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The difference between antique and vintage jewelry is primarily one of age. By strict definition, an antique is an object that is 100 or more years old. Vintage pieces are generally greater than 20 years old. In the realm of jewelry collecting, these dating systems are not always strictly adhered to, as pieces somewhat younger than 100 years are frequently referred to as antique. The stylistic period of the jewelry is important in differentiating between the two, with many collectors considering jewelry from the Art Deco period and before as antique jewelry.
Antique and vintage jewelry is usually divided into two broad categories based on the original cost and materials. The first is fine jewelry, which was made with the precious metals gold, silver, or platinum. Real gemstones were used in its manufacture. The difference between fine antique and vintage jewelry pieces is one of age. Less expensive costume antique and vintage jewelry, the second category, was created primarily with base metals and semi-precious or glass stones and is generally characterized by the styles of the time when it was produced.
The manufacture of relatively inexpensive costume jewelry started in the 1700s, providing an alternative to expensive gold, silver, and gemstone jewelry. Few pieces of antique costume jewelry still exist from the earliest Georgian period, 1714 to 1837. The later Victorian costume jewelry, 1837 to 1900, is relatively abundant and considered highly collectible. Victorian pieces of costume jewelry were often made of glass or paste rather than precious gems, early man-made resins rather than jet or amber, and relied on brass and other base metals instead of pure silver or gold. Pieces from this period are considered antique jewelry.
Stylistic periods after the Victorian Era and including the Art Deco period may be considered antique or vintage by different collectors and dealers. The Arts and Crafts period, 1890 to 1920, featured handmade jewelry of copper and bronze, often hammered or enameled. Edwardian and Art Nouveau jewelry are roughly from the same time period as the Arts and Crafts style. Various stylistic features distinguish jewelry from these periods. The Art Deco period, 1920 to 1935, is the last period that might be classified as antique by jewelry collectors.
Beginning in the 1930s, costume jewelry was mass produced and widely available, causing its popularity to blossom. Most vintage costume jewelry dates from this time forward. It was designed to match the latest styles, and its relatively inexpensive cost allowed almost everyone to own this fashion accessory. Styles typical of vintage costume jewelry include Art Deco and Retro. Many famous name designers specialized in costume jewelry, and Hollywood actresses often popularized various styles.