Recognizing Jewelry Styles: From Victorian to Modern
Nostalgia plays a huge role in today's fashions. According to conventional wisdom, popular styles move in cycles as adults grow nostalgic for their childhoods, though that cycle may be shrinking. It's safe to say that most jewelry styles throughout history borrow from past trends as well, which can sometimes make jewelry identification tricky from era to era.
From Victorian styles to the modern era, you'll find that many periods borrow from past motifs, techniques, and materials. If you're interested in adding to your jewelry collection, here's a broad overview of how to tell pieces from these periods apart.
Victorian Jewelry Styles
Named for Queen Victoria of England, the Victorian era took place from 1837-1901. Before this period, fine jewelry was too expensive for anyone other than wealthy aristocrats. However, jewelry became more accessible to the middle class during this period.
Because it's over a century old, experts consider Victorian pieces to be antique jewelry.
Queen Victoria's tastes shaped many of the most popular styles.
Pieces from the Romantic Period, in which Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were in love, often have romantic motifs. Natural inspiration is common, with floral or foliage patterns. Serpents were particularly popular, as Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria an engagement ring bearing a snake.
After Prince Albert's death, Queen Victoria entered a period of mourning called the Grand Period.
Darker colors, skull and skeleton motifs, and black gemstones became more popular in her jewelry. Public styles mimicked this. During this period, craftsmen often incorporated human hair into their pieces as memorial tributes.
The Aesthetic Period was the queen's emergence from mourning. During this time, inspiration came from classical, ancient, or Renaissance art. The queen's favored designs became more whimsical, with motifs like moons, stars, dragons, and griffins.
For the first time, Victorian jewelers had more access to precious gems. Gold mining and importation made gold prices fall.
This gave designers the materials they needed to create exquisite, shimmering pieces. Filigree patterns are common from this period.
Diamonds were scarce during Queen Victoria's early reign, so many early Victorian pieces use other precious stones instead. Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds were especially popular.
However, the 1867 discovery of diamonds in South Africa brought an influx of these bright gems. Late Victorian jewelry often includes them as an opulent touch for the wealthy.
Art Nouveau Jewelry Styles
Art Nouveau, or "new art," was an international artistic trend from 1890-1914. The "new" in its name signals that it is reacting against academic, historical, and traditional art styles. Despite its short lifespan, this vibrant style became wildly popular throughout Europe.
This style overlaps with the Late Victorian period and borrows some of its motifs.
Art Nouveau borrows from nature, and you'll find plenty of floral motifs in this jewelry style. Orchids, irises, and lilies are among the most common flowers. Animals like butterflies, dragons, and snakes are also common.
Flowing curves and whimsical flourishes are popular styles in Art Nouveau. These softer decorations contrast the more rigid lines of classical jewelry.
As Europe became better connected to the world at large, other countries' artwork began to inspire. Japanese artwork, especially idyllic countryside depictions, influenced this period's style.
Art Nouveau celebrated a wealth of materials. Many of these represented a break in tradition.
Jewelers often passed over traditional gems like diamonds in favor of other gemstones. Garnet, agate, pearls, and aquamarine were common favorites. During this period, jewelers often prioritized the design of the metal and the setting over the gemstone itself.
Experts experimented with new materials and techniques like carved or molded glass, ivory, copper, seashells, and enameling. Natural items were often preferred.
Edwardian Jewelry Styles
The Edwardian Period takes its name from King Edward of England. This period runs from around 1900 to 1915. This was a time of prosperity for England, and most classes had access to more wealth.
King Edward rejected the strict moral codes of his ancestors. He also rejected the styles of previous jewelry history.
Instead, he had a taste for luxury. The jewelry of this period reflects his preference, with public opinion following his lead.
Ancient influences are visible in many Edwardian pieces. Garlands, laurels, flowers, bows, scrolls, and wreaths are common motifs.
Ancient Roman and Greek details often give Edwardian jewelry a classical and historical feel. Napoleonic and French Baroque styles also influenced Edwardian jewelry. The overall look is often refined and elegant.
Sophistication is the common thread running through Edwardian designs. The opulent styles allow the wearer to show off their wealth and power.
Filigree is one of the most common designs in Edwardian jewelry. Craftsmen of the day experimented with detailed lace-like patterns. Platinum, a favorite of Edwardian design, had enough strength to make these intricate designs possible.
Diamonds and pearls are among the most popular gems of the era. These allowed jewelers to create unique white-on-white designs by using platinum or white gold settings. This lighter look is the epitome of Edwardian design.
Lightweight, feminine styles also became more popular. Paired with delicate settings, most pieces offered a tasteful, elegant feel. Accessories like chokers and earrings became popular during this period as well.
Art Deco Jewelry Styles
Taking place after World War I, the Art Deco era blended glamor with fun and stylish pieces. The confident, celebratory spirit of the period is reflected in many of the popular styles. During this time, more people than ever could afford fine jewelry, and jewelers were again experimenting with new technology and techniques to keep up with demand.
Art Deco jewelry begins the transition into vintage jewelry, as most collectors consider a piece to be vintage if it is between 20 and 100 years old.
The Art Deco era took inspiration from several styles. Art movements like Cubism and Fauvism play a strong role in the designs. In addition, growing access to Asian and Middle Eastern artwork shaped the tastes of the period.
Many women enjoyed showing their individuality with modern designs to match their short hair and dresses. Bright colors, geometric designs, bold features, and futuristic motifs were common. Sunburst patterns and angular lines were also popular during this time.
Jewelers from this era often took inspiration from Edwardian styles. White-on-white designs were still common in many pieces, as they sometimes featured platinum or white gold along with diamonds. At the same time, gems with bold colors were becoming popular, including sapphires, rubies, and emeralds.
In previous eras like the Art Nouveau era, gemstones often sat flush with the surface of a ring. During the Art Deco era, jewelers began experimenting with more interesting gemstone cuts and settings. This included the round brilliant cut, which created more dazzling, eye-catching gemstones.
Long pendants and elaborate earrings were popular pieces during this era. Women also wore cocktail rings, layered bracelets, and brooches as statement pieces.
Retro Jewelry Styles
The retro period of jewelry took place between 1935 and 1950. You may also hear of these pieces under different names, including "cocktail jewelry."
Despite the economic depression, this era's jewelry grew larger than life. This was the golden age of Hollywood. Glamorous movie stars wore bold, eye-catching jewelry on the big screen, and public tastes followed the glitzy looks.
Bold, whimsical designs became common in retro jewelry. The feminine motifs of past jewelry design eras also came back in full force. Bows, flowers, ribbons, and soft, curving motifs were among the most popular.
These feminine motifs became even more important as women started entering the workforce. The beautiful styles brought a feminine touch to their business attire.
Some jewelry brands, such as Tiffany & Co., also drew on the natural motifs of previous eras. Intricate designs of animals, leaves, flowers, and birds elevated the look of their pieces.
As the World War II era began, most jewelry became even more playful and whimsical. The joyful designs were a counterpoint to somber, masculine clothing styles of the day.
During this time, the average size of most pieces grew larger. Women preferred oversized necklaces, bracelets, and cocktail rings over the daintier jewelry of the past. Charm link bracelets also grew in popularity.
War made certain materials scarce. Fortunately, this scarcity drove innovation.
Platinum became rare and expensive, making gold the metal of choice during this period. Jewelers also began producing new alloys, mixing yellow, rose, and green gold.
Supplies of precious stones were limited, and popular gems of the past became too expensive for the average buyer. Many jewelers turned to semi-precious stones like citrine, topaz, and aquamarine. With the popularization of techniques developed around the turn of the century, synthetic rubies also make a bigger appearance during this period.
Jewelers also played with different setting styles. Though gems were often smaller, certain settings helped create the illusion of a larger, more brilliant stone.
Modern Jewelry Styles
Don't be fooled: the "modern" period of estate jewelry doesn't refer to today's styles. Instead, it refers to vintage jewelry from the 1950s to the 1990s. You might also hear someone refer to modern jewelry as "contemporary."
This period represents a break in convention, with even more colorful and abstract styles. You'll also find a lot of variety in this era, with public tastes evolving from decade to decade. Jewelry identification between decades becomes easier in this era as well, as some of the differences are vast.
The "atomic" art style that followed World War II became popular in jewelry as well. Many pieces featured abstract designs that represented atomic structures or colorful rays. Later, starburst motifs and geometric shapes began to reflect an interest in space exploration during the 1950s and 1960s.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, you'll find many reinterpretations of previous jewelry styles. This includes the floral, nature-inspired designs of the Art Nouveau movement.
The materials of the Art Nouveau movement became popular as well. The modern era's earthy, "flower power" sensibilities loved the inclusion of ivory and wood. Crystals like quartz and amethyst became more common as well.
A growing interest in other cultures also drove jewelry trends. Many modern pieces have a multicultural flair. Native American styles inspired the use of turquoise, bold patterns, and animal motifs.
With more women entering the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s, dramatic designs became common. Abstract motifs, larger pieces, and bold earrings were popular, though the 1990s also saw a return to more muted styles and everyday pieces.
If there's one thing you can expect to find in early modern jewelry, it's textured gold. This trend was especially popular during the 1950s. Textured gold added an eye-catching sparkle to yellow-gold jewelry and other metals.
From the 1950s onward, styles vary. The modern period saw a huge range of popular metals, from rose gold to platinum.
Favorite jewelry items of this period also vary. Bangles were popular in the 1960s, but by the 1980s, cocktail rings and chunky earrings were in style. The focus of the late modern era became self-expression, with a much wider diversity of styles to meet the needs of every woman.
Know the Jewelry Styles Throughout History
Whether you're hoping to buy vintage pieces or looking for vintage-inspired but modern designs, it helps to understand the jewelry styles throughout history. From whimsical patterns to natural motifs to bold lines, there's something for everyone! The dazzling pieces of previous decades may suit your personal jewelry style better than you'd think.
If you're hunting for your next favorite item, we're here to help. Philophrosyne offers engagement rings, statement pieces, and much more. Shop our collection or get in touch with us if you have questions!