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Secrets to Buying Antique and Vintage Jewellery in France

Updated: Jul 2, 2023


buying antique and vintage jewellery in Paris

A QUICK GUIDE to buying antique and vintage jewellery in the French language, in France, for English speakers, along with some of the basic knowledge of French jewellery that could stop you making a purchase mistake.


This blog is for any keen antique and vintage jewellery collectors who either plan on shopping for jewels in France or who shop online on French websites. Perhaps your favourite instagram jewellery account is in French, or maybe you just adore French jewellery and want to get stuck in with collecting.


I moved to France in 2018, speaking basic French and with a dream of starting my own online jewellery business. One benefit of having this dream was that I wouldn't have to completely rely on my level of French to run my business and my working language, for the most part, would be in my first language, English. I would have the opportunity to slowly improve my level in French and learn along the way, which I have now been able to do... although it is a continuous journey, of course! I have lived in France for almost 5 years now, which is actually almost half of my antique jewellery career... however, learning the vocabulary and terminology, as well as familiarising myself not only with French jewellery but also the people and the trade here has had its challenges.

French brocante for jewellery buying

Although my antique jewellery career has been almost equally divided between France and the UK, my journey to integrate in France has been slower than it was in the UK. The pandemic and the fact I work solo have, of course, been significant contributing factors, but another has been the language and vocabulary, which I have had to learn as I go. So here it is, my CHEAT SHEET to buying antique and vintage jewellery in the French language with a few "MUST KNOWS", to avoid buying something you thought was something else! I also talk about a few things that I have learnt about French jewellery, which differ from what we have in the UK.



MUST KNOWS!


Pearls:


Pearls need a whole sub-section for themselves!!! If you directly translate the word from English then you might get confused about what you are buying, especially in the spoken word. Someone who might not have the intention of misleading you might do so, even if they are talking to you in English, the different ways we use this word in the different languages could lead to a miscommunication.

antique French Belle Epoque toi et moi ring

The word pearl in French is "perle", however, this is a generic term for ANY bead!!! If you are after real pearls then here are a few key terms below:


Key terms for buying PEARLS:


Perle de culture = Cultured pearl

Perle de fin = Natural pearl

Perle d'eau douce = Freshwater pearl

Cultivée = Cultured

Naturelle = Natural

Mer = Sea






Gold and its Imitations:

antique French ring with eagle head mark

Like everywhere, gold has lots of imitations in France. It is good to be aware of how they are referred to as sometimes, like in English, they are accompanied by the word gold, which can be confusing for non-native speakers. This means that if you recognise the word gold but not what it is paired with you could misunderstand. I have even seen the French word gold, "or", accompanied with abbreviations to the full words to describe the true material, making it even more confusing. For example, instead of "plaqué or" for gold plated, we sometimes see "pl or". Below are my key words and terms for determining if the metal you are looking at is gold.



Key terms for buying GOLD:

Massif = Solid

Plaqué/Pl = Plated

Fix = Plated pieces are sometimes described as FIX and are sometimes stamped as well

Or = Gold, as 18 carat is the most common gold found in France, sometimes the carat is not described, always double check.

Vermeil = silver gilt


French Hallmarks - a Super Basic Guide:

antique pearl ring with French eagle head mark

The French hallmarking system is beautiful but complex! It can get tricky, but down below you'll find the most common hallmarks I have come across and their meanings. Hallmarks are sometimes paired with a regional or maker's mark. Plated pieces are also stamped so if you see a mark from afar, don't just assume that means silver or gold, have a good look and ask exactly what the mark is or if unknown, if the item has been tested.

basic guide to understanding French hallmarks

Key hallmarks and terms:


Poinçon = Hallmark/ stamp / mark


Or 18 carat = 18ct Gold -

Tête d'aigle = Eagle head - hallmark for 18ct gold and the most common mark you'll see for 18ct gold pieces.

Tête de cheval = Horse head - used on 18ct gold between 1838 -1919

Hibou = Owl - used on 18ct gold items which were imported to France, used between the 19th and 20th century


Or 14 carat = 14ct Gold -

Coquille de Saint-Jacques = Scallop shell - used on 14ct items


Or 9ct carat = 9ct gold -

Trèfle = Clover = used on 9ct items


Platine = Platinum -

Tête de chien = Dog head - used for platinum items, from 1912 to present. If paired with a number this will indicate platinum fineness.

Mascaron = Mascaron (face with a beard) - used for platinum items, in the 20th century, from 1912.


Argent = Silver -

Minerve = Minerva (head of Roman goddess in helmet) - used on silver items, from 1838, with a minimum of 800 to 1000 parts. If she is paired with a number this will indicate the silver fineness.

Tête de Sanglier = Boar head - used on silver items, with a minimum of 800 to 1000 parts, from 1838 to the 20th century

Crabe = Crab - used on silver items, with a minimum of 800 to 1000 parts

Cygne = Swan - used on silver items which were imported to France, used from 1898 to the 20th century


Other Marks -

Tête de Sanglier et Tete d'aigle = Boar head and eagle head - a front to back double hallmark created in 1906 for French items made of both silver and 18ct

FIX = gold plated


USEFUL VOCABULARY AND TERMINOLOGY

Here are some keywords and expressions that you will likely come across if you are hunting for jewellery in the French language. If you have a word you need help with and it is not listed here then please don't hesitate to reach out; I will do my best to let you know what your word or phrase means.

antique rings, vintage rings, seed pearl rings, Art Deco rings

Jewellery = Bijoux (Bijou singular)

Ring = Une Bague

Engagement ring= Une bague de fiançailles

Eternity ring= Une alliance

Signet ring = Une chevalière

Locket = Un porte-photo

Lucky Charm = Un porte-bonheur

Medal = Une médaille

Pendant = Un Pendentif

Necklace= Un collier

Earrings = Des boucles d'oreilles

Hoops = Créoles

Sleepers = Dormeuses

Brooch = Une broche

Costume jewellery = Bijoux de fantasie

Mourning jewellery = Bijoux de deuil


Hallmark = Poinçon

Tête d'aigle = Eagle head

Tête de cheval = Horse head

Hibou = Owl

Coquille Saint -Jacques = Scallop shell

Trèfle = Clover

Tête de chien = Dog head

Tête de Sanglier = Boar head

Crabe = Crab

Cygne = Swan


Precious Stones = Pierres Précieuses

Gems = Les gemmes

Diamond = Le diamant

Emerald = L'émeraude

Sapphire = Le saphir

Ruby = Le rubis

Amethyst = L'améthyste

Jet = Le jais

Opal = L'opale

Moonstone = La pierre de lune

Garnet = Le grenat

Topaz = Le topaze

Tourmaline =La tourmaline

Aquamarine = L'aigue-marine


antique rings, vintage rings

Metals = Métaux (Métal singular)

Gold =Or

Yellow gold = Or jaune

White gold = Or gris / blanc

Rose gold = Or rose

Gold Plated = Plaqué / Fix

Silver = Argent

Silver gilt = Vermeil

Platinum =Platine

Brass = Laiton

Copper = Cuivre


Stone Cut = Taille de Pierre

Old cut = Taille ancienne

Rose cut = Taille rose

Round Brilliant = Brilliant rond

Oval = Ovale

Pear = Poire

Princess = Princesse

Heart = Cœur

Emerald = Émeraude

Square = Carré

Cushion = Coussin

Step cut = Taille à degré

antique jewellery, antique pendants, antique brooches, vintage gold hoops, vintage rings,

Other useful terms:

Old = Ancien(s)/ Ancienne(s)

Second-hand = D'occasion / seconde- main

New= Neuf


Ring sizing = Mise à taille

Scratched = Griffé

Damaged = Abîmé


Prongs/ claws = Griffes

Findings = Apprêts

Bails = Bélières

Butterfly / Earring back = Poussette

Jump ring = Anneaux de bout

Clasp = Fermoirs

Enamel = Émail


Jewellery Shop = Bijouterie or Joaillerie

Jeweller = Bijoutier/ Bijoutière or Joaillier / Joaillière

Presentation box = Écrin

Jewellery box = Boîte à bijoux


UNEXPECTED SURPRISES


Another interesting fact about French gold jewellery is the use of almost exclusively 18ct gold. I was not aware of this when I moved to France, I had even associated 14ct gold with French jewellery. This is certainly not the case! You do see other carats here, but they will likely be pieces that have been imported or are not originally French. Please note: with modern French jewellery we are starting to see more of a mixture of carats.


For this reason, my theory is that this is why, we see a lot more gold imitations such as fix and plaqué in France (although, of course, we have them in antique UK jewellery). In France you see masses of it, but with pieces of incredible quality and beautifully crafted. My personal theory (disclaimer: completely made up from my own experience and hunch!) is that the use of lower carats in British jewellery is perhaps why a jeweller might have opted for the use of 9ct in the UK, to create a more affordable piece, whereas in France they might have opted for a gold alternative, such as a gold plated piece or silver gilt.


We also very often see paste and stone imitations set in high carat in antique and vintage French jewellery. Don't ever assume because something is set in 18ct the stones will be real. Perhaps this was another way of making lower cost items without using lower carat golds. Again, we see paste and gold combinations in the UK, however, I was surprised about how common it is in comparison, when looking at older French pieces.


I hope you enjoyed that little cheat sheet for buying jewellery in the French language. There is so much more I could say... but I just wanted to give a quick overview of some of the things I WISH I had known when I first started buying here.

If you like this type of blog then let me know if you'd like to see more or share it with someone who might find it useful!


by Rebecca

Founder and buyer at the Jewellery Box d'un Petit Cœur






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