Vintage vs. Antique & Other Terms for “Old Stuff”

Vintage vs. Antique – terms you probably hear often but unless you are a serious collector, they all mean the same thing to you; old stuff.  The difference is actually up to 80 years, which can be significant if you are talking about a vintage engagement ring or antique silver spoons. There are a lot of terms used by collectors, both professional and hobbyists.  Knowing their meanings can help you make informed buying decisions. Here is a quick primer to get you started.

Terms That Define Age


The term antique officially means anything that is at least 100 years old. If someone is advertising an antique desk from the 1940’s (and it’s not yet the year 2045), they are either not experienced sellers, or they are not being honest. When buying from a reputable store or experienced collector, an item listed as antique should be genuine. Remember that determining an object’s age can take significant expertise and/or research. Most genuine antiques don’t have a date on them.

Jewelers can determine age by markings, materials, clasp styles and other features. Antique furniture experts often specialize in a certain century in order to become experts. Expertise is gained over time after looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of similar pieces. Unless you are talking to a true expert, be cautious when someone give you a 30-second assessment of your treasure.


A lot of things are vintage these days; cars, clothes, albums, video games and even Instagram filters for your photos. This is a much broader term that means anything that is at least 20 years old. That covers about 80 years, as compared to antiques which can be hundreds of years old. For those of us reaching middle age, it can be a little shocking to hear that those oversized hot-pink earrings from our high school days are now considered vintage collectibles!

While vintage has a definition, some sellers are using the term loosely. If you see something listed as vintage when it’s clearly less than 20 years old, it’s probably better described as, “estate.”


Estate jewelry, estate furniture, estate collectibles;  all terms for things that have been previously owned. The term is often combined with date-specific words for clarification. A “vintage estate ring,” is a piece that was once owned by someone else and is at least 20 years old. You can also buy an estate ring that may only be a year old. Essentially when you hear estate, think previously owned. Some pieces come from estate sales, where the

previous owner has passed, but today many come from individuals who are downsizing or supplementing their retirement.

The term, previously owned has many associations. Depending on what’s being referred to, you may find it means a great price or a unique item. Estate jewelry is popular because like a used car, it can be in excellent condition and fully functional, without the retail sticker shock. Many pieces have been polished, cleaned and restored to like-new condition and you pay less than you would if you walked into a store or dealership. Because it’s not fresh off the shelf, so to speak, you might get something really special. Estate jewelry often includes custom-made pieces, unique designs, or styles that can’t be found in stores anymore.

A note about estate, vintage and antique wedding jewelry; the concept that wedding jewelry must be new and unused by a previous owner comes from the modern day jewelry industry. In our disposable society, we are bombarded with the idea that new is better.  It’s worth keeping this in mind when you consider whether to buy an estate ring. Remember that buying estate pieces of any kind is a great way to recycle and older items are often very well made.

Classic & Classy

Classic typically refers to a valued model of older vehicle. Some states have definitions for classic that range from 20 to 30 years of age. Antique still applies to vehicles, so if you have a 1908 Ford Model-T, you have an antique car, but a 1946 Mercury Coupe is a “classic.” Classic is also defined as something that’s been judged to be the best of it’s kind in a period of time. Die hard Chevy fans might tell you a 1970 Chevelle is a classic, whereas a 1970 Mustang is just an old car (or vice versa).

Classy and classic can be descriptors, used to define the quality of something. In terms of jewelry, classy pieces tend to be elegant, well-made, and attractive to the eye. Some brands are commonly known as classics – Tiffany, Chopard and Coro among them. Classy is in often in the eye of the beholder. Depending on your prior experience, personal tastes, finances and cultural background, what you define as classy may be different from someone else. Buy what you like, not what anyone else tells you you should!


When we are referring to very old things, such as civilizations and people whose societies no longer exist (Greek, Roman, Aztec, etc.), we use the term ancient. Coins, tools and jewelry from these periods are considered ancient items. For comparison, a pearl necklace made in England in 1550 is antique, whereas a coin from the Byzantine era (which ended in 1453), is ancient. England still exists but the Byzantine Empire is now multiple independent countries. For the historians among you, it could be argued that in old countries such as China, an item could be defined as ancient Chinese as opposed to modern Chinese. While this is true, we’ll leave that  for a future post on Asian collectibles!

Now when your father, grandfather or husband tells you he’s ancient, you can let him know he’s actually a classy, vintage model, unless he’s a centenarian, in which case he can claim genuine antique status.

Things Grandma Kept sells Antique, Vintage and Estate jewelry, as well as coins and and collectibles. Tonya Dean is the owner and chief curator at

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