Vintage Jewelry refers to jewelry that is at least 20 years old. Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Retro are some of the most famous styles. These were created in the early 1900s. If they are 100 years older or more, they are considered antique. These early era styles inspired the design of vintage costume jewelry from the 1950s to the 1990s.
You will often hear vintage jewelry referred to as “costume jewelry.” What is the difference between “costume jewelry” and “vintage jewelry?” There is a big difference in value in most cases. Costume jewelry is very stylish but is usually not made with real gold or precious stones, so its value is considerably less.
There are 3 things that have the most influence on the value of any single piece of jewelry, vintage or modern. What it is made of, who made it, and the quality of craftsmanship.
First, to determine whether an item is cheap vintage costume jewelry or more valuable vintage jewelry, look at what it is made with. To do that you need to understand the 3 main types of jewelry and how they are made.
Vintage costume jewelry was most often plated. A base metal or a mixture of base metals such as copper, tin or zinc was electroplated with several very thin (microns) layers of gold or silver. Some may be plated on silver instead of base metals. “Vermeil” refers to gold plated over a silver base.
The base metal in older vintage costume jewelry pieces doesn’t tarnish easily through the thin layer of gold. Most manufacturers of modern costume jewelry only plate costume jewelry one time, so it is more likely to tarnish. So, if a piece is tarnished, it’s probably not real vintage, just an imitation of older styles.
The term “gold-filled” is a misnomer. Gold-filled is a process that pressure bonds a layer or layers of gold to a base metal. Unlike gold plated vintage jewelry, it won’t tarnish, rub off or turn colors. The thickness of the gold layer in gold filled vintage pieces varied depending on the maker but is significantly thicker than regular gold plating. Gold-filled pieces have more gold and are higher quality than gold-plated jewelry, so will be more valuable. Gold-filled items may have the sign “GF” after the karat number.
Solid gold jewelry has no layering or base metal core. This, of course, would be the most valuable. Add to it who made it, the craftsmanship, and additionally how vintage or antique it is, and the value can go sky-high.
Keep in mind that solid gold does not mean it is pure gold. Solid pieces are usually an alloy of gold and other metals like silver, platinum, copper, or zinc. Pure gold is too soft to wear every day. The purity of this mixture is measured in karats. As the higher the karat number the higher the gold content and price.
Gold purity scale in karats
24 K = 99.9% Pure
22 K = 91.6% Pure
18 K = 75% Pure
14 K = 58.5% Pure
12K = 50% Pure
9 K = 37.5% Pure
European jewelry will markings will be in a measure of “fineness.” 99.9% Pure in Fineness will be 999 91.6% Pure will be 916 etc.
How to tell the difference between Gold Plated, Gold Filled, and Solid Gold vintage jewelry.
One way to tell what a particular piece of jewelry is made with is to look for any markings. Intentionally hidden places and very small in size they can tell you what you are dealing with.
Gold-plated jewelry may be stamped with “GP” or you may also see GEP, which means “gold electroplated” and RGP indicating “rolled gold plate. Rolled gold plate is another variance of gold plating that has been produced by mechanically bonding a thin layer of gold to both sides of a thick base metal such as brass. RGP has a little more gold than electroplated types. Gold-filled jewelry may be marked with “GF”
There are countless different jewelry marks. Vintage and antique markings will vary considerably as standardization in modern times has increased. There are tremendous resources online to search for gold marking indications.
Knowledgeable jewelers are really the best way to find out whether your item has any value, whether it is valuable vintage jewelry or just cheap vintage or modern costume jewelry. However, doing some basic research first may save you a wasted trip to the jewelers to find out it wasn’t worth much.
Another way to ascertain the value of a piece of any type of jewelry, vintage or not, is to look for signatures. Similar to a logo, these can change over the years, but the name can tell you a lot about the value. Famous names like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Eisenburg, DeRosa, Trifari and Hobe are just a few.
Signed pieces do not necessarily indicate higher quality than unsigned pieces. Vintage jewelry can be of high quality, no matter who made it. And the designer may not have a signature, just the company that made it will be visible.
Vintage or not?
A lot of people will put the word vintage in the description of the item. if you're not careful you might miss where they say “vintage-inspired.” This just means that it is not really a vintage piece it is just made today just look like a vintage item.
One way that you can tell when looking jewelry online right away if it might be a vintage-inspired piece is the picture. If it looks like a stock photo or like it's something from a catalog, that's probably just a mass-produced piece and the seller probably has 100 of them.
So, if there are not a lot of pictures and you just see one stock photo, that's probably your first clue that this is not truly a vintage piece. Someone who is really selling a true vintage piece will take photos from different angles and show the stones and all the features.