Jewellery is precious. More than most other things that we own, it can carry stories and meaning and sentiment. Increasingly as time passes it holds history, our own or that of the person we received it from, especially if it has been passed down by family or a close friend. A fascination with history is inherently human, although to a greater or lesser extent in each of us, and jewellery is one small, but very personal, way in which we can indulge that interest. With inherited pieces this might be our own history and the personal connection we have to the previous owner or owners of the item. When you purchase pre-owned jewellery the story may be a mystery, but the intrigue is still there, and with an antique piece it can be even greater.
Who owned this item? From whom did they receive it and what significance did it hold? Occasionally this information may be known and can really increase the allure of an individual piece, but often it is our imagination that must supply the details, speculating on the possible history an item might have.
More generally, antique jewellery forms a part of our social and cultural history. To be classed as ‘antique’ an item must be at least one hundred years old. Styles and fashions change over time and jewellery designs change with them. We can often date a piece, sometimes quite precisely, by its style. Designs inspired by the classical forms of antiquity and the trend for archaeology dominated the latter nineteenth century, before giving way to more natural and even fantastical shapes with sweeping curves as the twentieth century dawned. That Art Nouveau period then itself gave way to the more geometric lines of Art Deco post-World War One. Jewellery designs reflect the ideas and preferences of the period in which they were made.
The tools and techniques with which goldsmiths and lapidaries work have also developed over the centuries and can provide additional clues as we seek to establish the story of a piece of jewellery. For instance, diamond cutters have worked hard over the last 200 years to refine and improve the way diamonds can be fashioned and these developments can be seen in the shapes and faceting patterns we see on stones. Diamonds are incredibly difficult to cut and only by developing new machinery and utilising our increased understanding of their structure have we been able to unlock their potential. Research into the specific angles and proportions that best produce brilliance and sparkle has also enabled diamond cutters to improve the results of their labour, and eventually produce what is now regarded as the ‘classic’ round brilliant cut. In the first half of the twentieth century, developments were so rapid that we can sometimes be reasonably sure of the decade in which a stone was cut simply by assessing the details of the proportions and facet placement. Old diamonds have a uniqueness and character all their own, which modern precision cut stones lack. For this reason, they can be a popular choice for those wanting something a little different.
Additionally, the use of particular metals has altered, for instance with more widespread use of platinum once technological advances meant it could be worked more easily. Yellow gold diamond-set jewellery often has a white metal setting that better suits the bright colourless appearance of the stones. Although there are always exceptions to any rule, a diamond ring having a platinum-topped setting typically implies that it is twentieth rather than nineteenth century, while a silver-topped setting indicates the opposite. As confidence in the working of platinum grew and the sleekness of monochrome designs became more popular, pieces came to be made entirely in platinum, a trend seen especially during the Art Deco period in the 1920s and 1930s.
Sometimes dating jewellery can be much more accurate and straightforward. When an item is hallmarked, it may feature a variety of marks. Always, the stamp of the assay office that performed the hallmarking will be present, as will a stamp to indicate the type and fineness of the metal. A maker’s mark (or later sponsor’s mark) is also obligatory. Other marks are optional. More common historically (and now, disappointingly, more selectively used) a date letter allows us to be very precise in putting a date to a piece. This is the date the piece was submitted for assay (potentially when it was made) and often an item might be in a jeweller’s stock for some time before selling, so it might not always tally with your own expectations, but it can be a real joy to discover that the hallmark on an inherited wedding band matches the wedding date of grandparents! If you are buying a piece, it can be extra special to establish some context for it, being able to understand where and when it was hallmarked. There are just four assay offices now (Birmingham, London, Sheffield and Edinburgh) but there were historically several others. We frequently see pieces assayed in Chester, while others such as Newcastle are far rarer to see. Unusual hallmarks can even increase the value of an antique piece! The ruby piece below has a Birmingham hallmark (the anchor symbol) and is dated 1897 (the 'X'). The crown and '18' indicate that it is 18ct gold. The zoomed in image has a Chester hallmark (the shield shape with sword and sheaves of wheat) and is dated 1899 (the 'Q'). Again, it is 18ct gold.
While antique jewellery can be both fascinating and beautiful, if you are looking for an item that you can wear regularly, care should be taken in your choice. Older pieces have typically had previous lives and may already show signs of extensive wear or previous repairs. Settings may be thin or clasps insecure, and it may be difficult or uneconomic to sympathetically repair the item. If it has been repaired before, it may not be possible to repair it again. If choosing a ring, you may also need to be mindful of the limitations of resizing; it is not always possible to alter a design to fit.
As fashions change and come around again, reproductions of antique styles become popular. There is lots of jewellery available that reflects the delicate, wire-work designs of the Edwardian period and the geometric designs of the Art Deco period (which is slowly reaching antique status as we progress this decade and the next!) An understanding of manufacturing techniques, gemstone use and the idiosyncrasies of design are sometimes required to tell reproductions from originals, so it is important to look out for them. If you just like the style though, opting for a reproduction can be a fantastic idea, since a new piece in an old design will usually be in better condition, lacking wear and more able to be worn regularly. It is just important to know what you are getting.
At PA Jewellery we love antique jewellery, but carefully curate our selection to ensure that the condition is suitable for reasonable wear. We also stock selected old diamonds remounted into sympathetically designed jewellery to offer a fantastic combination of antique beauty and modern craftsmanship, without the decades of wear that can make original pieces hard to wear. Our collections of new jewellery also feature traditional designs that evoke historical styles in brand new, unworn pieces. Additionally, should you have an old piece of jewellery that you wish to repair or restore, our on-site workshop can help with a variety of jobs, from small repairs to full re-modelling. Simply pop in for a chat!