Vintage fashion jewelry (also known as costume jewellery) pieces have become increasingly popular collectors’ items over the past few years. It is easy to see why – there is a huge variety of styles to choose from, many are quite affordable, and it’s a collection you can wear and enjoy every day.
A Focused Collection
You can of course buy any vintage jewelry you like, but sometimes it’s easier to focus a collection around a certain theme and zero in on specific pieces, such as fashion jewelry necklaces, brooches, bracelets, charms, cocktail rings, earrings, etc.; a certain material like Bakelite, enamel, stainless steel, Swarovski crystals, wood, etc.; a particular motif such as frogs, elephants, flower baskets, etc.; a specific designer – Chanel, Coro, Miriam Haskell, Dior, Coppola e Toppo (or lesser-known names); a particular decade – you get the idea.
Signed or Unsigned?
For those who are just starting out collecting, the safest bet is to go with signed items (at least for pricier pieces). There is lots of gorgeous unsigned vintage designer fashion jewelry on the market (many pieces are even made by the most well-known and collectible designers), and they can often turn out to be your most valuable finds, but until you have developed an eye for a designer’s style and know that what you are looking at is in fact an unsigned designer piece, investing a lot of money in it can be risky (this advice can obviously be ignored if you have completely fallen in love with the item and don’t care if it’s the real deal or not!).
The best way to learn to recognize vintage designer jewelry is to study designs online, in museums, and in books. Also make sure to visit antique and vintage shops (ideally ones that specialize in vintage fashion jewelry) and ask questions about the pieces.
Parures, Diamanté, Pavé – Some Common Terms
Once you start exploring the world of vintage fashion jewelry, you will come across certain terms again and again, and it is good to know what they mean. Here are some that I had to look up when I first started getting into this:
Apple Juice – a semitransparent, yellow plastic
Bakelite – a type of moldable but sturdy plastic (made from formaldehyde and carbolic acid)invented by Dr. Leo Baekland. Popular in costume jewelry in the 1920s-1940s.
Cabochon – a smooth stone or paste with a rounded dome-like top and flat bottom
Demi-Parure – a set with fewer pieces (2-3), often containing a matching necklace, pin and earrings
Diamanté – diamond imitation made from rhinestone
Gilt – gold plated or dipped in gold
Japanning – a finishing technique that colors metal a dull or shiny black (an imitation of Asian lacquer)
Jelly Belly – a pin or brooch in the shape of an animal with a glass or lucite stone for a belly
Lucite – a transparent plastic (acrylic resin)
Parure - a set of jewelry (4-5 pieces), most often consisting of a matching bracelet, brooch, necklace, earrings and sometimes a ring
Paste – glass that has been cut and faceted to look like gemstones
Pate de Verre – also called glass paste or poured glass. Glass is ground into a paste, sometimes mixed with colors, placed in a mold and fired in a kiln, resulting in a dense frosted glass piece
Pavé – design term for stones placed so close together you cannot see the surface beneath them (it is “paved” with stones).
Pinchbeck – a gold imitation made from copper and zinc, invented by Christopher Pinchbeck
Prong setting – a setting where the stones are held in place by metal prongs (claw-like “fingers”)
Rhodoid – laminated layers of cellulose acetate, invented by designer Lea Stein’s husband in the late 60s
Russian gold – a coppery, matte antiquey-looking gold finish developed by Joseff of Hollywood in order to cut down on reflections from jewelry in films
Vermeil – silver with a gold plate coating
Where To Shop
You can find collectible vintage jewelry in many places – flea markets, yard sales, antique shops and shows, estate sales, online, auctions, relatives’ attics, etc. With the vast amount of vintage fashion jewelry on the internet, it is tempting (and easy) to buy online. But beware – there are lots of fakes out there, and many are even stamped with the supposed designer’s name. When starting out, I recommend buying pieces in person rather than online, Find a reputable, well-renowned dealer in your area (and in places you are traveling to – do your research well ahead of time). Buying “live” gives you a chance to closely inspect each item, and learn more about it from the seller.
Having said that, I would like to mention that an inexpensive piece presented to you as designer vintage costume jewelry does not necessarily have to be a fake. Many stunning pieces are surprisingly affordable, especially those that were mass-produced.
Inspect The Jewelry
Always make sure to examine each piece closely (with a magnifying glass) and be on the lookout for cracks, scratches, missing pieces, fading, and obvious repairs. Is it of good quality or does it feel flimsy? Are the stones firmly set (and how – prongs? glue?) or are there loose pieces? Prong-set stones are preferable to glued, because the glue can dry over time, causing the stones to come lose. Make sure the clasp works.
Maintenance And Care
When wearing your vintage jewelry, be careful with it and avoid it coming in contact with lotions, hair spray, soap, perfume, etc. (not easy, I know). Clean it with a soft cloth and use a q-tip or very soft toothbrush to get dirt out of hard to reach places. Store the pieces in jewelry boxes (one item per box, unless you have set, in which case I prefer to keep them together) lined with acid-free paper.
I hope I have inspired you to explore the world of vintage fashion jewelry. Even if you don’t want to turn into a full-blown collector, it is a lot of fun browsing for it, testing your knowledge and see if you can pick out a certain designer’s work, and finding a gorgeous item to be enjoyed for decades. And they make beautiful gifts.