Through the Ages: A history of antique jewellery

2 June 2024, by Samuel Mee

In this week's blog, Costume Society member and founder of antique ring brand The Antique Ring Boutique Sam Mee walks us through a history of jewellery, with insights into key styles from each era.

I founded the Antique Ring Boutique in 2019 after working for six years in Liberty’s jewellery department. I was quickly drawn to rings as the most significant jewellery in history (well, apart from crowns) and because of the high quality of the gemstones and craftsmanship.

The good news for me is that antique jewellery has become ever more popular, especially among younger buyers - attracted by its history and authenticity and anxious to avoid the environmental impact of modern metal and gem mining. Here’s how to understand the difference between the eras.

Georgian era

The Georgian era lasted from 1714 to 1837, a 123-year period with the first four King Georges plus William IV. A time before many modern methods were invented, Georgian jewellery relied on hand-crafted methods and the quality was dependent on the maker’s skills. I fund buyers are drawn to Georgian because of the whimsical nature of the 18th century - the pastel colours, the wigs and the outlandish outfits.

Techniques they used included:

Repoussé: Thin sheets of gold or silver were hammered to create complex designs on bracelets, brooches, rings, and pendants.

Cannetille: Similar to filigree, cannetille involved delicate gold or silver wire twisted into intricate scrolls, coils, and spirals, often creating a lace-like appearance. It was a way to make rare gold go further.

Closed-back settings: Gems were given foil backings to enhance their brilliance and add colour to diamonds. Modern-era cuts hadn’t been invented yet.

Girandole style: Earrings often had a central gemstone surrounded by three dangling ornaments.

Silver and gold were used to create jewellery, often recycled from previous pieces - one reason Georgian jewellery is rare these days. Pinchbeck (a gold-like alloy made from copper and zinc) was used for more affordable pieces. As for gems, diamonds were used in early Georgian jewellery, and then garnets, topaz, emeralds, sapphires and amethysts became popular. Imitation paste jewels followed. Rubies and pearls were often combined. As the Georgian era evolved, old mine cuts became more common, providing a precursor to modern brilliant diamond cuts; the use of larger stones increased. There were a number of influences on designs, including Rococo and Baroque art in the early period, followed by Neoclassicism. The Gothic Revival brought back medieval imagery like arches, crosses, and tracery, often reflected in mourning jewellery.

Victorian era

Next came the Victorian era - a long period spanning the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), which is often divided into the Romantic (early, 1837-1860), Grand (mid, 1860-1885), and Aesthetic (late, 1885-1901) periods. Each period is distinct yet interconnected in style, reflecting shifts in societal norms, economic conditions, and the Queen’s personal life.

I think the Victorian era is always popular because of the meaning behind the rings - not just the gemstones and designs but even down to how acrostic rings spell out names or words like adore. These meanings changed over her 64-year reign. Marked by Queen Victoria’s early marriage and domestic bliss, Romantic-period jewellery was sentimental and personal. Lovers’ motifs like snakes, hearts, and floral symbols were prevalent, and the industrial revolution enabled mass production of affordable pieces. Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, mourning jewellery reflected the public's sombre mood. Gothic Revival and archaeological discoveries inspired the use of historical motifs like crosses and Egyptian symbols.

Alongside a rise in women’s status in society, the Aesthetic Movement emphasised beauty over utility, leading to eclectic designs that incorporated Japanese, Renaissance, and Moorish influences. Artisans celebrated simplicity and nature, leading to butterfly, crescent, and floral motifs.

Victorian jewellery showcased a range of innovative and intricate techniques that evolved throughout those periods:

Enamelling: Popular in the Romantic and Grand periods, this involved melting powdered glass onto metal surfaces, creating colourful and durable finishes in different styles.

Repoussé and Chasing: These methods, commonly used in the Romantic and Aesthetic periods, involved hammering and carving from the reverse or front of metals to create detailed, raised designs.

Engraving: Common across all periods, engraving involved adding personal or symbolic inscriptions to rings, lockets, and other items.

Granulation: Small granules of gold were fused onto surfaces to create fine, textured designs.

Niello: The application of a black metallic alloy to etched designs, usually in silver, resulted in striking contrasts.

The change in favoured gemstones throughout the Victorian era reflect the tastes of each period. High-carat gold (often 18k) was predominant during the Romantic period, while lower karats and alloys became more common in the Grand and Aesthetic periods. Gold plating and rolled gold allowed for more affordable pieces. Silver became popular in the Aesthetic period due to its affordability and luster, often paired with niello or enamel. And platinum began to be used from the 1870s. Romantic jewellery often used coloured gemstones like turquoise, garnet, coral, and amethyst, along with seed pearls. Diamonds were cut in rose or old mine styles. Lockets, hearts, and serpent motifs were prevalent. The Grand period, influenced by Queen Victoria’s mourning for Prince Albert, saw a preference for much darker materials like jet, onyx, and black enamel. Cameos became fashionable, and diamonds often appeared in star-shaped or floral arrangements. The Aesthetic period was more eclectic, favouring all manner of stones, particularly opals, peridots, sapphires, and moonstones. Paste gems and marcasites were common substitutes for precious stones. The revival of ancient styles led to an increase in the use of micro-mosaic and intaglio.

Edwardian era

The Edwardian era (from 1901 to 1910 or 1914, depending on how you count it) began with King Edward VII's ascension. I associate it with elegance, refinement, and sophistication - it sits between ornate Victorian styles and the later boldness of the Art Deco movement. It witnessed intricate craftsmanship, luxurious materials, and design innovations that created timeless pieces.

The Edwardian period saw a lightness and lace-like delicacy in jewellery:

Filigree: Delicate metalwork using thin platinum or gold wires to form intricate patterns. This technique created lightweight and ethereal designs, especially for necklaces and tiaras.

Millegrain: This was a detailed edge technique applying tiny beads of metal around gems to project a soft, sophisticated texture.

Piercing: Intricate patterns were created by cutting out sections of the metal, often enhancing floral and lace motifs.

Pavé Setting: Gemstones, typically diamonds, were set closely together, covering a surface with a glittering appearance.

Advancements in technology allowed jewellers to work with lighter, newer and more versatile metals like platinum. White and rose gold also became fashionable alongside platinum. Diamonds continued to be popular, using rose and old European cuts, often centred in intricate designs. Coloured gemstones were also popular - sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, often set in combination with contrasting diamonds. Natural pearls were seen to symbolise purity and were popular in necklaces, earrings, and tiaras. Finally, other stones were used to add variety - aquamarines, peridots, garnets, amethysts, moonstones and opals.


The Edwardian era had several influences, particularly the French Belle Époque (Beautiful Era, 1871-1914), with its emphasis on femininity, lightness, and elegance. Garlands, bows, ribbons, and laurel wreaths were typical motifs. The European Art Nouveau movement was more avant-garde but Edwardian jewellery adopted some of its nature-inspired motifs, like flowers, vines, and insects, although in a more restrained manner. Edwardian jewellery also saw a change in the type that was favoured. There was a renewed interest in tiaras and headpieces among the upper classes. And long necklaces (sautoirs) and pendant necklaces (lavalieres) became fashionable.

I get a lot of interest in Edwardian engagement rings. They sit in that sweet spot where techniques had evolved and improved allowing for even more delicate and intricate designs but feel lighter and more natural than rings from the distinctively modern period that followed.

Art Deco era

The Art Deco era, spanning the 1920s to the 1930s, emerged from the optimism following World War I and heralded the so called Machine Age. The buyers I speak to love the energy and boldness of the rings - the extravagance of the modernist style and the luxurious materials. Jewellery from this period has a distinctive geometric style.

Techniques included:

Geometric Cut Stones: Jewelers used cutting-edge technology to shape gemstones into geometric forms like baguettes, triangles, and emerald cuts, aligning with the era’s fascination with symmetry.

Calibre-Cut Stones: Small, custom-cut gemstones (often rubies, sapphires, or emeralds) fitted precisely into specific spaces or around larger stones to create a seamless pattern.

Pavé Setting: Small diamonds or coloured gemstones were set closely together to give an uninterrupted sparkle across the surface.

Invisible Setting: Developed by Van Cleef & Arpels, this technique allowed stones to be set without visible prongs or metal, giving a floating appearance.

Enamelling: Used to add colour and contrast, enamel was incorporated in black, white, and vibrant colours, often in geometric designs.

Platinum became the most popular metal due to its strength and malleability, which allowed for intricate, delicate designs and the use of large stones. White gold was also used as an alternative. As for gems, brilliant-cut and geometric stones were used extensively. Diamonds were often arranged in stepped or linear patterns to emphasise geometry. Coloured gemstones provided vivid colour contrasts. Other Stones include jade, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and chrysoprase. Cultured pearls gained popularity and with the rise of technology, synthetic rubies and sapphires became more prevalent, offering affordable yet dazzling alternatives.

Several cultural and artistic movements shaped Art Deco jewellery. Modernism and cubism are the most obvious, with their emphasis on abstraction, machinery, and geometric shapes. But the era continued the Victorian fascination with ancient Egypt, with the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Motifs like scarabs, lotuses, and hieroglyphics became common, and Greek, Roman, and Aztec motifs also inspired designs. Asian art, particularly Chinese lacquer and Japanese prints, were popular, along with African tribal designs, which brought exotic patterns and motifs into jewellery.

Overall, Art Deco jewellery is characterised by its bold, symmetrical designs, luxurious materials, and inventive use of colour and geometry. It reflects an era of optimism, technological progress, and artistic innovation, resulting in pieces that still captivate collectors and enthusiasts today.

More detail on different ring styles can be found on Sam's website.

Sam is a member of Lapada and the Society of British Jewellers.

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