During the Georgian Period, the Austro-Hungarian Empire established itself as a place to buy jewelry of the highest craftsmanship. In the 1800s, jewelers of the region, which became a center for glass artisans, started to combine their elaborate filigreed metalwork in silver and gold-tone with shimmering experimental pastes (glass stones), semi-precious stones, seed pearls, and brightly colored enamels in ostentatiously regal pieces. These Renaissance Revival pieces, like intricate pendants depicting the legend of St. George and The Dragon or ornate paste chandelier earrings, are highly sought-after today.
Thanks to one Daniel Swarovski, who invented the modern rhinestone, Austria has an enduring place in costume jewelry history. The 19th century glass cutter and jeweler, originally from Bohemia, developed a special foil backing that gave his cut leaded glass the appearance of diamonds. His multi-faceted crystals were such a hit, in 1892 he patented an electric glass cutter so his factory could produce these "gemstones" in significant numbers.
In 1895, Swarovski moved his company from Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic) to Austria, and his sons joined his company in the early 1900s. All the top 20th century costume jewelers in the U.S. and around the world—including Eisenberg, Joseff of Hollywood, Trifari, and Sherman—have used Swarovski crystals, as they are considered the finest and most brilliant rhinestones available.
Prior to Swarovski's move, around 1890, a group of Viennese artists inspired by the Art Nouveau movement emerging in France called themselves Secessionists and began to openly dismiss the frilly, Rococo adornments of the past. These architects, sculptors, and painters (including Gustav Klimt) rejected the country's proud historical traditions, which they felt were stifling new artistic expression, and embraced the sinewy, organic lines of Art Nouveau.
Secessionist designers Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser, backed by financier Fritz Warndorfer, established the artist cooperative Wiener Werkstätte in 1903. This influential group was known for its symmetrical geometric forms and works of art in contrasting black and white. These aesthetic motifs appeared in Wiener Werkstätte furniture, glassware, pottery, metalwork, and jewelry. Foreshadowing the Art Deco style of the '20s, the jewelry pieces, often made from enamel and metal, had clean, eye-popping lines that made them elegant in a way that worked for both dressy and casual outfits.
Coco Chanel's 1920s concept of "costume jewelry" gave Austria's rhinestone industry a tremendous boost. Naturally, local jewelers took advantage of this resource, too. Austrian firm Schoffel & Co. began producing top-notch, precisely set crystal costume jewelry in the 1930s, each piece marked with a crown, often accompanied with the words "Austria" or "Made in Austria." Schoffel jewelry, made until the 1960s, is now difficult to find and coveted by collectors.
Austria entered its darkest period in 1938, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. Many countries banned jewelry from Nazi-occupied regions, so Austria produced very litt...
When the restrictions on manufacturing Czech and Austrian pastes, or rhinestones, was finally lifted, glass makers returned to producing "gems" in a marvelous rainbow of colors. These vivid rhinestones were often cut into large, obviously fake stones and worn in showy bib necklaces popular in the early 1950s. That same decade, Swarovski introduced its "aurora borealis" rhinestones, diamanté crystals with a special iridescent sheen. New innovations also led to machines that could cut rectangular and baguette-shaped stones, which Schoffel would set in trademark arrays.
Postwar, a newly prosperous America was crazed with consumerism, and a particular taste for whimsy. That's why, during the late '40s and '50s, Austria began manufacturing glass fruit pins almost exclusively for export to the U.S. These little brooches, made of glass that was molded or carved into the shapes of strawberries, pears, cherries, or bunches of grapes, came in vivid colors like scarlet, violet, tangerine, amber, cobalt, and emerald green.
Using Swarovski's foil-backing technique, these pieces have an even deeper shine. The stems and leaves tend be silver, gilt, or japanned metal, but those with leaves made of navette-cut or enamel crystals are even more valuable. Some fruit pins even came with matching earrings, and particularly rare pairs are marked "Germany."