The delicacy of this 14 karat yellow gold, seed pearl and pink tourmaline brooch is typical of Edwardian jewelry. Notice the white gold millegrain settings around the tourmaline gems. These settings serve to emphasize the subtle pink color of the stones and are a hallmark of both Edwardian jewelry and the later Art Deco style.
In the modern age we have a certain fascination with the rich and famous. They somehow seem to inhabit a world apart from us - a world of palatial mansions, yacht outings and opulent fashion. And yet our current gilded age, as magnificent as it seems, is put to shame by one that preceded us. If history is any indication, few people knew how to throw, or attend, a high-class party like the Edwardians. And one of the ways the Downton Abbey set flaunted their substantial wealth was by wearing magnificent Edwardian jewelry.
Gossamer creations of unparalleled beauty, Edwardian jewelry is among the most prized objects on earth. Diamonds, sapphires and natural pearls drip graciously from platinum garlands, bows and ribbons. It possesses a refinement and elegance that elicits images of royalty and aristocrats. And, although only created for a short period of time, from 1900 to 1915, Edwardian jewelry still looms large in the imagination today.
The Edwardian era took its name from the reign of the British monarch King Edward VII, who ruled from 1901 to 1910. He ascended the throne on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, who had ruled for an astonishing 64 years. Under Queen Victoria's reign, Great Britain grew into the most powerful and wealthy country on earth, with a colonial empire unrivaled in both size and prestige.
However, Victoria was a traditionalist. In fact, she was often viewed as a slave to formality and ceremony. This was partially reflected in Victorian fashions, which were invariably elaborate, heavy and sometimes suffocating. Although the Victorian period was immensely prosperous, the upper class was constrained by the staid Victorian ethos espoused by the Great Queen. Conspicuous consumption was something one simply did not do in Victorian England.
King Edward VII's ascension to the throne, however, brought a renewed sense of lightheartedness and enjoyment to high society. The new king and his wife, Alexandra, loved grand parties and were unrepentant socialites. King Edward VII led by example in this brilliant new era. He enjoyed gambling, overeating and womanizing. He even indulged in smoking both cigars and cigarettes, although not at the same time. In the Edwardian period it was perfectly acceptable to be rich and revel in it.
Although King Edward VII was the monarch of Great Britain, his lavish parties and hedonistic behavior established the spirit of the age in Continental Europe as well as America. In France, this period was known as the Belle Époque - the beautiful era. In the United States it was called the Gilded Age.
But regardless of the name used, the Edwardian era was a brilliant flourishing of culture, leisure and the arts. In many ways, the Edwardian period was the apogee of European imperialism and global dominance carried forward from the late 19th century. Great Britain and France both had extensive colonial possessions that spanned the globe, while Germany was a rapidly rising world power.
Then, just as a star burns brightest right before it is extinguished, Europe was plunged into the horrors of the First World War in 1914. The extravagant parties and opulent holidays abruptly ended. Even the luxurious frivolity of the fashion world stopped almost overnight. In the darkly prophetic words of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey at the onset of the War, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."
Antique Edwardian jewelry was characterized by ribbon, bow, garland and heart motifs. However, unlike the contemporary Art Nouveau jewelry style, Edwardian jewelry didn't adhere slavishly to naturalism. It wasn't uncommon for Edwardian pieces to have geometric or linear elements, foreshadowing the future rise of Art Deco jewelry styles in the 1920s.
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The Edwardian stylistic movement, with its delicate yet dazzling appearance, was directly inspired by 18th century Rococo jewelry and the Louis XVI style. Pierced or filigree settings added a playful and airy sense that was absent from earlier Victorian jewelry. Fine Edwardian jewelry always possesses a delicacy and lightness that is not found in later Art Deco jewelry.
Diamonds and colored gemstones were often mounted in millegrain settings during the Edwardian period. Millegrain is a goldsmithing technique where the bezel around the perimeter of a stone is minutely beaded or ridged, giving the piece a rich, glittering look. It also wasn't unusual for bezels in Edwardian jewelry to use a different, contrasting metal from the rest of a piece. Yellow gold bezels emphasized the richness of colored stones while white gold or platinum bezels accentuated the dazzling whiteness of diamonds.
The discovery of massive diamond deposits in South Africa in the 1870s led to increased availability of these coveted gemstones during the late 19th and early 20th century. Diamonds, formerly rare and reserved for the aristocracy, were quickly embraced by mainstream jewelers. As a result, diamonds were one of the preeminent gems of the period, often adorning Edwardian jewelry in profusion.
Most diamonds found in Edwardian jewelry are either old mine cut or old European cut diamonds. These older diamond cuts were hand-fashioned by highly skilled old world craftsmen in order to maximize the fire of these stones under low light conditions. Fire, otherwise known as dispersion, is when a diamond breaks light up into the spectral colors of the rainbow before returning it to the viewer's eyes. These old cut diamonds possess a warmth, charm and charisma that complements Edwardian jewelry beautifully.
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Another diamond cut often found in Edwardian jewelry is the rose cut. It is a flat-bottomed, faceted dome - sometimes irregular - that rises to a single point. The rose cut is actually a very old diamond cut, first originating in Europe in the middle of the 16th century. By the Edwardian period at the beginning of the 20th century, rose cut diamonds were usually used in less expensive pieces of jewelry. Edwardian jewelry was the last style of jewelry to feature the widespread use of rose cut diamonds.
Because of the extensive use of diamonds in Edwardian jewelry, white metals - primarily white gold and platinum - were de rigueur in these pieces. Platinum, in particular, became a hallmark of high quality Edwardian jewelry. Platinum has an extremely high melting point and can take a great deal of expertise to properly work. So although the rare white metal was known decades before the Edwardian period, the early 20th century was the first time platinum was commonly used in jewelry production.
Platinum was uniquely suited for use in Edwardian jewelry. Unlike silver, platinum's mesmerizing gray-white color doesn't tarnish over time. In addition, platinum is incredibly strong compared to sterling silver or even karat gold.
As a result, jewelers were able to create profoundly complex yet magnificently diaphanous scrollwork, filigree and millegrain effects in platinum that would have been impossible in traditional silver-topped gold. As an added bonus, the new metal's great strength allowed platinum Edwardian jewelry to be surprisingly light for its size. This was a reversal from earlier Victorian jewelry made from silver-topped gold, which was invariably bulky and heavy.
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Another gem often mounted in Edwardian jewelry is pearls. The really interesting thing about good quality pearl jewelry from the Edwardian period - circa 1900 to 1915 - is that it exclusively employed natural pearls. This is because the cultured pearl industry, pioneered by the enterprising Kokichi Mikimoto, didn't produce commercially viable harvests of round pearls until the late 1910s.
Natural saltwater pearls could only be harvested by highly trained oyster divers who would descend to the sea floor in search of wild mollusks. These divers would descend to depths of up to 100 feet without any breathing apparatus, risking not only drowning but also the dreaded bends. It is estimated that every ton of oysters collected would yield only a few high quality pearls.
It is incredibly significant that Edwardian jewelry was the last style of jewelry, historically speaking, to rely solely on natural pearls. Natural saltwater pearls have been prized for thousands of years for their luster, iridescence and otherworldly, almost ethereal appearance. Natural saltwater pearls were so rare that matched necklaces were only within the reach of the very wealthiest members of society. In fact, the renowned French jeweler Jacques Cartier reputedly traded a mere two necklaces of natural pearls for his flagship Fifth Avenue New York store location in 1916.
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Other gemstones often encountered in Edwardian jewelry are sapphire, aquamarine and ruby. Turquoise, peridot and amethyst were used in somewhat less expensive pieces. In any case, delicate, softly-colored pastel gems often found top billing alongside dazzlingly bright diamonds and platinum.
Edwardian jewelry provides a wealth of opportunities for the aspiring antiques investor. Along with the contemporary jewelry style of Art Nouveau, Edwardian jewelry was the first type of jewelry to look effectively modern. Unlike Victorian or Georgian jewelry, fine Edwardian jewelry can still grace the hand or neck of a gorgeous woman without looking dated.
When buying Edwardian jewelry for investment purposes there are a few rules to follow. Large, expensive gemstones like ruby, sapphire and diamonds were frequently mounted in important pieces and are very desirable. However, it is more common to find a multitude of smaller accent stones without a single large gem in more modest pieces. Although these less elaborate examples are still quite collectible, they will always be less valuable than a similar piece set with a large precious stone.
Pearl Edwardian jewelry represents a tremendous buying opportunity due to the fact that it is perhaps the single best source of affordable natural pearls left in the market today. As always, large, round pearls with good luster and no damage will be the most desirable. Seed pearls, split pearls and baroque pearls are also commonly found in Edwardian jewelry, but are significantly less desirable than large, fully round pearls. It should be noted that natural saltwater pearls were so rare that it wasn't unusual for pearls used in antique jewelry to only be approximate matches for color, roundness and size. Allowances should be made for these natural variations.
As noted above, platinum is the premier metal for high end Edwardian jewelry. However, yellow gold was also frequently used. In addition, yellow gold topped with platinum or silver is also commonly encountered. It is recommended that the serious investor only entertain pieces made from 14 karat (58.3%) gold or better. Platinum used in jewelry, in contrast, is almost always 90% fine. All else being equal, a given example rendered in platinum will always be more desirable than a similar piece made in karat gold.
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A fine piece of Edwardian jewelry will always communicate an unmistakable delicacy and lightness that is innately appealing. Poorly made Edwardian jewelry will tend to be clunky or ponderous. The serious connoisseur will skip over these subpar examples.
Modern reproductions in the Edwardian style will often have similar shortcomings, projecting an awkward or clumsy aura. They will not only lack the subtlety and spontaneity of original pieces, but are also usually set with modern cut diamonds, which is a dead giveaway. These modern reproductions are unfit for investment purposes.
As usual, it is important to avoid buying damaged, broken, bent or otherwise compromised pieces of Edwardian jewelry if future investment performance is important. Pearls, especially, should be checked to ensure they haven't pealed, cracked or discolored. Watch out for chipped gemstones or diamonds as well. They can be almost impossible to economically replace.
It is important to note that synthetic rubies and sapphires went into commercial production just before 1900. Because of this, the Edwardian period was the first time that synthetic gemstones were widely used in jewelry. However, just because a piece of jewelry employs synthetics, it doesn't mean that it isn't desirable. Synthetic gemstones were still very expensive and difficult to produce at the time. Therefore, it isn't unusual to find them mounted in very fine settings - often as matching calibre cut stones - along with completely natural, high value gems, like diamonds and pearls.
Due to its tendency towards high intrinsic values, investment quality Edwardian jewelry can be quite expensive. Pricing for good quality, investable Edwardian jewelry generally starts at around $500 for simpler examples. Prices quickly escalate for more elaborate specimens or pieces mounted with large, valuable gemstones like diamonds, sapphires or rubies. Superlative examples can easily command sums of $10,000 or more.
The Edwardian period was an age of sophistication, elegance and grandeur. Its alluring combination of carefree leisure and tremendous wealth still inspires us today. Edwardian jewelry is a window into that past, embodying the zeitgeist and splendor of that pre-World War I golden age.