There are many synonyms for collectible jewelry and while a number of the terms overlap somewhat, they do mean specific things to professionals, collectors, and authorities who specialize in the field.
Understanding these jewelry terms may help you in representing jewelry appropriately when selling or educating yourself as a collector who frequently shops for collectible pieces.
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Antique, as defined by the United States Customs Service, means a piece that's at least 100 years old. This, of course, is a sliding scale, and each year more and more jewelry can be counted as antique as it reaches 100 years of age. Keep in mind, however, that many jewelry dealers and collectors stretch the term to include the 1920s and 1930s, too—in casual conversation, at least. These earrings holding old mine cut diamonds dating to the late 1800s would be considered true antiques.
This term applies to both fine and costume jewelry pieces. Antique costume jewelry is defined as jewelry not made using gold or platinum and gemstones.
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At one point, the term "estate jewelry" referenced fine high-end antique jewelry. That's not true anymore. These days estate is essentially an elegant word for "used." It can apply to anything from a 1789 ring owned by George III to a sterling silver Elsa Peretti bracelet bought from Tiffany & Co. six months ago when sold as part of estate liquidation. In the illustration here, it refers to a 10-karat gold ring set with a blue topaz dating to the 1960s which was purchased from someone liquidating an estate.
Like "antique," this term can apply to both fine and costume jewelry.
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Period jewelry is a term for fine jewelry made within the last 100 years, and it is usually most often to describe "important" pieces. For instance, pieces made by Cartier in the 1920s and '30s could be referenced as period jewelry. The Cartier “Tutti Frutti” bracelet shown here, made in 1928, is from the collection of Evelyn Lauder and it broke a world record selling for $2.1 million in 2014.
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The term "vintage" has come to mean something from a bygone era, like vintage clothing or cars. However, in terms of jewelry, it usually references costume jewelry. Some selling venues deem anything older than 20 years to be vintage. This is debatable among dealers and collectors, with some folks referencing only pieces from the 1960s and older as vintage.
The vintage category in jewelry is vast and varied ranging from old plastics like celluloid to coveted couture pieces. The quality of these items can be low to high, as can the values. The piece shown here, a desirable Christian Dior rhinestone brooch with simulated jade cabochons, would be termed as vintage regardless of the camp you're in as it dates to the 1960s.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Contemporary Collectible Jewelry
While it's not "antique" or even "vintage" yet, there are pieces of jewelry that were made within the past 20 years that are still considered to be very collectible. Some of them, like this bracelet by contemporary designer Rodrigo Otazu, was influenced by vintage costume jewelry styles. What defines contemporary collectible jewelry (in opposition to mass-marketed imports as noted below) is the fact that collectors are already adding it to jewelry collections along with their older pieces, and it's usually sold in high-end stores or boutiques, or marketed by notable artisans. Whether these are couture costume jewelry pieces by Chanel or Oscar de la Renta, or fine jewelry pieces by David Yurman and a host of others, they already have a following among collectors.
Keep in mind that some contemporary artisans and jewelry manufacturers with a collectible following do find inspiration by looking at antique and vintage jewelry. Some of these pieces are very close to copies of old pieces, in fact, while others just have elements reflecting styles of the past, such as Art Deco or Art Nouveau, for example.
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Mass Marketed Import Jewelry
This type of costume jewelry is sold across the country in places like import shops, discount stores, and bargain boutiques. Most of the pieces are made in Asia, and they are not of extremely high quality in terms of construction and components. That doesn't mean they aren't fun to own and wear, but selling in the $3 to $25 range when new, they aren't really considered desirable from a collector's standpoint right now.
It is also important to understand that some of these designs are indeed vintage-looking, meaning they were modeled after or inspired by authentic vintage pieces. Those combing thrift stores for bargains sometimes mistake these pieces for vintage. The best way to get a feel for the quality, construction, and components of these look-alikes is to visit places where new jewelry is being sold. Once you see the difference in the back construction and types of stones that are currently being used, the differences become apparent.
Will these items be collectible in the future? That is a possibility. Inexpensive jewelry made decades ago, including many Bakelite pieces, were sold inexpensively when they were new. It took quite some time for them to become valuable collectibles, however, and there are no guarantees. Other types of mass-marketed costume jewelry made during the 1950s and '60s can be a hard sell to avid collectors these days.
The exception is with some home shopping channel jewelry, which can be sold in large quantities depending on the demand for each collection. Designs by Heidi Daus, for instance, do have a collectible following even though they are made in China. The difference is that like the turtle brooch shown here, they are higher in quality and have a much higher selling price point when they are new in comparison to the pieces widely sold in import shops. For this reason, they fit better into the contemporary collectible jewelry category mentioned above.