Why Vintage Jewelry Marks are Important
Maybe you’ve just acquired some vintage jewelry from a family member or friend. Or you found some nice vintage jewelry at a yard or garage sale or at the thrift shop. Whether you plan to keep the jewelry as a family heirloom or would like to resell it, a knowledge of vintage jewelry marks will help you to identify and date it properly.
I often get requests from people asking for help with vintage jewelry they’ve acquired. Because it’s not possible to have a comprehensive discussion of how to identify and date vintage jewelry in a single article, this article is the first in a series, and will specifically address vintage jewelry marks. Future articles in this series will discuss how to date patented jewelry and jewelry without signatures and/or hallmarks.
Signatures vs. Hallmarks – What’s the Difference?
According to Lang Antiques’ Antique Jewelry University, the term “hallmark” refers to any stamps or marks on jewelry and usually includes one or more of the following:
- Purity marks – indicates gold, silver, or other precious metal content
- Maker’s marks – the firm or person responsible for guarantee of the purity mark (usually the firm or artist who manufactured the jewelry)
- Dateletters – indicates when it was made
- Town marks – indicates where it was made
- Other marks (described below)
The photo below shows some of the most commonly seen vintage jewelry silver purity marks.
Purity marks for older silver pieces can differ from those commonly seen today. For example, most Sterling Silver Jewelry up until the 1940s era was usually stamped “STERLING” or “STER” or “STG.” The “925” mark did not come into common use until later. Some makers continue to use the “STERLING” mark in place of “925” even today.
Vintage jewelry from other countries may have European purity marks, such as “585” for 14K gold and “750” for 18K gold, as shown in the photo below.
A hallmark can also include other marks, such as:
- Designer marks – used when multiple designers worked for the same firm
- Tally marks – indicate the journeyman or artisan who actually created the piece
- Retailer marks – a specific sales outlet, usually a large branded store
- Duty marks – indicate that taxes have been paid on domestic pieces
- Import and export marks – indicate that taxes have been paid or that items were exempt from taxes
- Patent and inventory numbers – government or company issued numbers to protect and track jewelry designs
Vintage costume jewelry usually doesn’t have purity marks, but will often have a maker’s mark (commonly called the signature), and can sometimes have a retailer mark and/or patent or inventory marks. Patent numbers are especially helpful when dating older vintage jewelry, and will be covered in a separate article in this series.
Resources for Learning About Hallmarks
Antique Jewelry University: Lang Antiques features a section on their site named “Antique Jewelry University” with lots of useful information, such as this page discussing hallmarks: Hallmarks on Period Jewelry
925-1000: Described as the “Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers Marks,” the 925-1000 site is the first place I go to research vintage silver jewelry marks. It includes silver marks from many countries and you can access it here: 925-1000 Silver Marks
Vintage Jewelry Marks: Changing with the Times
When learning how to date vintage jewelry, a maker’s mark (or signature) can be a big help, since most companies changed their signatures over time. As a general rule, signatures without a copyright symbol indicate the piece was manufactured prior to 1955. There are exceptions, however. Jewelry companies would often use up their supply of pre-stamped clasps and findings after switching to a new signature, so some pieces made soon after 1955 might not have copyright symbols.
A detailed study of vintage jewelry marks could fill multiple books, but to give some guidance we can use the Trifari company as an example. Trifari always signed its jewelry and was very diligent about protecting its designs. Prior to the change in the copyright law in 1955, the designs were patented. The most commonly seen vintage Trifari pieces have signatures from pre-1955 through the 1990s. In 2000 the company was bought by Liz Claiborne and production was moved overseas to create mass produced unsigned jewelry.
The photo below shows the various signatures you’ll find on Trifari vintage jewelry.
Resources for Learning About Vintage Jewelry Marks
Trifari Vintage Jewelry Marks Resource: I’ve published a brief guide with photos that discusses various signagures for Trifari vintage jewelry. You can view it here: My Classic Jewelry Trifari Vintage Jewelry Marks Guide
Vintage Jewelry Marks Resource: You can search for “vintage jewelry marks” for information about the jewelry marks used by various jewelry companies. One site I like to use is Illusions Jewels’ “Researching Costume Jewelry” pages. They have an extensive library of jewelry marks located here: Researching Costume Jewelry. Just scroll down a little and click the letter of the alphabet for the company marks you wish to view.
Resources Page with All Links: If you’d like to have all of the resources mentioned in this article in one place, check out my Resources page: My Classic Jewelry Resources Page
Vintage Jewelry Reference Books
Another way to learn more about vintage jewelry is to read vintage jewelry books. In addition to learning about the history of vintage jewelry or particular designers, they also include wonderful photos, often with the vintage jewelry marks. I’ve accumulated a modest library of vintage jewelry reference books and have created a page on my site that lists some of the best, along with a brief summary for each one. Check it out here: My Classic Jewelry Vintage Jewelry Books
Future articles will discuss other aspects of dating vintage jewelry. Vintage jewelry patents provide a wonderful way to research and accurately date older vintage jewelry. I’m also planning an article describing how to date vintage jewelry that isn’t marked. I hope you’ll come back to read them, or use the form in the upper-right sidebar or at the very end of this page to subscribe to updates, and you’ll have the articles delivered to your inbox.
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Thank you, Christine 🙂
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