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Essential Guide to Antique Jewellery

  • By Julia Littlewood
  • Published 03/13/2012

The term ‘antique jewellery’ (also known as ‘vintage jewellery) is generally regarded as having been created at least 100 years ago. This includes jewellery pieces from the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods.

These days, the vintage industry has become very trendy, and jewellery of this kind is much sought after for its exquisite craftsmanship and history.

The following guide will give you an interesting look into the ins and out of antique jewellery to help you make an informed choice when shopping around.

Periods of Antique Jewellery

Antique jewellery comes set in a variety of different metals and in a vast range of rings, brooches, necklaces, pendants, cameo’s, and more. These are the most important eras that qualify as vintage:

  • Georgian jewellery (1714-1837)
  • Early Victorian – romantic jewellery (1837-1855)
  • Mid-Victorian – grand jewellery (1856-1880)
  • Late Victorian – aesthetic jewellery (1885-1900)
  • Arts and crafts jewellery (1894-1923)
  • Art Nouveau jewellery (1895-1915)
  • Edwardian jewellery (1901-1915)
  • Art Deco jewellery (1915-1935)
  • Retro jewellery (1945-1960).

Now let’s explore two of the more unusual styles of antique jewellery.

Cameo Jewellery

Popular in the 19th and early 20th century, a cameo is a carved piece of jewellery, usually in the form of a brooch or pin, which generally depicted a portrait of a woman. In the early days, this type of brooch was attached to ribbons which could be worn around the neck or pinned to the garment. The more modern cameo brooches that came later had pins fitted to the back of the brooch for attaching to clothing.

Techniques for Making Cameo Jewellery

A cameo carving is designed in relief with two colours. The background of the carving is usually dark, with the foreground figure in a lighter colour. Bleach or dye was used to enhance this contrast. Another method for designing cameo’s entailed using two different layers of glass or stone, which when glued together formed a seamless image which was then fashioned into a cameo brooch.

Caring for Your Cameo

To keep it in tip top condition, a cameo needs to be cared for whether it is being worn or stored. Shell cameo’s are the most fragile as they can become cracked and discoloured from age and the elements, whereas the hard stone cameos tend to be more durable.

For general care, gently scrub the cameo with a soft toothbrush using a very mild soap mixed in a water solution, then rinse the item immediately and pat it completely dry with a paper towel.

For extra care, rub your cameo with Wint-o-Green (used by professional jewellery cleaners) or mineral oil, making sure you treat both sides. Allow the item to sit overnight to be sure it is thoroughly moisturised and then wipe off any excess. It’s best to do this method twice a year – moisturizing the cameo regularly will ensure it retains its beauty through the years.

Finally, make sure to store your cameo in a clean, dry place when you’re not wearing it.

Antique Jet Jewellery

Jet is a black mineral originating from a tree oddly called the ‘Monkey Puzzle’ which was formed millions of years ago. As the name implies, it is a dark stone similar in colour to coal that can be polished and cut to form a dazzling black stone. Jet also has the added advantage of being light-weight, making it comfortable to wear in all its forms – lockets, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, pendants, brooches and beads.

This lustrous mineral is found throughout the North York Moors in England and was used to fashion exquisite jewellery and ornaments during the antique era. Whitby was one of the most famous of the jet jewellery designers and made some superb pieces in the 19th century when Queen Victoria made jet jewellery highly fashionable after the death of her husband Albert. Jet jewellery typifies the Victorian period and is often known as mourning jewellery because of its black colour.

It must be noted that there are many jet imitations on the market but these are not as valuable as true jet. Imitations to look out for are French jet which is actually black glass and much colder to the touch than Whitby jet. Vulcanite, gut percha and bog oak are other imitations, although they are not as shiny as the true jet and can be slightly brownish in colour

Caring for Your Jet Jewellery

Wipe the jet with a damp cloth using a mild detergent solution. Once done, thoroughly rinse off the detergent with clean water and then pat the item completely dry with a soft cloth. When storing jet, make sure it is dry and ideally wrap each piece in tissue paper to prevent it from getting chipped by other jewellery.

If you have a jet necklace that is very old, it might be wise to have it restrung as the thread might have deteriorated over time and will be prone to breaking – if this happens suddenly in public you will risk losing your beautiful jet beads.


As we have seen, there is a huge range of antique jewellery to choose from, and each era has distinctive and exquisitely wrought styles. Apart from hunting items down at markets and specialist vintage outlets, these days you can also conveniently browse your many options online.

About the Author: Julia Littlewood is a stylist and jewellery designer.



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