As seen on BBC TV's 'Great Antiques Hunt'
Winner, 1996

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A few types of jewelry are so closely associated with particular eras that you hardly have to think about it, beyond checking fabrication details to confirm they're *right* for the period and seeking signs of wear to ensure they aren't reproductions.  For instance, genuine lavaliere necklaces that finish with baroque pearl drops originated circa 1890-1910; earrings with (original) screw-on backs can't be older than Edwardian; and dress clips, 9 chances out of 10, will date between the 1920s and 1940s, when they were most popular.  Materials can provide a similarly solid framework for dating. You won't see a stamped setting or chain segment older than around 1835, when the process was introduced, or cultured pearls older than 1912, when they were developed, and you'll see the little dots of black pitch by which paste stones were mounted, if you're looking at a rhinestone-type piece from the 18th century.

In most cases, though, a great deal more investigation is involved -- and it takes a 10X loupe or at least a good magnifying glass to get started.  If you haven't done much of this before, it's a good idea to examine several jewels that have already been evaluated for date and quality by someone whose judgment you trust.  Begin at home, assuming your collection encompasses various periods and both fine and costume jewels.  To branch out, take your magnifying equipment and visit a local shop or two.   Most dealers will be more than happy to help you, and nothing beats Handling the Goods to get a proper feel for them.

Start by searching each piece closely for markings and make careful note of them (before you forget and must keep looking over and over, which gets to be a bore.  Next hunt for signs of wear on high points and edges, determine whether a metal of a different color lies beneath the surface and generally study the construction (how stones are set, for example, and whether there's evidence of hand-craftsmanship vs stamping or casting). 

The real fun begins when you turn the piece over, because you can learn an enormous amount from findings (called fittings, if they're custom-made for the jewel); often you can discover more from the back than the front.  It's crucial to determine whether clasps, hinges, wires and so forth are original.  Are they of same material?  Do they show at least as much wear?  Is there clear evidence of replacement (blobs of solder or a soldering pad, obvious regilding, etc.)?  It's pretty hard to disguise a change of clasp or hinge on a brooch, and you can generally tell a pinstem has been shortened if it's slightly ragged, blunt or bent at the "pointy" end.  Necklaces and bracelets can be harder to judge, unless the catch is of a different color (and not simply worn through in places).

Whether you find the fittings are original or not, the next thing you need to know is when they were made. Fortunately there are a lot of great clues.

Let's begin with a matter of complexity:  dating brooches.  They (and earrings) are the most frequent victims of Finding-Tinkering.  It was all in a good cause -- making them more secure and comfortable in use -- but the result has been, in most people's minds, mass confusion.

Dating Brooches

If you're looking at a pinstem long enough to stick you when the brooch is worn, extending beyond the jewel's edges, congratulations.  You're looking at a piece of antique jewelry.

If you're looking at a pinstem that appears to have been snipped, you're probably looking at a piece of antique jewelry.

If you're looking at a pinstem that's of modern length and apparently *hasn't* been snipped, the piece can't be older than the 1920s -- unless there are other indications of age and the pinstem has been replaced completely.


If you're looking at a hinge that's familiar from all your modern jewelry and is original, that doesn't mean a lot, actually.  Hinges of this type have been in use since the 1890s, so you'll have to rely on other clues to get a more precise dating than 1890s to now.

If you're looking at such a hinge and it isn't original, congratulations; the jewel is at least somewhat older than the 1890s.

If you're looking at a T-shaped hinge, likewise you know the piece is older than the 1890s (unless the jewel was hugely expensive and could be forged).  And yet a fully hallmarked Edwardian exception to that rule is here:

For further examples of what this type of clasp looks like, check these out:

The brooches at the last two URLs unquestionably date to 1886 and 1830, respectively.   Take note of their clasps while you're there; both are the good old-fashioned "open C" type -- and, whenever you see these two elements in combination, you've hit Pay Dirt.  The piece can't be younger than the 1890s and may be centuries older.  You will absolutely find that its pinstem is elongated, unless it's been snipped or replaced (rather commonplace, since those extra-long pins can *hurt*).

Working from oldest to newest, the open C clasp has been around for a lonnnnng time.  However, it's still used occasionally (these days usually on inexpensive jewelry).  Evaluating it in concert with the hinge and pinstem is essential. Assuming the hinge is a T, as you've seen above, the jewel can't be younger than 1890s and may  be a great deal older.  If the hinge is modern (and original), dating is somewhere between 1890s and now.

If you see a "safety pin" type clasp, the jewel could conceivably be as old as its invention (mid-19th c., but general use of this clasp in jewelry wasn't made until the 1880s, continuing in the 1890s as the form of a small extra pin on a chain).  If you're sure it's original, you can be confident the jewel is Late Victorian.  Take a bow.

If it isn't original, you know when it was added to an older jewel.

If you aren't sure what this type of clasp looks like, an original is here:  (sorry for the glare) ... and a later addition is here:

If you see a C-shaped clasp that seems to have two extra prongs functioning as a safety, this is the earliest type of safety clasp, used between the 1890s and about 1910.  If you're sure  it's original, you've achieved tight circa dating already.  *crashing applause*   Its scale and design will easily indicate whether the jewel should be termed Victorian, Edwardian or the era-spanning Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts.

If it isn't original, you know when it was added to an older jewel. Look further for signs of a snipped pinstem; it should be extra-long or snipped.  If you aren't sure what this type of clasp looks like, you'll find an example here:

If you see a C-shaped clasp with a straight top latch and are sure it's original, the jewel could be as early as the late 1890s (if European; as early as Edwardian (if American); or as late as the 1920s.  If you're sure it's original, its scale and design will easily indicate whether the jewel should be termed Victorian, Edwardian, the era-spanning Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts or, if it has elements of Art Deco, transitional or Early Deco..

If it isn't original, you know it was added in this time period to an older jewel.  Look further at style and for signs of a snipped pinstem, to rule out Deco.  If you aren't sure what this type of clasp looks like, you'll find an example here (of one added later, when the pinstem got snipped):

If you see a tube or "trombone" closure and are sure it's original, the jewel could be as early as the late 19th century or as recent as the 1940s, since these continued in occasional European use until then.

If it isn't original, same deal as above.  If you aren't sure what this type of clasp looks like, you'll find an example here:

If you see the "modern" safety clasp in widespread use today and are sure it's original, the piece could date from the 1920s, when this form of clasp became the standard.  The piece can't be any older than the finding, but you'll need further clues to date the jewel more precisely than 1920s to now.  

If you see one of these and it isn't original, you know the piece is at least somewhat older -- and *many* are; people added them like crazy to their heirlooms, for the simple reason that they work so well. An example of an old one with a T hinge, but a modern safety clasp is here:

If you see some sort of *really weird* safety mechanism, perhaps even challenging to operate, chances are it dates from the 1930s, when an amazing amount of clasp experimentation went on.  If you're sure this is original, you have great "circa" dating to the Late Deco/Early Retro era.

If it isn't original, of course the piece is at least somewhat older.
If you see a little ring on the back that fastens to nothing, it once fastened to a chain.  This is marvelous; it reliably dates the jewel to before safety clasps existed.  The lost chain connected to a stickpin or safety pin.  If it's still connected, you have *really* hit Pay Dirt.  Such duos are rare.
If you see a hook on the back, it was once used to suspend a watch, another jewel or chatelaine items.  If the dangling bits are still around, you're in clover. Almost none survive in this condition.
Assuming you've established reliably that your brooch is at least 19th century, you want to look very hard at its fabrication.  The more "architectural" this is -- in other words, built up in layers, the older the jewel is.  A couple of useful examples are here:
I don't want to strain your patience, so we'll wait to discuss dating other types of jewelry until next time.  In the meantime, you might want to enrich your knowledge of brooch styles by visiting local shops and cruising brooch departments online.  Ours are found here:
There are many wonderful online resources for interpreting the markings on your jewelry, too.  I recommend these two for a start.  Obviously if a mark has been in use only since "x" date, your jewel can't be any older.  
And a fabulous little book called "How to be a Jewelry Detective" by C. J. Bell belongs in any serious collector's library.



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