by Ann L. Koski, Director, Wisconsin Historical Museum
Whenever I give a presentation on antique and costume jewelry, it's often followed by a session on identifying pieces from the audience. Usually the first question I am asked is, "What is this thing anyway?" This is closely followed by questions about age, value and proper care of the piece. This short article is to help you begin to answer some of these questions.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is the difference between antique and costume jewelry. Most scholars tend to define the word "antique" as something a certain number of years old. To be entered onto the National Register of Historic Places, for example, a building must be at least fifty years old. Most jewelry book authors tend to consider anything dating before the 1930s as antique.
Costume jewelry is usually defined as beginning in the 1930s, although this is a bit misleading. It is true that cheap, disposable jewelry meant to be worn with specific outfits or costumes began to appear in great quantities in the 1930s. This type of jewelry, called "costume," was not meant to be handed down through the generations. Rather, it was presumed to be fashionable only for a short period of time, and then the wearer would purchase new, matching jewelry when she bought a new outfit. The now-outdated pieces would languish in the back of jewelry boxes or be given to young girls to play dress-up.
This is not to say that cheap jewelry did not exist prior to the 1930s. Paste or glass jewelry was made as early as the 1700s, but was done for the rich who wanted their fine jewelry duplicated for a variety of reasons. In the mid-1800s, with the growth of the middle class, three different levels of jewelry were manufactured using fine, semi-precious and base materials. Fine jewelry of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires continued to be made, as it had been for centuries and still is today. For the middle and upper middle class, jewelry from rolled gold (a thin sheet of gold attached to another metal), and semi-precious gems (garnets, amethysts, turquoise, coral, pearls, etc.) was readily available. But there was also jewelry for those with smaller budgets. Glass stones and base metals made to look like gold were used for jewelry that imitated its more expensive counterparts. In all three cases, the jewelry was meant to last and be handed down to successive generations. It was not to be casually tossed aside when new clothing fashions came into vogue.
So how does one identify what pieces are and when they were made? Most jewelry is easily identifiable as to its function-something is clearly a necklace or a bracelet or a pair of earrings. But, throughout the years, specialty forms have sprung up that are not as familiar and were only worn for a specific period of time. A good example is dress clips, which were first made in the 1930s and went out of fashion by the 1950s. Dress clips are made with a particular type of hinged clasp on the back. Therefore, identifying and dating a dress clip is fairly easy. For other specialty forms, research will often be necessary to find out what the piece is, what it was used for and how it was worn. Fortunately, in the past seven years, numerous jewelry reference books have been published to assist with such research.
Other clues involve the style of the piece. Just as with architecture or clothing, jewelry has reflected certain popular styles, designs, colors and stones over the years. In the period from 1910 to 1930, for instance, white was the favored color for metal. Jewelry made during this time is often set in platinum, white gold, silver or a base metal colored to look like silver. During World War II, gold was popular again but in short supply, since it was vital to the war effort. What gold was available was made into very thin sheets and usually bonded to silver (called vermeil) before being turned into jewelry. The fine rhinestones that had been used so prolifically in the 1930s came from Europe, and thus were also not available to the Americans during the 1940s. As a result, many of the pieces from this period tend to feature lots of metal and a single stone or a small cluster of tiny rhinestones. Such facts can be gleaned through reference books and online sources, followed by going to museums and antique malls to look at various pieces.
Another major indicator about a piece, especially its age and its value, is its back. When looking at brooches, earrings and necklaces, after quickly looking at the front to get an idea of the piece's style, I always examine the back. If a piece is marked, its back is where to find a signature or hallmark. However, most (but not all) costume jewelers did not start signing their pieces until the 1950s. Besides maker's marks, a back may be stamped with numbers ("925" indicates sterling silver, for example), hallmarks or the country of manufacture. Clues to the age of brooches can be found by examining the clasp, the hinge and the pin shaft itself. For example, a tube hinge is older than the ball hinge. The C clasp is older than a safety clasp. And if the pin shaft extends out beyond the edge of the brooch, it is an indication of a mid-1800s piece. The back of a piece is also where most modifications take place. The most common is to have a C clasp replaced with a safety clasp. Such modifications can reduce the value of a piece by fifty percent or more.
Interestingly, when I am asked to appraise a piece of jewelry, I am not able to do so. The IRS considers museum professionals to be "interested parties," and as such, we are not allowed to appraise. One way I suggest that people find out the value of their pieces is to look at recent books that do give values for jewelry; there are many currently in print. Another easy way is to go online and see what prices similar forms of jewelry are bringing. Finally, a person can have a certified appraiser give them an evaluation. For insurance purposes, it is especially important to have this evaluation in writing.
Jewelry is fun to collect. It is pretty, comes in an infinite variety of forms and colors, and carries with it incredible history. The history of jewelry is not only a history of design, style, fashion and technology, but also of hopes and dreams.
Recommended further reading:
How to be a Jewelry Detective
by C. Jeanenne Bell
ISBN # 0-9703378-0-9
Warman's Antique Jewelry Field Guide
by C. Jeanenne Bell
ISBN # 0-87349-527-6
by Judith Miller
ISBN # 0-7894-9642-9
Handbook of Fine Jewelry
by Nancy N. Schiffer