With its magical sparkle and fun motifs, vintage rhinestone jewelry is a glittering classic. As you shop in antique shops, flea markets, and thrift stores, it helps to know which pieces are high quality and desirable. There are some telltale signs that a piece of rhinestone jewelry is a great find.
Identifying Vintage Rhinestone Jewelry
Popular since the late 19th century, rhinestone jewelry made sparkling necklaces, bracelets, and earrings accessible to the middle class. While most women couldn't afford to wear diamonds, they could sport the next best thing. The popularity of rhinestone costume jewelry took off in the 1920s, and these beautiful and affordable creations came in every color and style imaginable. Today, you can find them in beautiful wearable condition at second-hand stores and speciality boutiques, as well as yard sales and flea markets. The key is being able to tell whether a piece is genuine and whether it's vintage.
Is It Rhinestone?
The first rhinestones, introduced by Daniel Swarovski in the late 1800s, were hand-cut crystals backed with silver foil. In the 1890s, Swarovski switched to machine-cut crystals, but the quality stayed the same. Rhinestones were originally clear, but manufacturers quickly began to produce them in every color and shape. You can tell a quality rhinestone by these characteristics:
- All the facets are perfect points and are evenly spaced.
- There are no imperfections or bubbles in the crystal or glass.
- The surfaces are clear and smooth, not wavy or jagged.
- The foil backing is carefully applied and not haphazard in its placement.
Is It Really Vintage?
Because rhinestone jewelry has been popular for more than a century, it can be difficult to tell whether a piece is truly vintage or is a modern reproduction. Officially, vintage jewelry needs to be at least 20 years old. Here are some clues that a rhinestone piece is not a modern take on this classic style:
- It's not plastic. Older rhinestones are made of glass or crystal, not plastic. If you gently tap it on a hard surface and it doesn't clink, it's not that old.
- The setting looks vintage. The setting should have patina and be quality work, not something machine-made quickly.
- The style clearly belongs to a design era, such as Art Deco or Art Nouveau.
Vintage Rhinestone Jewelry Types
Vintage rhinestone jewelry comes in every shape you can imagine, including the following:
- Brooches and pins
- Specialty pieces like buckles
Styles of Vintage Rhinestone Jewelry
All of these pieces came in many styles. These are a few of the most notable:
- Art Nouveau - Dating from the late 1800s through about 1920, Art Nouveau pieces have sweeping lines and nature motifs. Some even represent figural elements like women with flowing hair, animals, and birds. In some cases, only the eyes or other details are rhinestones.
- Art Deco - Art Deco was all about geometric patterns and shapes. This period started in about 1920 and went though the 1930s. You'll see rhinestone pieces with filigree and lots of sparkle.
- Mid-Century - After the second World War, women bought rhinestone jewelry to embrace their fun and carefree new life. These pieces often include enamel with rhinestones, as well as rhinestone snowflakes, stars, and more.
Popular Manufacturers of Rhinestone Jewelry
It's always a good idea to look for a jewelry marking or manufacturer stamp. Hundreds of different manufacturers made rhinestone jewelry, but a few stand out as important and collectible:
- Butler & Wilson - This company made amazingly detailed figural brooches and other pieces. Look for pins in the shape of cats, top hats, dancing couples, and more.
- Chanel - A classic name in quality costume jewelry, Chanel rhinestone pieces are very popular. The classic interlocking C logo is a common motif, as well as pieces with simple lines and plenty of sparkle.
- Eisenberg - Producing beautiful rhinestone pieces from the 1930s through about 1970, Eisenberg made rhinestone pieces set in precious metals like sterling silver. You'll see pins in the shape of Christmas trees with sparkling rhinestones, as well as cats with rhinestone eyes and other figural designs.
- Swarovski - The ultimate in rhinestone jewelry, Swarovski has made beautiful rhinestone pieces since the very beginning.
- Trifari - Popular since the 1920s, Trifari jewelry has adorned Hollywood actresses and other high profile people for generations. The rhinestone pieces often have simply lines to allows the sparkle to take center stage.
Assessing Vintage Rhinestone Jewelry Value
Most rhinestone jewelry sells for under $25, but some pieces are worth considerably more. If you're considering buying or selling a rhinestone piece, take some time to research its value. That way, you can spot a great deal at the antique store or online auction, and you can also ask a fair price when you're selling vintage jewelry.
Check the Condition
Condition is a huge factor in the value of vintage rhinestone pieces. Look for missing rhinestones first, since any missing stones may be impossible to match and replace. Then look at the condition of the silver backs on the stones and whether any stones are chipped or broken. Check the hardware part of the jewelry too to make sure it looks attractive and is in working condition. Make sure the settings are secure.
Take a Look at the Quality
There's a lot of variation in quality when it comes to vintage rhinestone jewelry. Some pieces were never intended to last forever, and even if they are old, they may not be worth much. Others have quality settings and hardware that complement the rhinestones and stand the test of time. Something that is well made will always be worth more.
Look for Special Characteristics
The most valuable rhinestone jewelry has a little something special. It might be a desirable manufacturer like Chanel or Swarovski, or it might be something about the piece itself. Maybe it's a brooch in the shape of something everyone loves, like a bird or a detailed flower. It might represent an era perfectly in its design elements. No matter what it is, if it has something special, it will be worth more.
Compare to Recently-Sold Pieces
The best way to check the value of a vintage rhinestone piece is with a professional jewelery appraisal, but not every piece warrents that investment. You can get a pretty good idea of the value by comparing it against recently sold items that are similar. For instance, these are some recent sales of vintage rhinestone jewelry:
- A Trifari circle brooch in rhinestones and blue glass sold for just over $1,000.
- An Eisenberg brooch in the shape of a berry with sparkling leaves sold for over $400.
- A nearly seven-inch-long Butler and Wilson snake-shaped brooch solf for about $125.
A Collection You Can Show Off
Rhinestone jewelry has classic appeal, and it's fun to see the variety of pieces out there. Unless you're going for the high-end designer pieces, it's also an affordable antique to collect. You can wear the pieces and show off your collection too!