That has to be the number one question that buyers ask me. The answer is research. A lot of research. With most antique pieces, a specific date or year is usually not available unless the piece is signed or hallmarked or has documented provenance. However with a little knowledge, you can usually get pretty close to the age of a piece.
I try to read and study as many books and articles on antique jewelry, clothing and history that become available to me. Even studying old photographs helps in the research process. Actually seeing how pieces were worn and what they were used for is very useful information. So if you are looking for information on Victorian jewelry, for example, look at old tintypes. The U.S. Library of Congress has a vast digital collection of old photographs on their website. I could easily spend hours looking at them. Which leads to my next step. The internet.
When I first started collecting, there were no personal computers or internet. So now it is absolutely amazing to me what can be found on the internet, as far as research goes. So many fabulous sites devoted to antiques and antique jewelry. A wealth of information! Don’t forget about searching images as well as articles.
If you are interested in collecting certain types or eras of antique jewelry, there is probably no better way to learn about them than actually holding and inspecting many, many pieces of jewelry. Up close and personal. After a while, you begin to see how pieces of certain eras were made. The materials used. The construction of a piece. Certain cuts of stones. Engraving techniques. It all helps to date a piece. This does take time and attention to details, but it will help you to discern between the true antique and the freshly made item.
Remember also that vintage style or antique style does not equal antique or vintage. So don’t let certain words lead you to believe that a piece of jewelry is old just because of a descriptive word. These days the words antique, vintage, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, estate piece, (just to name a few) are being tossed around quite liberally to describe a style. Usually not meant to be deceiving, but to a new collector or buyer, it can be quite confusing. My favorite has to be “it was my grandma’s”. Not to say that someone’s grandma did not have antiques, but to many people, the word “grandma” conjures up an image of an elderly woman in a rocking chair. I can tell you that my sister is a grandma and she does not fit that image at all! So just because it belonged to “grandma” does not make it old.
If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask! I am pretty sure that most antique dealers to not bite! Most reputable dealers will happily answer your questions. And yes, even a reputable dealer can be fooled sometimes. It happens. We are human. You never stop learning in this business. It is just part of the process of becoming a reputable antiques dealer. So arm yourself with knowledge. Do some research and have some fun. You will meet some great people along the way and in no time, it may just be you answering the question of “How do you know how old that is?”.
Text written by Wicked Darling running an antique jewelry business in Georgia, United States
Click here to visit her beautiful collection of antique jewels