The Art Nouveau movement started in the late 19th century as a rejection of mass-produced adornments and decor, which is ironic considering how much mass-produced jewelry was subsequently created in the Art Nouveau style. Victorian-Era industrialization had made jewelry widely available for the first time, as factories stamped out generic, fussy scroll designs in metal and sold them to the emerging middle class. Quickly, master artisans and craftspeople rebelled, asserting the importance of high-quality, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted furnishings, glassware, pottery, and jewelry.
Practitioners of Art Nouveau (or "The New Art" in French) adopted an asymmetrical, flowing, organic aesthetic that contrasted with the uptight, frilly, and historic styles favored by Victorians. French goldsmiths like Georges Fouquet and René Lalique, as well as American glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, made high-end pieces out of fine metals, enamel, glass, and precious and semi-precious gemstones, employing Art Nouveau themes like flowers, winged insects, and lovely ladies with long, sinewy hair. Lalique, in particular, came up with new techniques for using glass, enameling, and "humble" materials such as horn to make beautiful, wearable pieces of art.
World-traveling stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, known for her exotic and flamboyant head-to-toe adornments, flaunted this new style of jewelry on stage and off. Wearing Byzantine and Egyptian inspired pieces, she even put her pet chameleon on a gold chain to wear as a living brooch. In France, Maison Gripoix made cheap knockoffs of Bernhardt's jewelry out of metal, paste, and enamel, and these were snatched up at fashionable Paris boutiques. Bijoux Bardach made some of the diva's pieces—and likely, the most popular copies.
Piel Frères in Paris specialized in cheap but high-quality Art Nouveau jewelry, like its luxurious blue-green enamel peacock-feather belt buckle. This family jeweler, copying costumes seen in popular stage plays, replaced ivory with a new plastic called celluloid and used gilt copper and silver to achieve the look of gold. Companies like Rouzé and Mascaraud made stylish gilt fantasy pieces that were stamped out of metal by machine, but hand-finished.
Yes, the refreshing Art Nouveau aesthetic had a universal appeal, even to those with limited means, prompting factories to begin producing cheaper versions of the looks created by artisans. Starting around 1890, U.S. firm Gorham Corporation trademarked a line of "Martelé" jewelry that had a Gallic feel. Another American company, Unger Brothers, sold Art Nouveau-style jewelry in vermeiled silver. Other U.S. manufacturers—like Krementz and Frank M. Whiting—reproduced French Art Nouveau looks, but in low machine-made quality. Not surprisingly, by around 1910, Art Nouveau had reached its oversaturation point.
The term "costume jewelry" was first coined in the Art Deco era, which started in the 1920s and lasted until World War II. Also known as "streamline moderne," Art Deco embraced industrialization where Art Nouveau rejected it. Inspired by the Bauhaus and Cubist schools of art, as well as Mayan ruins and King Tut's tomb, Art Deco was all about rigid geometric symmetry, abstraction, and smooth, straight lines, as well as edgy new materials like chrome, steel, platinum, and plastics like Bakelite.
Deco style was a different sort of rebellion: The flapper, known as "la garçonne" in France, represented a new level of freedom for women—to be sexually adventurous and androgyno...
Around the same time, Hobé was making big, dramatic jewelry with rhinestones for the costumes of the "Ziegfeld Follies," which may have something to do with the name "costume jewelry." Elsa Schiaparelli quickly followed with a line of Dada-inspired jewelry using large, fake gemstones.
While celluloid had been used to imitate tortoiseshell, jade, coral, wood, and horn, the new plastic resin known as Bakelite—which came in bold colors like Apple Juice, Butterscotch, and Salmon—became the go-to material for long, beaded necklaces and large, chunky bangles that emphasized thin, tantalizing flapper arms. Chrome and steel were used in brooches, necklaces, and bracelets that mimicked the movements of machines and resembled nuts and bolts.
Emerging costume jewelers like Trifari and Coro, following the lead of fine jewelers like Cartier, made rhinestone brooches, dress pins, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets in abstract geometric Art Deco styles that sometimes took the shape of Mayan and Egyptian pyramids, skyscrapers, automobiles, and airplanes. Both of these costume jewelers introduced clever dress-pin sets, that could be worn separately, or together on a brooch, and these, too, came in angular Art Deco shapes. Flowers became more stylized, while jewels took on Arabic, Turkish, Aztec, and Chinese patterns.
Diamanté rhinestones were also forged in the bold new shapes mimicking fine-jewelry diamonds: baguettes, trapezoids, batons, and squares known as calibré. In the mid-1920s, black-and-white looks were particularly chic, so diamanté crystals were set with black glass or enamel, a.k.a fake onyx, in beaded necklaces and other pieces.
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Clubs & Associations
- American Society of Jewelry Historians
- Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts
- Society of Jewellery Historians
- Costume Jewelry Collectors International