Women, and men have been adorning their lobes with earrings since ancient times. Most of the oldest examples, which were generally worn by royalty and the very wealthy, are held in museums today and are rarely discovered by collectors. Occasionally a pair dating as far back as the 1700s will surface during a lucky collector's antiquing adventures. Most often, however, they date somewhere between the late-Victorian era (from around 1880 to 1900) to modern reproductions of older styles.
Keep in mind when evaluating and dating earrings you believe to be antique that styles have been recycled through the decades. A pair made 10 years ago may have been inspired by Victorian jewelry, for instance, and have a very similar look. A pair may also be altered, like those converted from screw backs (popular from the late Victorian era through the early 1950s) to pierced (favored earlier in the Victorian era before they were deemed barbaric and again in modern styles made since the mid-1960s) at some point.
So, use styles as one clue to determine when a pair of old earrings may have been made, but examine the elements such as stones, metal content, construction, they type of back, and other factors before making a final conclusion. Regardless of the age, you'll be able to describe the style correctly using the examples below as a guide.
01 of 07
This type of round earring can be domed or somewhat flattened, but it will not have a dangling element. The style became popular in the 1930s and never really went out of fashion although the materials vary from decade to decade. Its name alludes to the resemblance of an actual clothing button.
Button earrings can be comprised of many materials including cabochon gemstones, Bakelite, and other plastics, or even genuine mabe' or blister pearls. Some are set in metal backings, while others have the earring finding attached to the back of the button material. Earlier examples fasten with screwbacks while those made in the 1950s and '60s usually have clip backs. Modern versions made since the mid-1960s can be found in pierced versions as well, although clips like the Chanel examples shown here are still being sold today.
02 of 07
A chandelier earring resembles the fancy form of decorative lighting sharing the same name. This style of drop earring usually has some length to it and can be quite elaborate with multiple layers of dangles or tiers. Some styles referenced as chandeliers have more a cascading appearance while others have multiple arms with a number of elements dangling from them.
They are found in antique fine jewelry made of karat gold and genuine gemstones, and also glass and plated base metals in costume jewelry (like the pair marked Hattie Carnegie shown here crafted of crystal beads, rhinestones, and gold plated base metal).
Other specific styles, like the girandole described below, are sometimes generically called chandelier earrings rather than using their more formal name.
03 of 07
Using the term "drop" in reference to an earring style is somewhat of a catch-all term since there have been many, many variations of dangle earrings that fall into this category. Unlike the "top and drop" described below, however, these usually have a dangling element attached to an ear wire, screwback, clip finding, or simple stud post without an elaborate matching top.
Antique drop earrings can be found made of everything from natural elements such as precious metals, jet, genuine gemstones, or woven hair. Vintage versions of the fashion variety can incorporate glass, varied plastics, and some natural substances such as wood.
Drop earring styles have been widely reproduced based on antique examples, so be sure to take materials, construction techniques, and signs of age into consideration when dating them.
04 of 07
The girandole (pronounced "jeer-an-dole") style of earring is characterized by three stones of any shape suspended at the bottom, with the centerpiece usually slightly lower than the other two. The rest of the earring can vary greatly, but traditionally contains a larger round stone at the top and a bow, knot, or another decorative element may attach the dangling trio of stones to the upper section.
Developed around 1700 in France (and named for the crystal-pendant candelabras of the day), the style is typical of 18th-century jewelry and underwent a renaissance during the revival of Rococo styles in everything from furniture to dress in the 1870s. This type of earring is still popular today although sometimes referenced as the more generic term "chandelier" as described above.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
The 18th century saw the rise of two very popular earring styles. One was the girandole, as shown above, and the other is the equally elegant pendeloque.
These were designed with a marquise (known as a navette when referencing rhinestones) or round top in which a bow made of complementary metal work connects a coordinating drop. The example shown here dating to the 18th century is crafted of high karat gold and rough cut diamonds that were foiled to give them more brilliance by candlelight.
"These earrings could be quite elongated in opposition to the tall coiffures popular at the time. This style was the evolutionary predecessor of the two stone earring, which features a smaller stone suspending a larger one, that has remained popular throughout history," according to Antique Jewelry University.
Most antique earrings made in this style are fine jewelry made of precious metals and genuine gemstones, but many interpretations of made with paste stones (essentially the European name for rhinestones) set in base metals with or without plating have been made since 1900 or so.
The term pendeloque is often used to reference a pear-shaped dangle today and is sometimes misused by marketers.
06 of 07
Top and Drop Earrings
This is a style of earring with two round or oval sections and the second (sometimes detachable) is immediately suspended from the first. When the bottom drop is detachable, they are often referenced as day to night earrings by jewelry sellers. Note that many earrings are referenced as "day to night," but if the bottom drop was not purposely meant to be detached this is an erroneous description.
The two parts, which may be made of any material, usually match, though the second may be larger or longer.
The style dates to the late 18th century, but became so popular during the Georgian era that the term "top and drop" was synonymous with "earring" in the early 1800s. Although originating centuries ago, the style has remained popular since then.
Originally, when earrings were suspended from hooks or wires, the top section of a top and drop earring dangled just below the earlobe; with the advent of post pierced earrings, however, the "top" of a top and drop earring often rests in the lobe itself.
07 of 07
Stud earrings gained favor in the late 1800s moving toward 1900 when fashions of the day dictated a change. Some of the same elements, especially fine gemstones such as diamonds, were still in demand to adorn ears but simpler styles were needed to work with high collars on dresses and blouses.
However, the custom of piercing ears fell out of vogue around the same time. Screw backs were more prevalent from the early 1900s through the early 1950s, and then clip earrings (first used in the early 1930s) had a mid-century surge in popularity. Most stud earrings found today date to the mid-1960s to modern day styles (and it's hard to date some of them since the basic ball style, for instance, has been made continually).
Many older gemstones have been removed from antique jewelry to fashion beautiful modern earrings in this style. Some studs have threaded posts like those shown here so that the clutch back screws into place for security. This practice came about in the Victorian-era, but the threaded post was used on fine jewelry in the decades following (and still is today) so that shouldn't be the only indicator of age when evaluating this earring style.
A special thank you goes out to contributing writer Troy Segal for her assistance with this feature on earring styles.