There are 3 general classifications when it comes to determining the age of a piece of jewelry. What makes vintage jewelry vintage? What is the difference between vintage and antique jewelry? Where does estate jewelry fall on this scale? Finding a hard answer to any of these questions is somewhat difficult, but far from impossible. You'll likely find some people who will contest the ranges given here, but they shouldn't be too far off from our determination.
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Note that not all of these designations are mutually exclusive. A piece of jewelry can be correctly called any of these or even all of these at the same time without being too far off the mark. It's a messy science, but when you're looking for vintage jewelry it is extremely important to know exactly what these terms mean. Nobody likes to overpay for jewelry, especially jewelry that has a certain label that sounds far better than it is. Estate jewelry is a good example of that so we'll start there.
Any piece of jewelry that is used is considered estate jewelry. Doesn't matter if it was actually given to you from someone's estate via a will, or if you just bought it at the local pawn shop. It's all estate jewelry. Some estate jewelry can be considered old enough to qualify as vintage or even antique, but most jewelers will choose to use just one label instead of muddying the waters. Generally the term 'estate jewelry' is limited to secondhand jewelry created within the last 30 years.
Is this the least valuable of jewelry age descriptions? Well, technically yes. But that doesn't mean that it isn't worth anything. Obviously the actual value depends on the piece of jewelry itself, but regardless of the value there is no shame in rocking estate jewelry. It's cost-effective, generally looks new, and almost nobody will be able to tell the difference without an extremely keen eye for detail. Most of the pieces in my collection are estate jewelry, and I wear them without fear of breakage.
Vintage jewelry is generally anything that is older than around 30 years. This means that some pieces made in the early 90s now qualify for the 'vintage jewelry' tag! Vintage jewelry isn't always valuable, because the level of mass-production at this time was absolutely massive. Inspecting each piece as an individual specimen is required to see just what you should be paying for a piece of vintage jewelry. There is some vintage stuff out there that is in bad shape or just not very well made, so be wary.
Does all vintage jewelry qualify as estate jewelry? Usually it does, unless you've had the piece in your possession for 30+ years. Even if a vintage piece qualifies as estate jewelry it will almost always be called vintage rather than estate to really drive home just how old it is. The same story goes for vintage versus antique jewelry. While a ring from the 1800s is definitely vintage, it would be unwise to not label it as an antique to really impress upon people just how old it actually is.
When we start talking about antique jewelry, we're looking at pieces that are 100 years old or more. Regardless of the state, these will surely fetch a higher price than their contemporary counterparts largely just due to the work that was required to make a piece of jewelry so long ago. Even damaged or low-quality pieces can still fetch a very nice price. When looking at antique jewelry, I love to see the slight imperfections that assure me that this was indeed made painstakingly by hand.
Manufacturers love to use the term 'antique-styled' or antique-inspired in order to pull the wool over the eyes of less savvy consumers. Watch out for anything that is 'styled' simply because that word means that it isn't vintage or antique, but instead just made to resemble something that actually is. If you see 'antique-styled' with no other indicator as to the age, I'd usually just walk away unless the price is set correctly. If you want to see some REALLY antique jewelry, check out the World's Most Famous Piece of Jewelry.
If you have a reliable jewelry dealer, hold onto them tightly. I've met a few unscrupulous jewelers in my time and luckily had enough knowledge to call them out on their shenanigans. Let's say we have a second-hand necklace up for auction. A reliable dealer will call that 200-year-old necklace an antique, with no qualifiers. You can rest assured that it is probably an antique, because if it isn't and they told you it is? That's a fast track to an easy lawsuit.
Less honest business men might offer you a necklace that looks similar and call it an 'estate necklace' just to lead you into believing that it's older than it actually is. It would behoove all jewelry purchasers to remember these terms and their order, and I can almost guarantee that you will never get duped. Take care of yourself and your jewelry, and always be wary when making a large jewelry purchase.