By Danielle Olivia Tefft
Did you know the type of clasp used can reveal important clues about when a vintage necklace was made? Well, it can! But before we dive into the fascinating study of necklace clasps, it’s helpful to define the difference between antique and vintage jewelry. Antique jewelry is jewelry that is one hundred years old or older than today’s date. (Yes, this means the definition is a moving target! FYI: Many antique dealers and collectors are currently snatching up Art Deco necklaces and other pieces from the 1920s. This is because a few years down the road, this highly coveted Art Deco jewelry will be considered “antique.” Therefore, it will garner an even a higher price than it already does today.) Vintage jewelry is anything younger than one hundred years but not less than ten years older than today’s date. For example, necklaces from 1915 through 2004 can be considered “vintage” in 2014.
Unfortunately, you can’t always date a vintage necklace by its clasp alone. You have to take a few other factors into consideration, as well. First, you need to become familiar with the distinct styles for any time period in question. After a short time of familiarizing yourself with the styles from different eras, you’ll naturally begin to accumulate knowledge about the materials used in necklaces during that time period, as well. You will also become familiar with maker’s marks from certain eras if necklaces are signed.
If you are interested in vintage necklaces from a certain time period like the 1950s, it can be very informative to spend some time looking at photos and drawings of necklaces from that era online and in books. After a short time, you will get a feel for what clasp styles were most popular in that era. Knowledge of clasp types and the time periods in which they have been the most popular can help you verify the approximate age of a vintage necklace you might come across later on. Don’t worry; you won’t have to attain this knowledge from scratch. There is a helpful chart that summarizes popular clasps for each era in the 20th century a bit later in this discussion.
Dating a vintage necklace by its clasp is not a straightforward task. The spring ring clasp, for instance, was developed back in the 1840s. This clasp has been a favorite for necklaces for over a hundred years since then. So you need to take into consideration other elements of a necklace you are trying to date, as well. As mentioned above, these elements include style, material and maker’s marks, if any. Just like true detective work, dating necklaces always requires piecing together several clues. The following two charts on clasps contain helpful information to help you with your detective work:
Important Clasp Developments:
Prior to 1800: s-hook, hook, pin & barrel, slide-out (tongue-in-groove) clasp, toggle
Circa 1840: spring ring clasp
Circa 1890: screw barrel clasp
Circa 1940: box clasp
Circa 1990: magnetic clasp*
*(note: A patent for a magnetic clasp was applied for during the 1950s but it did not see mass-market production)
Common Vintage Necklace Clasp Types by Era:
Early 1900s through the 1920s: pin & barrel, screw barrel, spring ring, hook, slide-out
1930s through the 1940s: spring ring, hook, fish hook, box, screw barrel, fold-over latch, slide-out, multi-strand
1950s through the 1960s: hook, fold-over latch, fish hook, box, slide-out, multi-strand
1970 through the 1980s: spring ring, screw barrel, fold-over latch, hook, lobster, toggle, fish hook, box, slide-out, multi-strand
1990 and beyond: lobster, trigger, magnetic, toggle, fish hook, screw barrel, spring ring, slide-out, tube (modern pin & barrel), multi-strand
Of course, even with the helpful charts above, you must follow a few words of caution: None of the information above will help you date a vintage necklace if someone has replaced the clasp. Sadly, this is very often the case. Clasps are susceptible to corrosion and breakage over time. This should not be surprising since clasps see more wear than the rest of a necklace due to continued opening and closure through the years.
Be wary of clasp “marriages” (incorrect clasps for the time period of a vintage necklace). For example, if you come across a flapper bead necklace from the roaring twenties with a magnetic clasp, the clasp can’t possibly be original to the piece. Many clasp marriages are not malicious attempts to deceive but done out of necessity. Quite often an original clasp or a reproduction made from the proper material is just not available.
You will learn to identify when a clasp has been replaced almost immediately upon inspection. The clasp might look newer than the rest of the findings or be made of a different material. Often, it will be the incorrect type of clasp for the time period in which the necklace was made. Once you can identify a clasp marriage on a vintage necklace, you’ll have bargaining power. Any alterations from what was original will lower the value of the piece.
The only way to maintain the value of a vintage necklace in need of a replacement is to find a clasp of identical age, style and material to the original. Even collectors, bead artisans, antiques dealers and others who deal with vintage jewelry on a daily basis might not be able to scrounge up a “period” clasp. Or they might not have the fortitude to undertake the task. However, they should disclose the fact that they have replaced an original clasp to all potential buyers, whether or not they found a proper substitute.
Knowledge of proper clasps for the era in which a necklace was made can be very helpful when dating a piece. Unfortunately, this process is not straightforward. Original clasps are often replaced with inappropriate substitutes made from different materials and from different time periods. However, with a bit of study and awareness of what clasps were popular in different eras, you will be able to spot a vintage necklace with an improper clasp. It just takes a bit of detective work.