What is Vintage Jewelry, Anyway?

When it comes to buying old things, such as jewelry, the terminology can be a bit confusing.  “Old” is a word that rarely gets used, as it doesn’t really convey anything positive.  Instead of seeing “old” or “used,” you might see “vintage,” or “estate,” or “antique.”

These things are somewhat vague, and they’re often used interchangeably.   What do they mean?  What do they mean for you, if you’re trying to buy an older piece of jewelry?  The differences in the terms are sometimes meaningful, sometimes not, and sometimes used just to justify charging a higher price.

antique necklaceAntique jewelry should, in an ideal world, refer to a piece that is at least 100 years old.  Often, that’s the case, but the term is often used casually to describe pieces that are much newer than that, including pieces from the Depression, for example.  Of course, it’s often hard to date such things precisely, but as a rule (and legally,) the word “antique” should be used to describe something that is at least a century old.

Estate jewelry is a name that sounds fancier than it really is.  Technically, I suppose, it refers to pieces that came from someone’s estate after they’d passed away.  A lot of jewelry that turns up on the market, especially of the antique variety, does meet that description.  But often, “estate jewelry” is used as a euphemism for “second hand jewelry,” which just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Adding “estate” to a description just gives the piece a little extra je ne sais quoi when the seller is trying to get a few more dollars for it.  The problem with using “estate” to describe a piece is that it really says nothing about its age, but rather describes where it came from.  It could be describing something 150 years old, or something that someone purchased new last year.

Period jewelry is a bit more precise than “estate,” as it’s going to describe a certain portion of the past from which the piece may have originated.  It may describe the Roaring 20s, or the Depression, or World War II, or mid-century, which encompassed the 1950s and 1960s.  A “period” piece is likely not also an “antique” piece.  Period just gives you a rough idea as to when a piece was made.

antique ringVintage jewelry is another somewhat vague term.  What, exactly, does “vintage” mean?  It means “not new,” but beyond that, it’s sort of hard to tell.   Sometimes, it may mean “at least 20 years old.”  Other times, it may mean “at least 50 years old.”  That, unfortunately, is up to the discretion of the seller, as the term “vintage” isn’t really defined anywhere.   Today, at least, it likely doesn’t describe something that was made in the 1980s or 1990s.

Most of the time, people are interested in buying jewelry that they like and that they can afford.  Attaching terms such as “antique,” “period,” “estate,” or “vintage” to it is usually done to help facilitate a sale.  It’s not going to help you decide if you can afford it, and it’s not likely to help you decide if you like it.

Still, the terms are occasionally helpful in giving you some idea as to where and when the piece originated.  Just keep in mind that none of these terms (aside from “antique”) are official.  Beyond that, just find something you like!