People ask me how I can date old jewelry- it's not like it comes inscribed with the year it was made. Which is true in the literal sense, but there are a great many factors that, when considered together, can tell me the age of a piece.
How is it made? The type of closure on a pin, for example, is very helpful. Is the pin is secured with a simple 'c' of metal or does it have a safety catch? Look at the other side of the pin next- is the pin soldered directly into the brooch or is it set in a hinge? If it's a hinge, how wide? Is the piece solid or hollow? Does it look stamped, chased, cast or built by layers? If there are stones, how are they set?
What kind of metal was used? Not everything was silver or gold. Iron and cut-steel came and went in fads. Gold-fill was actually patented in 1817 as a response to the metal shortages from the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. If it's gold- what carat? What hardening agents were alloyed into the gold? (the variances can give you regional clues as well) Aluminum was very rare during the Victorian era and would have only been used as a thin leaf appliqued to another metal. Platinum couldn't be melted until a revolutionary invention in 1895.
What stones are set in the piece- if any? How are they cut? Is it a cabochon cut or is it faceted? The way a stone is faceted will also help with dating- look at how steep the crown angles are, how big the table is and whether or not it has a culet (a facet on the bottom). Is the stone natural or not? Glass, Paste, Strass or doublet? If it's natural, what is it? Different stones are popular at different times, and some shades came only from certain regions. What mines were in production? What trade routes were blocked (war, civil unrest, embargoes)?
What style is the piece? Even the type of jewelry (brooch, earring, tiara, ect.) can help narrow it down. In the 1830's, fashion made the head and the neck the focal point for jewelry. Women wore a jewel on their forehead called a ferronniere and very elaborate hair pieces, with open necks to showcase small lockets and necklaces. Then in the 40's clothing becomes very demure- all high necks and bonnets so there aren't many earrings or necklaces made in this period at all. Instead it is brooches at the collar, bangle bracelets and rings. The 50's see a return of the ear- although earrings stay small and fairly simple, while the new lower necklines are graced with some rather substantial necklaces. The 60's were all about color- only the brightest and boldest jewelry could keep pace with the Garibaldi-inspired fashion. Jewelry from this time is also very heavy and elaborate. Not to be outdone, the 1870's were all about detail. Clothing had more ruffles and ruching than I like to think about, so the jewelry had to be busy too, just to show up. Every centimeter of the piece is covered in detail. By 1880, the pendulum finally swung the other way and the Aesthetic movement brought everything briefly back to the basics. But the movement only lasted a few years and heavy chains, diamond earrings and paired gold bangles were being worn with bodices and bustles by the end of the decade. The 90's jewelry is delicate and airy.
Ok, this is getting long. We haven't even talked about maker's marks, assay marks- or the absence of. We'll pick up with those next time. Good night everyone!