Costume jewellery encompasses adornments of all kinds (necklaces, charms, earrings, pendants, charm bracelets, brooches, rings, bangles, etc.) made from inexpensive materials and intended for wear with current fashions. It is also known as junk or fashion jewelry, but the former is quite a misleading term, since many vintage pieces were made from high quality materials by well-known designers (and are sought after collector’s items today).
The term costume jewelry is rumored to have been coined by Coco Chanel in the 1920s or 30s. She developed a collection of unconventional, colorful and bold jewelry pieces meant to finish off an outfit without breaking the bank. The jewelry was made from materials like faux pearls and glass and was an instant hit
If we think of costume jewelry simply as more affordable jewelry, then it had certainly existed before the 1920s (the Victorian era is a prime example). But what Coco Chanel did was to turn it from something you would buy because you couldn’t afford the real thing (and hope nobody noticed) into a chic and contemporary fashion statement. Women were not ashamed to flaunt the fake pieces because they were not meant to be passed off as precious jewels – they were an appreciated art form in themselves.
In addition to being affordable, a huge advantage of costume jewelry was (and is) that you didn’t have to get it insured, lock it in a safe and only take it out on special occasions, and fear that it got scraped or nicked when you did wear it. Chanel wore her pieces everywhere, including on the beach. And when styles changed, you could just get rid of your old pieces and buy new ones to match the look of the moment.
Around the same time, Italian-born designer Elsa Schiaparelli (famous for her trompe l’oeil sweaters and surrealist-inspired dresses, such as the lobster dress she created with Salvador Dali) also developed a line of costume jewelry. Hers was also big and bold, but more on the Dada-inspired side. As an interesting side note, one of her jewelry designers was Jean Schlumberger, who later became vice president of Tiffany & Co.
Elsa Schiaparelli bracelet. Photo via So Suburban Chic
Other 1930s well-known designers who developed their own lines of costume jewelry include Emanuel Ciner, Cartier, Trifari, Boucher and Eisenberg. Many of the designs were bold, colorful and quite “blingy”, but you could also find more delicate designs intended for the more conservative customer.
The 1940s saw more abstract and industrial-inspired jewelry, and, with many materials taken off the market for war-related production, jewelry made from Bakelite and Lucite jelly bellies (many made by Coro and Trifari) were introduced. Miriam Haskell created beautiful jewelry from wood, shell and beads, and Marcel Boucher (who previously worked for Cartier) designed gorgeous enamel pieces.
Miriam Haskell Wood Earrings. Photo: Bag Borrow or Steal
Costume jewelry’s popularity continued to rise, and in the 1950s, it reached new heights. Post-war optimism and joie de vivre abounded, and designers were once again able to get their hands on materials that had been unavailable during the war. Hollywood movie stars wore costume jewelry both on and off screen, rhinestones were everywhere, and pearls of all colors continued to be extremely popular.
The charm bracelet was in style again, and the leading manufacturer at the time was Walter Lampl, who designed a huge collection (around 750) of both costume and high-end, many of them puffy silver heart charms. Costume jewelry designers picked up on the trend, and many made charms in different materials. Trifari and Schiaparelli continued their popularity, and some of the other notable jewelry designers of the 50s include ModeArt, Napier, Dior (who had a whole bunch of famous designers working for them), Alice Caviness, Sherman, Hobe, Sarah Coventry, Hollycraft, Joseff of Hollywood (who designed the jewelry worn in huge productions such as Gone with the Wind), and Schreiner.
Photo: Jennifer Lynn’s timeless jewelry
In the 60s, mod, hippie and ethnic jewelry was in style, and popular designs included flower-power and op-art. Materials such hemp, plastic, paper, and Lucite in neon-bright colors were all the rage. Trifari, Coro (under the name Vendome) and Schreiner were still very popular, along with other designers such as Kenneth Jay Lane, D&E, and Coppola e Toppo.
The 70s saw a drop in the enthusiasm for costume jewelry, but designers such as D&E, Kenneth Jay Lane were still popular.
In the 80s, shows like Dynasty and Dallas once again brought big, bold costume jewelry into the limelight. Designers such as Larry Vrba (who was head designer at Miriam Haskell in the 70s), Robert Sorrell and Eric Beamon, as well as fashion houses like Lagerfeld, Delacroix and Balenciaga created colorful, over-the-top pieces to complement clothes.
Today, almost all fashion designers like Dior, Prada, Valentino, Badgley Mischka, Armani, Yves St. Laurent, etc. have their own line of costume jewelry. Trifari, Coro, and Kenneth Jay Lane are still creating costume jewelry. You can find their pieces in their own stores, large department stores, and, of course, online.
There is also a huge market for very inexpensive, no-name costume jewellery. Many small businesses buy this type of jewelry and re-sell it. If you want to buy wholesale costume jewellery, you need to have a tax ID number, which you can get from the IRS (available for free for registered businesses of any size). If you want to sell costume jewelry at fairs, online, or in a store, this is definitely the way to go. Wholesalers usually have all types of jewelry available, and it can be very affordable.
For those who, like me, have a fondness for the designer costume pieces from the past and are fascinated enough by them to do a bit of research (and perhaps want to start a collection), the best advice is to read as much as you can about the designer(s) you want to focus on. Look at pictures of their jewelry so you get a feel for their style and the materials they typically used. Read up on trademarks.
There are lots of gorgeous unsigned vintage pieces out there (and many were designed by the big names), but until you have trained your eye enough to recognize a piece by a particular designer, the best way to ensure you are buying a quality designer piece is to look at the stamps or signatures.
Regardless of whether your tastes run to vintage or modern, there is a piece (or many pieces, in my case!) of costume jewelry out there that is perfect for you and the outfit you want to match it to.
Also, don’t miss my post about goregous modern costume jewelry made from vintage and/or recycled items.