The term costume jewelry first came into fashion during the 1920s. However, men and women have been wearing jewelry made from non-precious metals for centuries. Archaeologists have discovered pieces in tombs across the globe dating back to the first humans. Although it has been referred to at times as junk jewelry or fashion pieces, many antique and vintage pieces incorporate the craftsmanship and materials seen with precious and fine jewelry. The 20th century changed the way people viewed these items.
The 20th Century
Men and women began looking at jewelry in new ways during the early 20th century. Prior to this time, women wore rings and other jewelry made using precious and semi-precious stones along with rare metals. They did so to flaunt their husband’s wealth and show their standing in society. However, some people also used it to show their religious orientation, their romantic status, or that they were mourning the loss of a loved one.
In the early 20th century, new materials were introduced. In addition, industrialization made it easier for designers to experiment with materials to create new pieces. Non-precious materials allowed the pieces to increase in size and designers could come up with bolder designs. You can see more at AdinasJewels.com or think back to the flapper fashions and Art Deco pieces popular during this period. The pieces were often extravagant and people would simply discard them or replace them when they no longer wanted to wear them.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw Europeans covet diamonds and other precious gemstones. This led to jewelers trying to find alternatives so they could provide pieces for more people. For example, Georges Frederic Strass created a special leaded glass in 1724 and referred to this glass as paste. Jewelers could cut and polish this glass using metal powder so the piece would mimic the sparkle and shine of diamonds. Referred to as diamante creations, these rings and other jewelry pieces quickly become the hot new item in Paris.
Queen Victoria made mourning jewelry popular in the 19th century, and these pieces were created using non-precious metals, including human hair. In 1892, Daniel Swarovski, an Austrian jeweler, created the fine crystal rhinestones that remain popular today. He used high-lead-content glass and backed it with permanent foil to create a stone that mimicked the qualities of precious gemstones. In addition, jewelers began using Pinchbeck and natural materials to create affordable jewelry so more people could afford the items.
The Introduction of Costume Jewelry
Costume jewelry, however, didn’t truly come about until Coco Chanel introduced her statement accessories in the late 1920s. The large pieces were meant to be worn as art rather than demonstrating a person’s wealth. These pieces were unlike anything that had been seen before. Bakelite was used to make many of these pieces and came in bright colors. Many pieces from the 1930s and 1940s were made from this material.
The 1930s and 1940s saw the introduction of modernist jewelry. Pieces inspired by Cubism and Abstract Expressionism along with other movements were seen, and pieces included gilt metal or large stones like would be seen on assembly lines. Trifari, Eisenberg, and other costume jewelers were creating delicate pieces meant to mimic the fine offerings of jewelers such as Cartier.
Movies were another source of inspiration for costume jewelry designers during this period. In 1941, the Gaita brothers founded the Pell Jewelry Company. This business used Swarovski rhinestones in countless pieces, and the items were sold in department stores such as Sears and Montgomery Ward along with Avon. In the 1950s, Christian Dior began offering costume jewelry rings and other pieces and he was not alone. Many designers opted to begin offering pieces, including fine jeweler Emanuel Ciner.
World War II, however, saw the rationing of metal, which led to an increase in costume jewelry pieces. Jewelers were forced to use items such as sterling silver because that was all that was available. Once the war ended, costume designers frequently chose to use inexpensive metals for their rings and other pieces once again. Vintage costume jewelry was popular during this time, and women wore matching sweater sets along with matching costume jewelry pieces.
Parures ensured they had matching pieces, as each set contained earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. Often referred to as demi-parures, the costume jewelry sets weren’t considered a full suite of jewelry due to the small size.
The 1950s and 1960s saw increased interest in Victorian era charm bracelets. The bracelets became popular when Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy wore them and women the world over wanted to wear them. Costume jewelers decided to take part in this trend and began offering pieces for women. Ladies of all ages would purchase charms to add to their bracelets or lockets to commemorate special occasions in their lives. Each bracelet was unique, as no two women would pick the same charms.
Purchasing Costume Jewelry Today
When purchasing costume jewelry, see if it has a jewelry mark. Many high-quality pieces come with a stamp or company name. If purchasing vintage pieces, look for names such as Coco Chanel or Monet. When buying modern items, research the company to ensure it is reputable and the pieces will be of high quality and hold up with time. Many costume pieces can be handed down through the generations if they are well made.
Examine the piece to see if any green residue is present. This shows that the finish is delaminating and the piece isn’t valuable. New pieces obviously won’t have this issue, so read reviews to see how pieces purchased by previous customers have held up with time.
Additionally, examine the piece for any visible flaws. The details of the piece should be clear. If they run together or appear messy, the piece isn’t of high quality and the purchaser should look elsewhere for the items they want. Clean pieces with clear detail show high quality.
Costume jewelry offers many benefits for buyers. The affordable price attracts many, and the quality of the pieces often makes them indistinguishable from finer pieces of jewelry. Explore the options available today, as you may be surprised by what you find and discover you love costume jewelry and want to invest in multiple pieces to wear regularly.