If you’re a fan of jewelry that isn’t brand new, you’ll spend a lot of time looking for it in places where not-new jewelry shows up. That might be antique stores, flea markets, yard sales and perhaps the occasional online merchant.
When you see older items for sale, however, they’ll often be labeled in ways that can seem to be confusing. What is “antique” jewelry? What is “vintage” jewelry? What is “estate” jewelry? These are common terms that you’ll see, and I’d love to explain to you exactly what they mean so that you’ll never misunderstand or be misled ever again.
That will not happen. Not because I am incapable of explaining such things, but rather because not everyone agrees on exactly what these terms mean. Don’t misunderstand; there are some generally accepted notions of what they mean, and I will explain that. But don’t expect everyone to abide by my descriptions of what those terms should mean. People are going to label things as they see fit, and they’re usually going to label things in such a way that work to their own personal economic advantage. That’s the nature of the market.
“Antique” is generally understood to mean “at least 100 years old.” That’s mostly true, but again, there’s nothing preventing someone from presenting a mid-1930s piece of Art Deco jewelry as being “antique.” It’s not, but you’ll see that often. People who actually buy and sell antiques prefer to stick to the “100 years old” definition, but keep in mind that it’s sort of flexible. Still, anything labeled “antique” ought to be fairly old.
“Vintage” is even more vague. What, exactly, does “vintage” mean? No one really agrees. A lot of sellers will regard anything more than 20-25 years old as vintage, but at this point, do we really regard items from the late 1990s as vintage? The term is probably most often used to describe things that are more than 25 years old, but you need to watch out. Among collectors of watches, for example, the term could be used to refer to any model that is no longer in production, even if it’s just 3 or 4 years old.
If something is “vintage,” you can assume that it isn’t antique, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s very old. The best you’ll be able to assume is that it isn’t current. After that, you’re on your own.
What about “estate” jewelry? Does that mean that it’s something that was dug up after Aunt Mabel passed away? Something handed down from Grandma? Something purchased from a public auction after Mr. Rich and Famous Local Person passed away?
It could mean all of those things. Or none of them, actually. Realistically, what “estate” jewelry refers to is any piece that was previously owned and worn by someone. Really. That’s about it. “Estate” jewelry might otherwise be described as “used,” which clearly has a lot less going for it. “Used” jewelry doesn’t sound interest. “Estate” jewelry has a somewhat more glamorous sound to it.
At the end of the day, you’re still going to have to use your own judgment when it comes to buying older jewelry. As of now, there are no set rules for how people are likely to describe it.