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How to Make Vintage-Style Jewelry

Updated on April 23, 2017
Margaret Schindel profile image

Margaret Schindel has designed, created and sold one-of-a-kind and custom handcrafted jewelry for decades. She loves sharing her techniques.

Do you love the look of vintage jewelry, or love vintage beads or components but want to mix them up into a more modern look that's uniquely your own? This article will teach you the basic techniques you need to create beautiful 1950s, 1960s and 1970s inspired jewelry designs, even if you have no prior experience.

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As a mostly self-taught, professional jewelry designer, I can assure you that learning to make jewelry isn't that difficult, if you are willing to practice the basics a little. (All the jewelry photographs in this article are of one-of-a-kind pieces I designed and created.) There are some wonderful resources for learning techniques and for design inspiration, and I'll share some of my favorites with you to get you started. And if you keep your eyes open, you'll find inspiration all around you.

Vintage Beads Strung in Symmetrical Designs

1950s style necklace and earrings with genuine vintage glass beads, pearls and textured brass spacers, designed by Margaret Schindel
1950s style necklace and earrings with genuine vintage glass beads, pearls and textured brass spacers, designed by Margaret Schindel

The easiest way to create vintage-style jewelry is to use authentic vintage beads and components in a simple necklace, bracelet or earrings. One hallmark of many beaded necklaces from the 1950s, '60s and '70s is symmetrical designs with small groups of larger beads interspersed around the strand, using metal spacer beads to "punctuate" the glass beads and pearls, as shown in my design, above.

The vast majority of the beads in this necklace, including the glass pearls and textured metal spacer beads, are genuine vintage. The large coral glass focal beads are extremely rare, but using even a few very striking, authentic beads from the post-World War II era as focal points can help give a design like this a distinctly vintage look.

Memory Wire Coil Bracelets

One-of-a-kind coil bracelet designed by Margaret Schindel features a mix of contemporary and vintage glass beads on memory wire
One-of-a-kind coil bracelet designed by Margaret Schindel features a mix of contemporary and vintage glass beads on memory wire

Another easy way to create jewelry with a vintage look is to cut a section of bracelet memory wire with several coils and string on glass beads of varying sizes and shapes. In the bracelet shown above, I mixed genuine vintage glass beads with contemporary beads to create a wide, cuff-like coil bracelet with a bead dangle at each end.

Be sure to use only memory wire cutters to cut the wire, otherwise you will ruin your regular wire cutters! Then string the beads on the wire coils, leaving 1/4" to 1/3" of bare wire on the ends. Use a sturdy pair of looping pliers with a small mandrel to turn a loop with the exposed wire at one end, then repeat with the other end of the wire. String a bead onto a short head pin, trim the excess wire above the bead, turn a loop with the looping pliers and attach it to one of the loops at the ends of the bracelet. Make another beaded dangle and attach it to the other end of the bracelet.

If you prefer not to end your coil bracelet with beaded dangles, you can trim the ends of the wire closer to the beads and glue on memory wire bead caps, which are like small, round metal beads with a hole that doesn't go all the way through the bead.

Cagework or Tapestry Beading

Bead Embroidery with Very Fine Gauge Wire on Metal Filigree or Perforated Screen Findings

Layered, cagework beaded filigree collage brooch with vintage stones and filigree, by Margaret Schindel
Layered, cagework beaded filigree collage brooch with vintage stones and filigree, by Margaret Schindel

Ornate costume jewelry encrusted with hand-embroidered pearls, beads, rhinestones and other faux jewels was extremely popular and fashionable in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Pieces from top fashion jewelry designers such as Miriam Haskell, Stanley Hagler, Robert DeMario and Ian St. Gielar are extremely collectible among high-end costume jewelry connoisseurs.

These labor-intensive designs involve intricate bead embroidery done with very fine, usually 28-gauge to 32-gauge gold-plated brass wire on stamped brass filigree components, which are "sewn" with the same or slightly heavier gauge wire onto a perforated finding base or matching brass filigree, sometimes in overlapping layers, like a collage piece. Jewelry made with this technique, called cagework or tapestry beading, would be cost-prohibitive to produce commercially today.

This is a challenging, time-consuming and often frustrating technique, because the very fine wire frequently kinks and can easily break as you embroider the beads and other components onto the metal backing and twist the ends together on the back of the embroidery, and also because pulling the thin wire with your fingertips over and over can be painful. But the results can be spectacular, and if you are extremely patient, you can create your own cagework beaded jewelry masterpiece.

5 Tips for Learning to Make Vintage Style Cagework Jewelry

Miriam Haskell is one of the best known designers of cagework jewelry. If you want to learn how to make jewelry with tapestry beading focal pieces, here's what I recommend:

  1. Start by looking carefully at the excellent photos of the backs of the jewelry in Cathy Gordon's and Sheila Pamfiloff's book Miriam Haskell Jewelry.
  2. If you can find a few pieces of broken vintage bead-embroidered pieces at flea markets, yard or estate sales, or on eBay that you can pick up inexpensively, and then carefully taking them apart, bit by bit, to see how they were constructed.
  3. Read Diane Fitzgerald's superb 2008 article in VintageStyle Jewelry, "Creating a Collage à la Miriam Haskell," which provides a high-level step-by-step of the entire process. It also shows you how to make your own perforated screen findings!
  4. Read the article "Cagework Assemblage: The Basics of Beads and Filigree on Wire" by Brenda Sue Lansdowne on the B'sue Boutiques blog.
  5. Watch the following video on this technique by Brenda Sue.

Vintage Haskell Style Beading, Cagework on Filigree

More of My Miriam Haskell Style Cagework Beaded Jewelry Designs

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Easier Alternatives for Beginners

If you're not that ambitious or good with your hands, you may want to try one of the simpler techniques that simulate the look of cageworking. One is to thread beads on headpins, feed the wire ends through holes in the filigree base, and either twist the ends together or coil them tightly against the back of the filigree with round-nose pliers. Here's a very simple example from Bajuna Jewelry's Helpful Hint Blog.

I've also seen projects that involve sewing on the beads on with beading wire, beading thread or fishing line, all of which are far more forgiving than the very fine-gauge wire used in authentic cageworked jewelry.

Collage Jewelry

AKA Assemblage Jewelry

One-of-a-kind, vintage inspired collage necklace by Margaret Schindel
One-of-a-kind, vintage inspired collage necklace by Margaret Schindel

Making vintage-inspired collage jewelry is a lot of fun, and if you use the right glue, it's hard to do it wrong. Most designers consider E-6000, despite its noxious odor and tendency to dry too fast sometimes, the glue of choice for assemblage jewelry. I recommend buying the small tubes, which can be used up before the glue dries up, becomes gummy and loses its stickiness.

Whether you use all authentic vintage brass or other metal stampings, beads and stones, all contemporary or reproduction vintage components, or as I usually do, a mixture of vintage, reproduction and contemporary materials, it's easy to create bold, glamorous jewelry that Hollywood starlets from decades ago might have worn.

Collage cuff bracelet with genuine and reproduction vintage components, by Margaret Schindel
Collage cuff bracelet with genuine and reproduction vintage components, by Margaret Schindel

Collage / Assembly Jewelry Demos, Tutorials and Projects from B'sue Boutiques

Brenda Sue Lansdowne of B'sue Boutiques loves making collage jewelry, and she's been making and selling it successfully for a long time. She's a fun lady and very generous about sharing her tips, tricks and techniques. Here are some videos she's posted on YouTube that will teach you how to make high-impact collage jewelry. Her methods are easy to follow, and there's nothing subtle about her impressive, "look at me!" designs. Her website also sells the brass bases and other components to make these types of designs.

Introduction to Collage Jewelry: The Glue to Use

Collaged Jewelry with Brass Stampings and Rhinestones, Part One

Collage Jewelry Part Two, Painted Brass Stampings, Pearlies and Rhinestones

More of My Vintage-Style Collage Jewelry Designs for Inspiration

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Adding a Patina to Metal Jewelry Components

Adding a patina (AKA "patinating") can instantly transform new silver, brass, copper, or plated metal filigrees, chains, and other jewelry findings and components to give them an aged or antique finish suitable for vintage-style jewelry.

Remove Lacquer Coatings Before Applying a Patina

Most of these patinas only work on raw metals. If the metal already has been sealed with a lacquer or other protective coating to keep it shiny, you will need to remove that coating before a patina can be applied successfully. If the piece you wish to patinate does not contain any heat-sensitive materials, such as glue or heat-sensitive stones, you can drop it into a pot of saturated baking soda solution (water mixed with as much baking soda as can be dissolved in it) until the lacquer lifts off. Then rinse the piece thoroughly under running water. If the piece contains heat-sensitive elements, you will need to remove the lacquer with lacquer thinner. Lacquer thinner is a hazardous material that must be kept away from heat and used with caution! Be sure to read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the solvent you are using and follow the safety precautions. Using it outdoors is best, ideally when there is a light breeze to carry away the noxious fumes.

Note: If you are not sure of the metal composition of your jewelry components, do this at your own risk!

Cleaning and Degreasing the Metal

Clean the metal to remove any grease or fingerprints that could interfere with the absorption of the patina. A bowl of water with a squirt of dish soap and a little household ammonia works well. Put on nitrile or rubber gloves, then swish the metal in this solution and scrub it gently with a soft toothbrush, such as a child's toothbrush or one for sensitive teeth. Then rinse the piece thoroughly under running water and place it on a few sheets of paper towel (or a fabric towel dedicated to craft use) to dry while you prepare your patina set-up.

Patina Options for Jewelry

You can use heat, or household chemicals, such as ammonia, vinegar and salt, or commercial products to produce different patina effects.

Heat Patina

Tim McCreight has a marvelous page dedicated to Heat Patinas on the Brynmorgen Press site.

Liver of Sulfur Patina

One of my favorite options is liver of sulfur, which is mixed with water to create a weak solution It can produce a range of different patina colors on fine, Argentium or sterling silver, and brown-to-dark gray shades on copper, brass or bronze. It has little to no effect on high-karat gold, but may darken lower-karat gold alloys a bit.

Before preparing the patina solution, prepare a neutralizing solution by mixing as much baking soda into a cup or small bowl of water as it can absorb. Stir in a spoonful at a time until it stops dissolving, then set it aside. A weak liver of sulfur solution can produce a range of different patina colors on fine, If you use a warm liver of sulfur solution with cold metal, or a cold solution with warm metal, you can dip your piece repeatedly and watch the color develop.Fair warning: Liver of sulfur smells like rotten eggs, so work in a well ventilated environment!

I highly recommend Cool Tools' excellent article, "A Jewelry Artists Guide to Liver of Sulfur Patinas & Finishes" and Katherine Palochak's iridescent patina recipe, a liver of sulfur solution with ammonia and salt.

Non-Toxic Chemical Patinas

"Patination with Non-Toxic Solutions," a paper by a Master of Fine Arts degree candidate, describes numerous patina recipes and techniques using non-toxic household chemicals, such as salt and ammonia, as well as other non-toxic chemicals such as liver of sulfur, to create a range of effects.

Swellegant

Jewelry artist Christi Friesen developed the Swellegant line of metal coatings, dye oxides and patinas, which are water-based and non-toxic. Some of these products allow you to add a layer of metal to a non-metal surface that can then be patinated. All the products should be sealed to preserve the finish. Learn more about using them to color or patinate jewelry findings.

Baldwin's Patina

Baldwin's Patina gives a (usually) brownish patina on copper, brass, bronze and steel.

Other Commercial Patinas

Different chemicals are suitable for different metals, so be sure to read the packaging labels. Also, some of the chemicals can be dangerous, so be sure to read the MSDS for any product you are considering using and taking all recommended safety precautions. I recommend wearing nitrile gloves, eye protection, and a particulate mask suitable for filtering vapors when working with most of these chemicals; working in a very well ventilated area; and avoiding the more caustic chemicals, as there are much safer alternatives. Be sure to ask your local authorities about the proper way to dispose of the chemicals you are using.

Mark Nelson of Rio Grande created a helpful project sheet for Beads, Baubles and Jewels, "Oxidizing to Create 'Vintage' Components," that highlights the use of many of these formulas. Here are two commonly used products:

  • Jax — Jax makes a range of patina and oxidizing products for various metals. These work extremely well, but are hazardous
  • Midas Black Max Oxidizer — Black Max is the only product I know of that will provide a true, dark black patina on silver (or a gray patina on gold alloys (e.g., 18K, 14K, 12K or 10K gold). I don't use it because it is contains tellurium compounds and hydrochloric acid, which are caustic and hazardous to touch or breathe. It is also expensive compared to some of the other options listed here. However, many professional jewelry artists swear by it. Be sure to take all the recommended safety precautions, including working in a well ventilated area and wearing chemical safety googles and neoprene or rubber gloves and apron.

Patina Recipes for Brass, Bronze and Copper

The Patina Formulas for Brass, Bronze and Copper page on The Science Company's website is an excellent collection of chemical patina recipes from a variety of sources and for different metals.

Polishing the High Points

In most cases, patina is used to emphasize texture by creating a contrast between lighter, raised areas and darker, recessed areas. Remove the patina from the high points of the metal by lightly rubbing just the raised surfaces with extremely fine, 1000- or 2000-grit automotive sandpaper, 3M polishing papers, or a commercial jewelry polishing cloth with a polishing abrasive embedded in the fabric (such as a Sunshine cloth).

To avoid accidentally removing the patina from the recessed areas, wrap the sandpaper, polishing paper or polishing cloth very tightly around a salon board (manicure nail board), keeping the material taut against the nail board and lightly rubbing away the color from just the raised surface areas.

Sealing the Patina

You may want to seal the metal afterward, depending on what type of patina you use. Whatever you use as a coating, it will alter the color somewhat. A matte sealer will affect the color less than a gloss coating.

I recommend making a few test pieces to see the effects of different coatings over your choice of patina. Here are a couple of options:

  • Rub on a very thin film of Renaissance Wax with a soft cloth. Let the wax dry for a few minutes, then buff it off.
  • Apply a thin, even coat of a clear liquid or spray lacquer, such ProtectaClear or Nikolas.

Other Metal Coloring Techniques

Hand-painted raw brass collage cuff bracelet, one-of-a-kind design by Margaret Schindel
Hand-painted raw brass collage cuff bracelet, one-of-a-kind design by Margaret Schindel

Color can add excitement to your vintage style jewelry designs. Here are a few ways to color metal components and findings.

Metal Paints

Color Magic is a line of paints specifically for metal. It comes in a selection of transparent and opaque shades, along with a thinner and clear UV coating to prevent fading. Color Magic comes in small bottles with built-in brush applicators, very similar to nail polish, and is extremely easy to apply. I used several transparent shades to color the raw brass bracelet cuff blank, leaves and butterfly stamping for the purple collage bracelet shown above.

Glass Paints

Pebeo Vitrea 160 are transparent, water-based glass paints that can also be used on clean metal. After applying these to your metal, the pieces need to air dry completely for 24 hours and then bake in a 325 °F oven for 40 minutes to heat-set the paint. These paints are not durable, so it's best to use them in areas where they are less apt to be rubbed or scratched, such as on drop earrings.

© 2017 Margaret Schindel

What Is Your Favorite Vintage Style Jewelry Type or Designer?

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    • Margaret Schindel profile image
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      Margaret Schindel 3 months ago from Massachusetts

      Thank you so much, @bravewarrior! I used to sell my jewelry on my own website and at shows, but since I went back to the corporate world full-time last year, I've only had time to do custom commissions for existing clients or people they refer to me, and for people who admire my jewelry when I wear it and want me to design something for them to wear or give as a gift. When I retire, I'm hoping to have enough time to make more jewelry to sell. Thanks again for your wonderful compliment!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 months ago from Central Florida

      Your jewelry is beautiful, Margaret! I admire anyone who has the patience for crafting. I'm one who has absolutely none. Where do you sell your jewelry?

    • Margaret Schindel profile image
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      Margaret Schindel 4 months ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks very much, Kristen! As I mentioned, some of the techniques are easier to do than others. For example, every time I make a cagework beaded piece, my poor, sore fingertips make me swear I'll never do another. But the results of that technique are so gorgeous that I always come back to it! But something like the single-strand necklace example with the vintage coral glass beads or the coil bracelet are definitely easy enough for a beginner to make. Thanks again for your lovely feedback!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 4 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Margaret, those designs are really stunning and wonderful to create from vintage jewelry. It sounds so simple and easy to do at home. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this clever project.