Antique Jewelry: 19th and 20th Century Gypsy Jewelry

August 8th, 2012 by

The Gypsy people, also called Roma or Romani, can trace their origins back more than 1000 years to the Indian subcontinent. Gypsy bloodlines and cultures have since proliferated across Europe and most of the rest of the world. During the early part of the 20th century, many Gypsy families arrived in the United States, bringing with them their culture and of course their possessions, which tend to showcase the Roma’s unique skill with intricate metalwork. This skill is easily recognized in a form of rare and now highly valued antique jewelry.

Metal smelting, plating, and shaping skills were believed to have developed among the Roma more than a millennium ago and have since been passed down from one generation to the next. As a result, the most beautiful and prized antique jewelry of this century is often set in or composed of various metals, specifically copper and gold. Gold cuff bracelets and earrings, gold belts, and gold medallions made by Roma are often more valuable then the gold used to make them– worth more than their weight, so to speak. But there are other reasons why these pieces are so sought after, many originating in aspects of the Roma culture and lifestyle.

For example, as a nomadic people, Gypsies historically limit their possessions to what they can carry or wear, so jewelry has become a form of wearable currency. But this exposes items to damage and loss and so, as generations go by, truly antique jewelry can become harder to find. The Roma also traditionally bury possessions with their owner upon the owner’s death, the possible exception being a single ring given to the owners oldest daughter. Jewelry belonging to a deceased person cannot be sold, and even as these restrictions have changed and lifted over the years, it still remains taboo to sell this jewelry within the Roma community. All of these factors contribute to a general attrition of truly authentic antique jewelry displaying Roma metalwork. The current rarity of these items can also be traced to the 1930’s and the great depression which left many families in financial circumstances that forced them to pawn or melt antique jewelry pieces down in order to sell the gold.

A few features to look for when evaluating antique jewelry with Gypsy origins: First, the metalwork. Gems and stones are often set in the pieces, but Gypsy owners typically preferred to invest in gold, since gold is more difficult to counterfeit. Intricate wirework, or filigree, is also a common feature of authentic Gypsy pieces.
Keep an eye out for Gypsy motifs as well, the most popular being horseshoes, hearts, and the head of a beautiful woman in profile, often referred to as “the Gypsy queen.” If you happen to own antique jewelry displaying these images, keep in mind the Gypsy belief that such pieces are good luck to own, but bad luck to sell. This also, of course, escalates the pieces in both rarity and value.

- Erin Sweeney