7 Things You Need To Know About...Costume Jewellery
In the second of our weekly collecting guides we delve into the colourful world of costume jewellery.
A (very) quick history lesson
Us humans have always enjoyed getting dressed up.
The oldest-known man-made jewellery is believed to date back around 100,000 years, when people made delicate necklaces using strings of shell beads.
But for the purposes of most collectors, and not archaeologists, let's skip forward a little.
Imitation jewellery was first produced in the 18th century, using cut glass known as 'paste' to replace real gemstones, although it was still largely worn by the upper classes.
The rise of the middle class in the 19th century meant more people had disposable income, and wanted to flaunt their growing wealth.
Although they couldn't yet afford diamonds or rubies, they still wanted to look the part, and pieces imitating fine jewellery became more popular.
Man-made materials and mass-production increased the market for imitation pieces even further – but the true era of 'costume' jewellery actually began in Paris the 1920s.
Iconic French designer Coco Chanel was perhaps the first to produce affordable jewellery using cheaper materials that had a life and character of their own.
Chanel's creations were never meant to imitate fine jewellery. She wanted her designs to be worn as statements of creativity, not statements of wealth.
"It’s disgusting to walk around with millions dollars around the neck because one happens to be rich," she once stated. "I only like fake jewellery…because it’s provocative."
Suddenly jewellery became playful and outrageous, a way for people to express their individuality.
Freed from the shackles of tradition, designers began producing pieces inspired by artistic movements such as Art Deco, Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism.
The idea of costume jewellery as we know it was born, and suddenly these 'cheap plastic' pieces were considered as tiny works of art in their own right.
The bolder the better
One of the biggest misconceptions about costume jewellery is that the pieces are merely cheap reproductions. That’s really not the case.
Although the materials used may not be as expensive, the level of quality, craftsmanship and artistry that goes into designer costume jewellery is often higher than that of the real thing.
Costume jewellery can be bigger, bolder and crazier than fine jewellery, combining riots of colour, a world of creative influences, and a sense of humour.
The inexpensive nature of the materials means designers could afford to take risks and let their imaginations runs wild.
Designers were also able to create remarkable 'fantasy pieces', which – if made from genuine precious metals and gemstones – would have cost millions to produce.
Fine jewellery was considered as a means of passing down wealth from generation to generation, and these heirloom pieces were made using traditional designs which would stand the test of time.
However, costume jewellery was never made to last, and this "throwaway" spirit meant designs could follow changing fashion trends, no matter how strange or adventurous.
In many ways, vintage costume pieces that have remained intact over the decades can be more remarkable than fine jewellery. Most pieces were discarded when they went out of style, or were easily broken – making those that survived truly precious.
Costume jewellery can often provide a far better insight into the passing fads and fashions of the 20th century than traditional fine jewellery.
And, just like vintage couture clothing, this makes it highly collectible.
How about a date?
To accurately date your jewellery, you’re going to need to learn about different style movements and the kinds of materials used in different eras.
There are entire books devoted to dating costume jewellery - but here are a few developments to remember:
Swarovski crystal rhinestones were first developed in Austria in 1892, and were used to imitate the cut and lustre of precious stones in imitation pieces.
The invention of Bakelite in 1907 transformed the world of costume jewelry, as it was cheap, hardwearing, and could be produced in a multitude of colors. It was hugely popular from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The start of WWII forced many European makers to close down, and American mass-produced costume jewellery took over the market. Base metals were needed for the war effort, and jewellers turned to yellow gold or sterling silver during this period.
Practice your picking
While some costume jewellery is kept in display cases, it’s likely that as a beginner you'll be digging through enormous baskets filled to the brim with worthless knick knacks.
Loose fittings, missing pieces, cracked and damaged parts...you’re going to need to develop an eye for quality and condition.
You may be tempted to buy inexpensive pieces with missing stones, but replacing these with new matching stones can be extremely difficult. The lesson here is: buy the best you can afford.
You'll also need to learn how to spot reproductions, although with costume jewellery this can be tricky, as the materials used in the real and fake designer pieces is often almost identical.
Quality designer costume jewellery was made using the same techniques as fine jewellery, so stones will be mounted with prongs, not simply glued in place.
Metal clasps on the reverse of vintage pieces will also likely show signs of wear. If it's too shiny, it's probably a modern reproduction.
And do some research on maker's marks. Many designers signed their costume jewellery, and these marks can add value to a piece – if they're genuine.
Luckily, this detective work is all part of the fun.
The feeling of finding forgotten treasure is near impossible to describe. It’s what keeps collectors coming back for more.
Iconic designs to watch out for
Ok so you’re raring to head out to your nearest flea market and go to town on some stalls.
Well hold on one minute.
You might be a beginner, but I’ll bet you don’t want to pass up the find of a lifetime because you don’t know what to look out for.
Here are a small handful of the most sought-after names and styles to watch out for, just in case.
Coco Chanel is an obvious tip. Genuine vintage pieces of any era are highly desirable, but look out for her early animal brooches and fake pearl pieces from the 1920s and 30s.
Elsa Schiaparelli's surreal brooches and pins from the 1930s, shaped like lobsters, circus animals or miniature household objects
Trifari designs including Crown pins from the late 1930s to the 1950s, and 'Jelly Belly' animal brooches
Miriam Haskel's floral jewellery designed from the 1920s to the 1960s
Not all pieces from renowned designers will be signed, so a little research into the styles and materials they used can go a long way. Your chances of coming across these pieces for peanuts are low, but at least you'll know what to look for if lightning strikes.
What's your specialist subject?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of collecting is finding your niche. With such a broad range of pieces, you’re really spoiled for choice when it comes to vintage costume jewellery.
The best way to discover you niche is to dive in and look for those pieces that give you the buzz you’re after.
The most important thing to remember is this: costume jewellery was made to worn and enjoyed.
The chance of you uncovering a rare and highly valuable piece is fairly slim, so it's probably best not to worry about making your fortune and just collect what makes you happy.
Buy vintage styles that you can wear every day, or flamboyant pieces that you'll only wear once.
Find a designer you love, a period that inspires you, or a particular theme, and learn as much as possible.
Do you have a passion for flapper fashions of the 1920s? Are you nostalgic for chunky, avocado-hued plastic jewellery of the 1970s? Or perhaps you just want to collect brooches in the shape of parrots?
When collecting vintage costume jewellery, anything is possible.
Make sure it actually is costume jewellery
Every now and then, someone finds the Holy Grail: a piece of costume jewellery that turns out to be the real deal.
One lucky woman picked up a piece of costume jewellery at a car boot sale in London in the 1980s and wore it every day for the next 30 or so years.
In 2017, she took it to auction house Sotheby's on a whim.
The jewel she’d taken to be paste turned out to be an enormous 26.2 carat diamond. It subsequently sold for £676,750 ($903,892).
It just goes to show, you never know what you might find.
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