed in any liquid, as this could irreparably damage the coloured foiling. The same goes for jewellery where the stones are stuck into their settings with stone cement like Edwardian half pearl jewellery, as immersing this in liquid can soften the cement and allow the half pearls to fall out.
We do hope that many new collectors will find this guide useful, and be inspired by the choice of lots in our 12 August auction to begin their collections.
AUCTION DATE & LOCATION
Wednesday 12 August | 10.30am
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Please note: There is no viewing on the morning of the sales.
With special thanks to Tilly Thorns-Hartley for modelling the jewellery in this article.
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