If you look up the definition of “Vintage” you will get some different results. One will say something has to be At least 50 years old and one will say 20 years old. Many will just call any old jewelry vintage even if it is “antique,” which is technically something that is one hundred years old or more.

The term ‘Vintage’ first appeared in the early 15th century, taken from the French vendage, meaning ‘grape harvest.’ Now it is used to describe items from the past, like clothing, cars, furniture, watches, and jewelry. Not quite sure how it got from harvesting grapes to meaning old things, unless it has something to do with good wine is aged.

The term has been used so much by jewelers that even Victorian jewelry, which is the period of 1835 to 1900, is listed in vintage jewelry collections. Anything as far back as 1900 would be over one hundred years old. At the time this post is written it would be 120 years old. Now think about it, if you just go back 20 years – jewelry from the year 2000 would be vintage!

The term is also used to describe something representative of a principal style of a particular period, not just any old item. Another image the term vintage evokes is an old item that has certain nostalgic value. There is also an idea that vintage pieces are of higher quality.

Costume jewelry

When we talk about vintage jewelry, in general, there are two categories. One is ‘fine’ jewelry, which is made with gold, silver and precious stones. And then there is ‘costume jewelry, which is categorized separately from fine jewelry, as it is usually made with inexpensive materials and imitation gems.

True costume jewelry became popular in the 1930s. Very often when vintage jewelry is mentioned it is costume jewelry, because a lot was made as a more affordable product during the depression. While fine jewelry will be more valuable generally, there is costume jewelry that can be worth a good amount. For the average collector, it can be an affordable choice. Costume jewelry will hold its value and remains highly collectible.

Retro jewelry

You will also hear the term ‘Retro’ used interchangeably with vintage. But actually, there is a difference between these two words. Retro is something patterned after an older style. It doesn’t necessarily have to be old or from a particular time period, but it resembles or imitates trends and tendencies of the past. This is not to be confused with the Retro Era.

Art Deco Period

For now, we will call any items from 1920 on - vintage. This would start in what is called the Art Deco Period (1920-1939). In the 1920s Art Deco made use of bold contrasting colors, stylized floral decorations, spiral motifs and precise use of curves, circles, ovals, and octagonal panels.

But in the 1930s the trend was to get rid of all unneeded ornaments. Curves became definite geometric lines, shapes were streamlined and green, red and blue were used heavily in much of the jewelry. Also, in the 1930s "white jewelry" was all the rage. Platinum, white gold, and silver were used and set with diamonds and became the focus in engagement rings. Emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, were also featured.

Some of the most popular jewelry types during the Art Deco Period include:

  • Bold cocktail rings
  • Diamond watches
  • Double-clip brooches
  • Elaborately decorated accessories
  • Long pendants and earrings
  • Multiple bangle bracelets

Retro Period 1935 - 1950

The Retro period echoed the changes that came with the beginning and end of World War II. During the war, platinum couldn’t be used for jewelry, as it was needed for the war effort. Designers began to experiment with yellow, rose, and green gold. Jewelry was eye-catching and extraordinary, but for a modest price.

These vintage jewelry styles were elaborate, big, and colorful with a distinct air of old Hollywood glamour. The name retro referred to the elements being inspired by previous periods. But unlike the Art Deco style, soft curves and feminine motifs were emphasized. With large colorful gemstones cut in oversized rectangles, it was a bigger, bolder and more exciting look than previous periods.

Some of the most popular jewelry types during the Retro Period include:

  • ​Brooches
  • ​Charm Bracelets
  • ​Covered Watches
  • ​Large, Hollowed Necklaces
  • Articulated Jewelry
  • Clip-on earrings
  • Rings

Most Collectable Vintage Jewelry

Two of the main things to look for when buying vintage jewelry is the particular designers and condition the items are in. A famous designer’s name on a piece adds a great deal of value. Some collectors just buy certain designers or designers from a certain period. A piece marked by a designer can be a great find.

Some of the most collectible vintage jewelry includes designers:

  • Alice
  • Boivin
  • Boucheron
  • Cartier
  • Coro
  • Giovanni
  • Monet
  • Suzanne Belperron
  • Triffari
  • Van Cleef & Arpels
  • Weis
  • Lisner

For vintage costume jewelry, look for designers:

  • Boucher
  • Carnegie
  • Chanel
  • Ciner
  • Coro
  • Eisenberg
  • Kramer
  • Mariam Haskall
  • Sarah Coventry
  • Trifari
  • Yves St Laurent
  • Hobe

Buying and Collecting Vintage Jewelry

Beware of sellers who offer pieces that are imitations of real vintage pieces. Brand new pieces made in an older fashion does not make the item vintage. The year it was made is what makes a piece of jewelry vintage. Trying to date and evaluate jewelry can be a tricky business, so find a reliable and reputable jeweler to buy from or sell and item to.

True Vintage Jewelry is worth collecting and the pieces were made to last, so they are just as beautiful today as they were in the past. Keep them as an heirloom to leave to your family or just as an investment. It is just plain fun hunting and discovering unusual or rare items.

If you want to start a collection or expand your own, there are tremendous selections online from many dealers. As mentioned before, just look for well known and reputable dealers. Do your research and learn how to identify clues as to the authenticity of your vintage jewels.