Classic, Vintage or Retro

Design idea A317 Necklace and Earrings

by Barbara van Look, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Antique, classic, vintage, retro and period--these popular buzzwords are often used loosely when describing jewelry pieces or jewelry-making components. From the legally defined antique to the rarely used period, here are some guidelines for appropriately using popular words to describe finished jewelry pieces or jewelry-making components.

Part of the challenge with using these words is the confusing and contradictory definitions they have, and how these terms are often used interchangeably in the fashion and accessory industries. So the next time you click on a website and read about using vintage glass beads to create that classic look, you'll have a good idea of what that means.


Items considered classic can either be antique or vintage. What sets a classic apart from the rest is quality. Classic is often equated with traditional. However, to be classic, the item should exemplify the best qualities of a style or set a new standard for excellence in its field. An item can be classic regardless of how old it is, though the style or the artist should be well-known enough to merit the description.

Classic, Vintage or Retro

In the worlds of jewelry and beadwork, some designer/artists talk about the classic pearl necklace. Others use the word to describe a piece of jewelry or a component that is a shining example of a particular artist or style: the pendant is classic Art Nouveau; the focal component is classic Leslie Lampworker.

This is significantly different from classical, which refers to either the music of Beethoven, Haydn and others, or to the art and style of the ancient Greeks and Romans: the bracelet chimed like a classical symphony; the brooch had a classical scene painted on it.


The word vintage originated in the vineyard, where it was first used to describe wines bottled in the same year. It is often inaccurately used to define something old, interchangeably with the words antique and classic (although the first word means only 'old' and the second indicates 'high quality' ). However, an item can be vintage without being classic.

Classic, Vintage or Retro

In the worlds of jewelry and beadwork, vintage is most-often used to indicate a piece or component that is a product of the high-quality manufacturing of a previous time frame (usually from 25 to 99 years) and is noted for enduring appeal: she bought vintage glass beads at an estate sale. Vintage jewelry tends to be dated from approximately 1980 back to 1910. Fine-quality pieces--even a number of vintage costume jewelry items--will often have jewelry marks on the back or underside of the piece. Names such as ART, Hollycraft, Mazer, Pennino, Warner and others are collectible in the vintage jewelry market. When describing a piece of vintage jewelry, it's best to state the time frame the piece is from: the earrings are vintage 1930s.

Vintage-style refers to an item which is created in the style (but not always in the same materials or with the same tools) of a previous time frame: she found vintage-style beads to finish her necklace.

Vintage-style is also a term loosely applied to ''out-of-program'' colors and shapes by Crystal Passions®.


A slang term, derived from the French prefix retro and used in words such as rétrospectif orrétrograde, retro means ''a fashion, décor, design or style reminiscent of, associated with, revived from or modeled on something from the past.'' Retro is used to indicate styles from the recent past, most commonly from 10 to 49 years. It is most often used to refer to styles from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The word retro--like the word antique--confines itself to the age of an item and makes no promise of quality. When describing a piece of retro jewelry, it's best to state the time frame the piece is from: it was a retro 1970s acrylic ring.

Classic, Vintage or Retro

Retro-style refers to an item which is created in the style of a previous time frame, though it may not be created from the same materials or by the same processes: she wore retro-style enamel and stainless steel earrings.


While we tend to see the word period prefaced by something that tells us what kind of dinosaurs ruled the Earth, it's actually an overlooked term that can be very precise--if used properly. Period is a word borrowed originally from classical Greek, dragged through Latin and French and flung with a number of other words into English, where it's used with abandon for no less than six definitions. In the worlds of jewelry and beadwork, the word period indicates an item that is actually from--or appears to be from--a pre-determined or specific historical time frame: the earring was a period piece; the glass bead was from within period.

Classic, Vintage or Retro

Specifically, period is often used by collectors, artisans, recreationists and re-enactors who focus on particular blocks of history. They will describe an item as being period or periodesque, whether the piece is actually from that time, or modernly manufactured to replicate an item from that time.

If a period item is actually from the time it represents, it is better described as retro, vintage or antique. If an item is created in the style of, with the same materials of and by the same tools as a historical artifact, it can be called period: the buttons looked period. If an item is created in the style of a historical artifact, but with modern materials or modern tools, it is best called periodesque: the buttons were periodesque. There are a variety of historical periods that have collectors, artisans, recreationists and re-enactors who specialize in them: World War II, American Civil War, English Civil War, Renaissance and Medieval Europe, ancient Rome and more.


This is the only definition which is set by law in the United States. In 1930, the US Customs Service defined an antique as any item that was created or produced in 1830 or earlier. In 1966, the Customs Service adopted the definition of antique as any item at least 100 years old at the time of purchase. (The rules are different for electronics, tools and automobiles.) Antique is a Latin word meaning ''ancient.'' While it is commonly believed that anything that old must also be high-quality or valuable, legally, the word says nothing about the quality of the item--only its age.

In the worlds of jewelry and beadwork, the word 'antique' is most-often used as in the example: the moccasins were decorated with antique beads. Sometimes, it is mistakenly used to describe items which have been antiqued: the clasp had an antiqued finish. Unfortunately, it is also inaccurately used to describe items that would be better defined as period (the item's design, decoration or quality was inspired or influenced by items from a historical era): the necklace used an antique-style focal component. Antique-style is the least-defined word, and the most problematic. It's usually better to choose a more precise description: the necklace used a floral-and-vine focal component or the necklace used a Victorian-inspired floral component.

Common words used to describe jewelry pieces or jewelry-making components, period, vintage, retro, classic and antique are often loosely used in the fashion and accessory industries. These guidelines should help add some clarity to the descriptions you see and use.

Design with... Additional Resources

Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article "Classic, Vintage or Retro?" as featured in an email newsletter. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.

''Antique/Classic/Retro/Vintage article was good, but more photos throughout the article would be very helpful."
- Deborah

" I know I wrote last month to tell you that I liked an article that had been in my outbox forever but I liked the "Classic, Vintage or Retro?" article too! Thank you for the information. You are doing a good job. Now all I have to do is find a buyer for all of my Vintage jewelry."
- Deborah

"This article was very informative and useful! Great!"
- Linda