The Best Books on Antique & Estate Jewelry – Our Top 10 Picks

The world of antique and estate jewelry is a large and complex one. The terms “antique” and  “estate” themselves are sometimes misunderstood. “Estate jewelry” technically refers to any piece of jewelry that is second hand, though most dealers use the term to indicate a jewelry item made within the last thirty years.

“Antique jewelry” refers to jewelry that is over 100 years old. In the gap between the two is the term “vintage,” which generally indicates jewelry more than thirty years old, but not yet antique, and there is plenty of overlap in these general terms.

Estate pieces can be antique, but not always, and vintage pieces are technically estate pieces, though the term estate will generally mean the jewelry item isn’t that old. If the nomenclature seems confusing, imagine how challenging it must be to understand the jewelry itself.

There are many books available to help sort out the often challenging world of antique and estate jewelry. In this brief review, we’ll take a look at a few of the best.

1) Best Book # 1: Estate Jewelry, 1760-1960 by Diana Sanders Cinamon

This generously illustrated book covers antique and period jewelry fashioned in Europe, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom over a 200 year period ending in 1960. In addition to including detailed descriptions that accompany over 650 color photographs, the author chronicles the changes in jewelry materials, styles, and construction techniques through the ages.

Ms. Cinamon deftly covers all the major periods, from Georgian through Victorian, Art Deco, and up through the Modern era, and as she details the changes in styles, she also notes some of the thematic lines of continuity as styles evolved. Her treatment of the physical art of jewelry fabrication includes how the use of materials changed over time, and covers various designers, and their use of findings, fittings, and particular maker’s marks.

Experts will enjoy the easy to use “values reference section,” and the uninitiated will find an accessible guide to the history of the topic, as well as a thoroughly illustrated jewelry identification guide.

2) Best Book #2: Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present by Clare Phillips

Clare Phillips has taken on the gargantuan task of covering all of Western jewelry, from the shell garlands of Palaeolithic hunters all the way to experimental developments in contemporary materials, in her comprehensive guide, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. Her success is based on the narrative nature of her approach, featuring concise descriptions and numerous illustrations.

This concise survey includes analysis of both the changing nature of jewelry materials and the changing of fashions in both men’s and women’s jewelry. Ms. Phillips also details how individual jewelers and the industry as a whole have historically responded to new sources of gems, whether new world emeralds or the diamonds of South Africa.

3) Best Book #3: Understanding Jewelry by David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti

Covering all facets of jewelry and jewelry making from the late 18th century to the present, Understand Jewelry is an encyclopedic explication worthy of the moniker “coffee table book.” With over 1,000 photographs, the authors brilliantly link explanations and descriptions with individual illustrations, using straightforward language for the layperson. The result is an easy to read, thorough guide to all aspects of jewelry and jewelry making.

Beginning with individual gemstones, the book carefully explains all the aspects crucial to valuing them, from shapes to color to hardness, from diamonds to the most obscure semi-precious gems. The book then takes a chronological trip through the history of jewelry making, highlighting styles, materials, and techniques popular in each era, along with notes about the most influential jewelers.

Bennett and Mascetti, both jewelry experts at Sotheby’s, have succeeded in a producing a guide to jewelry that is both beautiful and educational.

4) Best Book #4: An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry by Harold Newman

As a famous collector and writer on the decorative arts, Harold Newman brings the full scope of his knowledge to bear in his Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. From the first entry, “AA Pendant” to “Zuni Jewelry,” this indispensable reference work is a must for students, dealers, and collectors of jewelry.

Incorporating terms from jewelry making, descriptions of individual gemstones, and biographical entries of jewelry makers and designers from the Renaissance to the modern era, Newman has succeeded in providing an easy to use and fully comprehensive reference volume.

With over 650 illustrations, extensive cross referencing, and a selected bibliography, this book is a must have reference for any person interested in the subject.

5) Book #5: Victorian Jewellery by Margaret Flower

By focusing exclusively on the Victorian period, Margaret Flower is able to place the jewelry of the time in a wider context than most jewelry histories. Her highly readable prose includes not simply descriptions of the materials and jewelry items of the era, but shows how the greater cultural influences affected the decorative arts.

The fashions of the time, including all manner of jewelry items, was determined by complicated interactions between the economics of the time and social living standards. Flower’s comprehensive and informative book includes many examples of staple Victorian jewelry items, including over 115 illustrations of brooches, jeweled tiaras, necklaces, chains, lockets, and earrings.

6) Best Book #6: Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry, 1840-1950: Identification & Value Guide

Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry has been an authoritative and respected resource on estate jewelry for over three decades. In the most recent edition, jewelry expert C. Jeanenne Bell updates her classic reference volume with pertinent historical information that accompanies the many illustrations. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the subject has never been on better display, and the easy to read prose breathes with her passion for the timeless beauty of antique and estate jewelry.

Featuring over 1,000 full color photographs, this new edition covers the most collectible jewelry from 1840 to 1950, and includes values for many selected jewelry items. Showcasing jewelry from the Victorian, Edwardian, Egyptian Revival, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Retro Modern periods, this volume includes many tips for jewelry identification, including maker’s marks, designer marks, trademarks, and other dating information.

7) Best Book #7: Warman’s Jewelry: Identification & Price Guide by Christie Romero

Now in it’s 5th edition, Warman’s Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide is an even more comprehensive and better illustrated book than the previous editions. This thoroughly researched and well-organized work features historical information and stunningly photographed jewelry items, and covers all manner of costume and fine jewelry from the 18 through the 21st century.

Detailed descriptions and the most current pricing information for all the most popular styles of antique and estate jewelry are included, making this guide an invaluable asset for both the novice collector and the experienced aficionado of fine jewelry.

8) Best Book #8: Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear by Caroline Cox

A truly stunning coffee table book, Caroline Cox’s Vintage Jewelry Design is a mouthwatering look at vintage jewelry from the last 100 years. Beyond being simply a ‘picture book,’ this volume contains not simply stellar photographs, but an explication of the history of jewelry design. Organized by decade, Cox’s book includes historical references that indicate why certain styles, trends, and materials rose to popularity when they did.

From historical notes on well known  jewelry designers like Fabergé, Schlumberger, Tiffany, and Schiaparelli to stunning photos of rare jewelry items from private collections and museums, this book is a compendium of the fashion, style, and beauty of jewelry from the last century. In addition, Cox includes a vintage shopping guide, complete with tips for care of vintage jewelry and how to spot fakes.

9) Best Book #9: The Official Identification & Price Guide to Antique Jewelry by Guy Kaplan

With over 3,000 photographs, Guy Kaplan’s Guide has been a go-to resource for professionals for years. In this newly revised edition, Kaplan’s seminal reference work is even more comprehensive and easier to use, especially for newer collectors.

Featuring descriptions and photographs of jewelry from 1750-1960, this book includes both identification tips and pricing information for all major jewelry periods from Georgian through Modern Retro. Kaplan’s Identification and Price Guide has been hailed as an “invaluable resource for the layman, the appraiser of estate jewelry, or the collector” by Christie’s East.

10) Best Book #10: How to Be a Jewelry Detective by C. Jeanenne Bell

As the title suggests, this fun and informative volume shares some of the secrets of identifying and dating antique, vintage, and estate jewelry. In addition to helping sort out the various clues that indicate how to simply tell a new piece from an old one, the author provides information on determining real from fake gems, gold from gold plate, and diamonds from rhinestones.

This book also contains comprehensive lists of designers and marks, including hallmarks, maker’s marks, and marks that indicate purity. Though directed mainly to the newer collector of antique and estate jewelry, How to Be a Jewelry Detective (Elementary Clues to Solving the Mysteries of Jewelry) is a great addition to any library of books about jewelry. 

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