About seven years ago, as a vintage furniture dealer on the lookout for mid-century designs, I began to notice vintage costume jewelry at flea markets and estate sales. What drew me, were the over the top pieces that were all about fashion not preciousness and intrinsic value. It was fun to discover the pieces I had only seen in movies and magazines from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Extravagant rhinestone bibs in colors that nature never intended, Op Art plastics, snake motif bangles pulled me in with their exuberance and quality of materials. There was so much to choose from, glitzy 80s enamel and rhinestone designs, earthy 70s beads, fantastic plastic 60s pendants.
The possibilities for changing up one’s look just by donning a few well-chosen pieces proved irresistible. I was hooked and added another category to my weekend treasure hunts. I got to play dress up and share my newfound obsession with clients who appreciated this well-crafted eye candy, from well know designers such as Chanel, Lanvin, Dior, Weiss, and a myriad of unsigned bijou that stood out in its design and craftsmanship.
Left: Kenneth Lane Faux Jade Koi Necklace; Right: Trifari Red Glass Necklace
A little background about costume jewelry. It all started with two influential French style icons – Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. By treating costume jewelry as essential aspects of their clothing collections, they legitimized and popularized the idea of jewelry as pure fashion, while being at complete opposite ends stylistically. Chanel based her pieces on historical precedents, her influences ranged from Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon and Renaissance examples, Schiap traded on shock value, influenced by the Dada and Surrealist art movements, her designs were playful and whimsical.
While the French made fake jewelry more fashionable then its precious counterpart, America, fully industrialized after WW I, produced the majority of it. With the influx of European immigrants escaping the threat of Nazism in the 1930s, many skilled fine jewelry designers and craftsmen provided an inexpensive, highly specialized workforce for the factories in Providence, Rhode Island, where most costume jewelry was manufactured.
Firms like Miriam Haskell, Eisenberg, Hobé, Trifari, Napier, and Ciner produced high quality, inventive designs that have become sought after and highly collectible. Haskell, founded in 1926, like her European counterparts Chanel and Schiaparelli, elevated costume jewelry to an art form. Her unique, complex, feminine designs based on forms in nature are some of the finest examples of costume jewelry ever made. Founded in 1918, Trifari’s diverse output in style and superb craftsmanship established it as one of the most renowned costume jewelry firms. The tone was set early by their chief designer from 1930-1968, Alfred Phillipe, a Frenchman who previously worked for Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. He introduced fine jewelry techniques into production and used high quality Austrian rhinestones to create convincing imitations of fine jewelry.
Ciner, a proponent of the “Real Look” jewelry, started out as fine jewelry manufacturer in 1892 and in the 1930s switched production to costume jewelry. Made of the finest materials, Ciner designs, display fine enamel work with high quality pavé-set rhinestones.
Left: Schiaparelli Watermelon Rhinestone Demi-Parure; Right: Christian Dior Ball Link Necklace
Another manufacture of note is Kenneth Jay Lane, founded in 1962. Known for outfitting celebrities of the day like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Duchess of Windsor. Championed by Diana Vreeland, the renowned editor of American Vogue, his career was successfully launched. His cheeky reworkings of important jewels, and bold exuberant designs based on historical pieces, proved enormously popular.
There are thousands of designers to choose from when looking for costume jewelry, signed and unsigned, this jewelry was meant to be ephemeral reflecting the latest whim of fashion. The lower cost of production allowed for greater experimentation and produced more daring creations than fine jewelry could afford.
- Looks from The Factory’s Voyage to Marrakesh Spring ’13 Collection featuring Sasha Maks Vintage jewelry
Costume jewelry is a playful attention grabber that communicates the luxury of style, a unique and personal point of view, and offers endless experimentation. Go ahead and let a glitzy rhinestone bib mingle with a tough-chic chain. Rock a mixed arm party with rhinestones, gold bangles, and a silver cuff. You can find faux bijou to express whatever mood strikes you and easily update your look.
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