The Informed Buyers' Guide to Antique Jewels
Jewelers of a century and more ago shared many of the same concerns when practicing their art as top modern jewelers. In addition to innate ability, apprentices had to excel in a rigorous course of training – lasting anywhere from seven to 13 years – to acquire the skills to work as a bench jeweler. Standards were high – more than one French master is said to have hammered elaborate pieces flat when they considered their workshop’s pieces substandard. The delicate sense of hand manufacture is always conveyed by a great piece of old jewelry, and - more often than not -these jewels are imbued with artistic design and significance.
This guide explores the techniques and key pieces that can help establish a fantastic antique jewelry collection, in a surprisingly accessible way.
Dainty Little Antique Rings: Rich with Charm and Meaning
Dainty bejeweled rings, including a three stone old mine-diamond ring, on the fingers of Madame Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, by Ingres, 1826. Source: Jewelry in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World, Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, p.268.
Handmade antique rings often express an emotional meaning in a language consistent across cultures over centuries. From the Roman snake rings of Antiquity to the Gimmel (or twinned) rings and house-form Jewish wedding rings of the Middle Ages, these jewels have traditionally conveyed pledges of love, loyalty and commitment. In the 19th century, variations of these sentimental themes proliferated, inspired with wit, charm, and novelty. When Queen Victoria married Albert, the Prince’s gift of a snake ring, modeled on the ancient Roman wedding ring, sparked a national passion for serpent bands that endured for the entire century. Typically these snakes with gem-set heads reflected eternity through their cleverly intertwined bodies, which left no visible ends.
Another beloved style of the 19th century were “three stone” rings set with diamonds or colored stones. Their association with the three virtues of faith, hope and love as the foundation of family relationships, and their message of commitment - past, present, and future- continue to resonate in our time, making this form one of the most enduring symbols of love and romance. Some men and women, innovating subtle variations to convey a different unspoken message, wore these three stones rings on their left pinky fingers, signaling an opposite commitment - to remaining single. Endlessly witty and creative, these jewelers played with a variety of potent, universal symbols, among them buckled straps highlighted by little gems. Referring to the chivalric order of the garter, to firm commitment, and to ties that bind, these graphic little jewels play with the everyday and the utilitarian, transformed into the spiritual and romantic.
Old Mine-cut Diamond Jewels: The Distinct Difference of Fire and Scintillation
Like antique jewelry, diamonds too were cut by hand with different goals in mind from those cut today. In contrast to today’s focus on uniformity and white brilliance, 19th century cutters were responsive to the uniqueness of every stone. They sought to balance the diamond’s capacity to reflect and transmit white light with its power to create rainbow flashes, enhancing the so-called scintillation - the white and colored sparkles produced by the diamond in motion at the hand, neck or face. These diamonds are always magical, whether in broad day or candlelight. Forms such as these ultraflexible and light silver-topped gold earpendants, with their dark patina, throw white and rainbow sparkles around the face. Rivière necklaces formed of lines of graduating diamonds, sometimes enhanced by oxidized silver or dark enamels, call attention to the face, neckline and shoulders. On the hand, old-cut stones embedded in a soft, heavy gold band - the so-called “gypsy-setting” - beautify the hand with their lively, rainbow flashes.
Treasured for their universal meaning and timeless design, these select jewels are relics of ancient traditions of artistic handiwork. All the more precious since these arts are no longer practiced, they are messages of love and beauty from the past.
Victorian Breakthrough Technology: Bloomed Gold
Portrait of Grace Rose, by Frederick Sandys, 1866. Wearing "Colored Gold” or “Bloomed” Jewelry. Source: Jewelry in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World, Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, p.184.
Always with an eye on French style and the archaeological discoveries in Italy, English jewelers made their own breakthroughs in the surface treatment of gold. “Bloomed” or “coloured” gold resembled the matte, glowing surfaces of Etruscan and Hellenistic treasures unearthed by early digs. In response to the beauty of these ancient jewels, English goldsmiths invented “coloring” or ”blooming” – a technique at which they became so adept that the French sent jewelry spies to learn their recipes. After manufacture, the goldwork was submerged in boiling water infused with a particular mixture of acid, salt and saltpeter. The dipping removed the base metal alloys at the surface, leaving a high karat layer and a glowing “bloomed” or “coloured” exterior that has a velvety texture. The soft, matte glow of bloomed gold, enhanced by candlelight, removed shiny reflections, heightening focus on stylized forms and symbolism. Whether a locket enhanced with a lustrous pearl symbol of eternity, or voluminous but light ear pendants imbued with movement and energy, or an exotic and imaginative Etruscan Revival cloak pin modeled on an ancient fibula at the Louvre, bloomed surfaces magnify the jewel’s form and significance.
Versatile Antique Gold Chains: Ranging from Late Georgian “Knitwork” to Victorian Industry
A Knitted Hellenistic gold chain, The British Museum
The time-intensive and skillful weaving of chains from handmade gold wire dates from Hellenistic times. In the Georgian era and beyond, the fascination with long, light confections of flexible wrought gold returned, taking new and inventive forms. Featherlight, voluminous chains of drawn wire, artfully “knitted” together by skilled artisans are among the most prized forms of jewelry of the era. Complex, and supremely flexible these expertly engineered “longchains” can be worn straight, pinned in swags, or doubled at different lengths, blending seamlessly with modern dress. Soft and light, these rare late Georgian forms can serve as a staple of a glamorous modern jewelry wardrobe.
Within a few decades of the end of the Georgian period, the Victorian sensibility had been transformed by technology, as the novelty and wonder of steam engine power made itself felt in every aspect of life. As in the arts of 1930s, Victorian jewelers expressed their fascination for mechanized speed and power in their own handmade work. They celebrated geometry and mechanization in their chains that exhibit a pared-down, streamlined focus on elemental forms. This necklace of oversize circular and rounded bar links, in subtly contrasting polished rose and brushed yellow gold, expresses volume, substance and precision. At the same time, by design, this bold statement chain sits lightly and comfortably on the neck, merging with contemporary comfort and chic.
To begin your own antique jewelry collection, click to discover our exceptional assortment of jewels representing each of these key pieces.