Vintage Jewelry Identification: 7 Tips for Distinguishing Authentic Pieces

Sometimes going for yard sales and going through some old stuff in your parent’s basement can throw up some surprising finds. Within all that seems like thrash might be some well-hidden treasure in the form of vintage costume jewelry. They can be quite easy to miss if you don’t know how to identify them.

What is Vintage Costume Jewelry?

Vintage Costume Jewelry

Vintage costume jewelry refers to pre-owned jewelry pieces that you can date back a couple of decades. Depending on who you ask, the timeframe for something considered vintage varies. 

Some auction houses set the minimum requirement at fifty years, while others can consider twenty-year-old jewelry as vintage. However, when a piece surpasses the hundred-year mark, it is now considered an antique piece.

Jewelers made vintage costume jewelry of cheap materials, such as brass, glass, nickel, or plastic. This type of jewelry became popular in the early twentieth century as it gave middle-class women an alternative to the luxurious jewelry of the wealthy. 

People and governments needed ways to cut expenses between the two world wars. Precious metals like gold and silver were also limited, and governments restricted their use in some countries. Costume jewelry was the alternative people had to use in those periods of uncertainty and scarcity.

Ways to Identify Vintage Costume Jewelry?

Some of the vintage costume jewelry you might find were produced before you were born. Therefore, there’s a high chance of missing them if you don’t know the pointers to look out for.

1. Hallmarks 

Hallmarks are little characters that jewelers engrave on a hidden part of jewelry to give you brief details of its origin. The hallmark consists of the manufacturer’s name, country of origin, date of production, and designer’s logo. Seeing a piece with the year “1969” on the hallmark makes your job very straightforward, as that’s clearly a piece of vintage costume jewelry.

Another sign is seeing the hallmark of a manufacturer that wasn’t producing jewelry 20 or 50 years ago. So, there is surely no Panconesi or Agmes vintage costume jewelry since those are relatively new brands. 

Conversely, you can know vintage jewelry by seeing manufacturers or jewelry designers that no longer produce jewelry. For example, any Hattie Carnegie costume jewelry you see is surely vintage since they stopped production in 1979.

Finally, when jewelers create sterling silver jewelry nowadays, they use the 925 marking to indicate it. Whenever you see the marks “STERLING” or “coin silver” used to identify sterling silver jewelry, it’s surely a vintage piece.

2. Makers Marks

In many cases, manufacturers do not include the year of production in the hallmark. However, by inspecting the manufacturer’s logo, you can trace a costume jewelry’s origin. Some companies have changed their logos repeatedly, so you can know if a costume jewelry piece is vintage or not by knowing the period in which they used a particular logo.

Identify Vintage Costume Jewelry

Costume Jewelry Collectors is a good source of the transition of the logos used by vintage costume jewelry producers.

3. Inventory Numbers

Some jewelers imprinted inventory numbers on jewelry, and you could determine the year manufacturers produced a piece by tracking this number. The most notable example of a manufacturer using this system is Marcel Boucher between 1945 and 1965. Below is a detailed breakdown of their inventory numbers.

YearInventory Numbers
19452300 – 2350
19462351 – 2450
19472451 – 2550
19482551 – 2750
19492751 – 3000
19503001 – 3500
19513501 – 4500
Source: How to Buy Vintage Jewelry

4. The Patent Pending Marks

The copyright symbol didn’t exist before 1955. However, with an alteration of copyright law came the now-famous “circled C” symbol. Before then, manufacturers had to mark their jewelry with a “patent pending” mark.

Any costume jewelry piece you find with the “patent pending” mark is vintage jewelry created before 1955. If a piece doesn’t have any copyright symbol, it’s also likely to be a vintage or antique piece since most hallmarks nowadays have the copyright symbol.

5. Colors and Designs

The colors and designs play an important role in determining whether a piece of jewelry is vintage. Throughout history, major events have shaped the trends and designs of that time, and you can tell the approximate age of jewelry by examining those events and trends.

Two examples perfectly highlight this illustration: the Great Depression and World War II. During the Great Depression, the bad economy hit the jewelry industry, leading jewelers to create jewelry using cheaper materials, giving rise to costume jewelry’s popularity.

Jewelry made during the Great Depression (the 1930s) had this gaudiness that tried to replicate what people saw celebrities wearing on the silver screen. As America entered the Second World War in the early 1940s, lots of jewelry had a patriotic touch. It was common to see pieces made of red, blue, and white in the shape of major American monuments, soldiers, or other references to the war.

6. Signs of Wear

All pre-owned jewelry usually has signs that they’ve been used, but vintage costume jewelry tends to have a really soft, lived-in appearance. Clasps should no longer be as tight as they once were, as their resistance would’ve worn down with years of use. 

costume jewelry

The prongs that hold stones, the clasps, and the hooks should look blunt from frequent skin contact. Also, jewelry with real pearls would no longer have any luster, and the parts that touch the skin would have dull spots.

7. Manufacturing Methods

Some methods used in jewelry production only began in the late 20th century and can be a distinguishing factor of vintage costume jewelry. A great example is the clasp or closures used on a piece, as certain types of clasps are more recent creations. Nowadays, lobster claps are very popular but weren’t around till the 1970s.

Brooches manufactured in the early 20th century had simple C-clasps or safety-pin style clasps. These clasps soon gave way to more complex and secure ones that usually have springs.

Is Vintage Costume Jewelry Worth Anything?

Of course! Nowadays, brands like Trifari, Sherman, and Coro can fetch high resale prices from vintage jewelry collectors. You only have to ensure that you know the worth of your costume jewelry before taking it to a seller, or you might get ripped off. 

One thing that aids your sales pitch is the story behind your vintage costume jewelry. If your piece has a good story behind it or is a limited edition piece, it’ll command higher prices on the market.

Where Can I Trade Vintage Costume Jewelry?

Trading vintage costume jewelry is a profitable business from which some people make thousands of dollars monthly. People profit by spotting and buying low-cost costume jewelry and reselling them for gain. Some people are more concerned with buying jewelry to add to their collections and have no intention of selling them.

Whatever your reason for wanting to buy or sell vintage costume jewelry, there are few places to get your business done.

1. Vintage Jewelry Shops

Shops that deal exclusively in vintage jewelry are less common than regular jewelry stores. However, you might be lucky to have one located around you. Some stores are owned by private individuals who use them as avenues to add valuable costume jewelry to their collections.

Vintage jewelry shops that sell costume jewelry occasionally organize auctions to offload some valuable jewelry. In this case, you might pay more for a piece if you get embroiled in a bidding war.

2. Online Marketplaces

You can also buy or sell your vintage costume jewelry online. You can likely find a good deal for what you want to buy or sell on a website like eBay, where people sell almost anything. You can choose to buy or sell from websites that deal primarily in vintage jewelry, like Etsy.

3. Pawn Shops, Fleamarkets, and Yard Sales

People sell almost anything in pawn shops, flea markets, and yard sales. Buying or selling from these sources is more unpredictable as you never know what you might find at the time. However, it’s worth giving it a shot if you find one, and you might see something rewarding.

If you know much about costume jewelry, these are the ideal settings to buy your stuff, as the seller likely knows nothing about them. This advantage means that you can bid low for jewelry that you think is valuable.

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