Jewelry History

It is an innate desire to adorn oneself and jewelry, in one form or another, has existed throughout history. Whether it was the first cave people decorating themselves with feathers, or a queen wearing a crown, jewelry has meaning. It not only expresses who we are as individuals, but jewelry also chronicles history and a changing society.

Fashion, new technological developments, social etiquette and the availability of various gemstones have all impacted the styles of jewelry throughout different time periods. It is important to note that while a particular style is the look of an era, those designs didn’t just happen overnight. You will see a transition of style a few years before a new look takes hold and you will see elements of that same look as an era ends and new designs emerge. That is why transitional jewelry will not necessarily look like other pieces from the same era even though it was created during that time. We invite you to take a tour of jewelry history through the Rapaport Collection. If you would like to find out more about any of the pieces that you see, we welcome your phone call.

Here’s to all that sparkles
Amber Michelle
Chief Curator & Storyteller Rapaport Collection

ANTIQUE vs. ESTATE vs. VINTAGE

While you may sometimes hear the words estate, antique and vintage used interchangeably, they actually each have a distinct meaning. Antique means anything that is at least 100 years of age or older. Estate simply means
that a piece of jewelry has been previously owned, so it can be older or much newer. Vintage refers to any era or decade from the past 100 years.

ERAS

  • GEORGIAN 1714 to 1836

    Named for five Kings — Georges I, II, III, IV and King William of England—jewelry design of the Georgian period was influenced by historical events in France, Italy and Germany. The discovery of Pompeii led to a fascination with Greek and Roman motifs such as laurels and the Greek key. Napoleon’s adventures in Egypt made papyrus leaves and pyramids popular. Jewelry was handcrafted by artisans in 18-karat gold or silver during the Georgian era. They used intricate metalworking techniques including repoussé which is created by hammering gold from the reverse side, and cannetille, a type of filigree. Closed-back settings are prevalent in this period and diamonds were backed with silver foil to make them sparkle more brightly. Diamonds were the preferred gemstones for nighttime, with the diamond rivière necklace — a straight line of diamonds graduating in size — a particular favorite. It is a style that remains popular today. There were only four diamond cuts in the Georgian era: Rose cut, table cut, old mine cut and the briolette. Ribbons and bows, large pendant earrings and dog collars were fashion-forward choices for the Georgians. Wearing a set of matching jewelry, known as a parure, or a pair of matching bracelets was also the epitome of chic. It is very rare to find jewelry from the Georgian era.

    Portrait of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III of England, 1773.
    (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Imgaes/Getty Images)

  • VICTORIAN 1837 to 1901

    The Victorian era spanned many years and covered three basic design periods: Romantic, celebrating the love between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; the Grand Period, when jewelry was large scale, and the Aesthetic Period, when jewelry was scaled down and highly detailed. When Prince Albert became engaged to Queen Victoria, he gave her a snake ring symbolizing eternal love, pushing serpent-themed jewelry into fashion. The discovery of the Kimberley Diamond Mine in South Africa in 1867, during the Grand Period, brought diamonds more to the forefront of jewelry as a steady supply of these gems became available. An added bonus: Diamonds looked particularly good in candlelight at a formal ball. Etruscan Revival jewelry-making techniques and Egyptian motifs were important styles. Flowing bows, hands, starbursts and crescent moons were popular themes, while animals, birds and flowers were blooming everywhere.

    Queen Victoria of Great Britian, 1852. Original artist: By T.H. Maquire.
    (Photo by Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

  • EDWARDIAN 1901 to 1910

    When it came to piling on the jewelry, Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward, was an expert. She was quite the trendsetter and popularized chokers by wearing them frequently to hide a scar on her neck. The Edwardian era was known for its elegance and charm. One of the most important developments for jewelry during that time was new technology that allowed artisans to use platinum. A very strong metal, jewelers pulled the platinum into thin pieces and then formed them into intricate patterns. Innovative designers used this white metal to create jewelry with diamonds, pearls or both in settings that were delicate and lacy. The look of white on white was ethereal as well as feminine and the dainty platinum work added to the formality and romanticism of the jewelry. Bows, garlands and tassels were prominent design motifs. It is important to note that the Edwardian era was so named because of the reign of King Edward in England. The same era in France was known as the Belle Époque and in the U.S. as the Gilded Age. All three had a similar design aesthetic and began around, or before the turn-of-the-twentieth century, although dates vary slightly according to different historians. The beginning of World War I marked the end of this era.

    Queen Alexandra, and the Queen Consort of King Edward VII.
    (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

  • ART DECO 1920 to 1935

    Fashionable flappers, the introduction of faster trains, the first airplanes, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb and the Cubist art movement were all inspirations for Art Deco jewelry design. The name Art Deco came from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in Paris in 1925. The jewelry of the era was sleek, streamlined and geometric. Diamonds set in platinum were popular and the white-on-white look was punctuated with accents of color, especially from rubies, sapphires, emeralds and black onyx or black enamel. Chic women of the times wore sleeveless dresses and bobbed hair, both of which had an impact on jewelry. Bare arms needed to be adorned and bracelets were a favored item, with multiple bracelets often being worn on each arm or on top of long elbow-length gloves. Short hair meant that necks were showing and long, elaborate earrings were the perfect accessory. The flamboyant style of Art Deco ended in the late 1930s as the specter of World War II made life more austere.

    Actress Evelyn Brent
    (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

  • RETRO –1940s

    Big, bold and curvaceous characterized jewelry design of the late 1930s and 1940s. The style came into play in 1937, when the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life was held in Paris. The era was influenced by the war effort that demanded the utilization of metals for the military. Platinum was declared a strategic metal and was banned for use in jewelry, resulting in gold as the dominant metal. Gold was also in shorter supply, so it was frequently alloyed with copper to make it go further, turning it a rosy pink. Women’s fashions of the time — tightly tailored big-shouldered jackets with wide lapels — called for dramatic jewelry. Oversized brooches were a style statement of the era, fitting the proportions and softening the harder edges of the clothes. Gold link bracelets were another everyday favorite, with the tire track link — based on the tracks that tanks left behind — being especially popular. Short link necklaces were also important. Splashy, bombe-style and glamorous gemstone rings were another choice item. Flowers, ballerinas, scrolling curves, bows and ribbons were important motifs. Colored gemstones such as citrine, aquamarine and amethyst were set into large, flat highly polished surfaces. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires in bigger sizes were scarce, so smaller stones were used to create pieces. Red, white and blue gemstone combinations were a popular patriotic statement. The glamour of Hollywood and its bejeweled leading ladies led to even more interest in jewelry.

    Italian model Alida Valli, 1947.
    (Photo by Bob Landry/The LIFE picture Collection/Getty Images)

  • 1950s

    The 1950s ushered in an era of affluence and conservatism. Stylized jewels in diamonds and platinum were favored. Gold was hammered, braided, twisted or in some way textured, adding dimensionality to pieces. Fancy shape diamonds were mixed in one piece, creating a new style of jewelry. The marquise diamond was a popular fancy shape often combined with baguettes as accents. Cocktail parties were the choice event for socializing and the cocktail ring — something to show off while holding a martini — became a staple of every jewelry wardrobe. Fifties fashion was all about matching, from handbags and shoes to sweater sets. That same mind-set included sets of jewelry, all part of the well-dressed woman’s arsenal that created a very pulled together look. Shorter necklaces — torsades and worn close to the neck — were favored. Button, big dome or cascading gemstone earrings were favorites.

    Model Sarah Tom wearing Verdura brooch in Vogue 1959.
    (Photo by Henry Clarke/Conde’ Nast via Getty Images)

  • 1960s and 1970s

    The conservatism of the 1950s began to melt away during the numerous social upheavals of the 1960s. By the middle of the decade the world was mad over mod, the Beatles ruled, space travel was a reality and the psychedelic movement left its imprint everywhere. The formality of 1950s fashion gave way to a more casual and colorful bohemian style as rebellious hippies took to the streets protesting the Vietnam War and social injustice. Jewelry became large in scale and textured gold remained an important design element. Chunky chain necklaces with oversized medallions were hot. In the 1960s, influences from India permeated jewelry design as did mystical symbols and talismans. More unique stones such as tiger’s-eye and lapis lazuli began to appear, sometimes paired with diamonds. Stylized animals, birds and flowers were popular motifs. Coin jewelry along with generously layered stacks of bangles and hoop earrings created casual glamour. Cocktail rings maintained their place in fashion. Much of the same look continued into the 1970s, as the disco era took over and jewelry was as flashy as a spinning disco ball. One last note, modern is generally used to categorize jewelry through the 1960s, while anything from the 1970s and later is considered contemporary.

    Model wearing diamond and emerald jewelry by Van Cleef & Arpels, Vogue 1966. (Photo by Bert Stern/Conde’ Nast via Getty Images)