The term “costume jewelry” was coined in the 1920s, but jewelry and ornamentation made out of non-precious materials have been worn since ancient times. While it is sometimes labeled as “junk,” “fake,” or "fashion" jewelry, costume jewelry often incorporates workmanship and materials on par with, or better than, fine jewelry.
The 20th century brought about a sea change in how jewelry was perceived and used. Before then, women adorned themselves with jewelry made of precious and semi-precious stones and metals as a means of flaunting the wealth of their husbands. Therefore, jewelry was mostly worn by the rich to convey their standing in society, although it could also symbolize one's religious affiliation, the state of a romance, or a period of mourning.
But early in the 20th century, thanks to new materials and industrialization, fashion designers started to experiment with jewelry as an expression of style and creativity, using non-precious materials so that pieces could be bigger and bolder, in line with the Art Deco style and flapper fashions that were emerging. Because these pieces were made of inexpensive materials and not meant to be keepsakes or heirlooms, they could be more trendy and outrageous, tossed out or replaced when a particular look went out of fashion.
In a way, the roots of this movement can be traced to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Europe’s collective lust for precious gemstones, in particular diamonds, prompted many jewelers to look for more affordable substitutes in glass. In 1724, a young jeweler named Georges Frédéric Strass developed a special leaded glass known as paste that could be cut and polished with metal powder so that it seemed to twinkle like a diamond in candlelight. Before long, his “diamante” creations were all the rage in Parisian society.
Under the influence of Queen Victoria and her tragic romance, 19th-century women took to wearing jewelry made with non-precious materials such as paste, mirrored-back glass, human hair, and black jet for specific, sentimental reasons such as romance or mourning. Then, by 1892, Austrian jeweler Daniel Swarovski developed his coveted fine crystal rhinestones, made with high-lead-content glass and a permanent foil backing. This allowed his rhinestones to effectively imitate the facets and luster of any gemstone, from diamonds and rubies to sapphires and emeralds.
Still, the concept of costume jewelry, per se, wasn’t introduced until the late 1920s, when Coco Chanel launched a line of bold “statement” accessories. Made to look like large flowers or frogs, these pieces were meant to be worn like art rather than as indicators of wealth. Her jewelry was wildly different from anything that had come before—it was a tremendous hit. Riding the same wave of inspiration, Elsa Schiaparelli created a line of jewelry with large fake stones on bold bracelets whose designs were inspired by the Dada art movement.
Much of this new fad-oriented jewelry was made out of a new hard plastic material called Bakelite, a plastic resin invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907. Bakelite could be produced in bright colors, which were given fun names like Apple Juice, Butterscotch, and Salmon. Wildly popular in the 1930s and ’40s, Bakelite was hard enough to be carved and polished into all sorts of intriguing shapes for beads and bangles...
The trend for big, angular, and chunky bangles started with the late ’20s flappers, who would pile them up their slender and scandalously bare arms. Initially made of ivory, the bangles trend, which lasted well into the ’60s, soon became dominated by new vibrantly colored plastics like Bakelite and Lucite.
Even more abstract jewelry emerged from the ’30s and ’40s art movements, too. Influenced by Bauhaus, Futurism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, as well as new industrialization and Rosie the Riveter, designers produced heavy, armor-like cocktail jewelry using chrome, gilt metal, or large stones imitating the rhythm and movement of an assembly line. Some of these pieces were even meant to resemble ball bearings, screw-heads, nuts, and bolts.
At the same time, other top costume jewelers like Eisenberg, Trifari, and Hobe kept things dainty and delicate, making impressive imitations of fine jewelry like Cartier diamonds as well as their own stunning bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and brooches.
Stoking the interest in costume jewelry was the emergence of Hollywood as a fashion trendsetter. In particular, movie-set jewelry like Eugene Joseff’s creations for “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Casablanca,” which could pass as opulent gems, were highly influential. Even Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Crawford made public appearances wearing stunning rhinestone necklaces, while First Lady Mamie Eisenhower donned costume jewelry for her husband’s inaugural ball in 1953.
In 1941, four brothers—Alfred, Anthony, Joseph, and William Gaita—founded the Pell Jewelry Company on Long Island. Pell was a major user of Swarovski rhinestones, which were set rather than glued into brooches shaped like animals, flowers, ribbons, and flags. Pell jewelry could be found in blue-collar stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward, and it also produced pieces for Avon and Sarah Coventry. For years, Disney costume jewelry was made by Pell, as was Miss America's crown. Pell also had a fine-jewelry line, which it sold out of a showroom in the Empire State Building.
Starting in the late ’40s, high-end Parisian designers like Christian Dior took to costume jewelery, too. Dior was an early champion of Swarovski’s aurora borealis rhinestones, which were introduced in 1955 with an extra dimension of shimmering thanks to a chemical salt treatment that iridized the glass.
Alfred Philippe, trained as a fine jeweler at Van Cleef & Arpels, was one of the top innovators in costume jewelry during his stint as Trifari’s chief designer between 1930 and 1968. He brought his invisible-setting technique to smoothed non-precious stones known as cabochons, often incorporated into the hugely popular Trifari Crown pins.
Philippe also launched Trifari’s menagerie brooches known as Jelly Belly—each animal, whether it was a seal, poodle, duckling, or rooster featured a Lucite plastic belly smoothed into a pearl-like shape, set in sterling silver or gold plate. These pins, imitated by Coro and others, are highly collectible today, as are Trifari’s brooches—often exact copies of Cartier fine jewelry—fashioned into floral arrangements, miniature fruits, and American flags.
Around the same time, Miriam Haskell made intricate hand-crafted floral jewelry that was the toast of the Manhattan socialite scene and adored by Hollywood stars like Crawford and Lucille Ball. Her high-quality pieces incorporated gilt filigree, faux pearls, Swarovski crystal beads, Murano blown-glass beads, and rose montées, which were precut crystals mounted onto a silver setting with a hole or channel in the back. Eisenberg & Sons were also noted for their high-quality costume jewelry, particularly their replicas of 18th century fine jewels and the figural rhinestone pieces set in sterling silver.
Even fine jeweler Emanuel Ciner transitioned to costume jewelry in the 1930s, making the finest hand-crafted pieces possible. Ciner used Swarovski crystals and plated the metal that held the sparklers in places with 18-carat gold. Interlocking crystal squares were a hallmark of Ciner costume jewelry, as were tiny turquoise seed pearls, as well as Japanese faux pearls made of glass coated multiple times with a special glaze.
During World War II, the rationing of metal forced many costume jewelers such as Trifari to use sterling silver in their pieces, forcing their prices up. When the war ended, Trifari wished to return to inexpensive metals so it promoted its new products by dubbing them Trifanium, which was simply a basic metal that could be given a no-polish rhodium plating.
In the conservative ’50s, a time when matching sweater sets were considered proper, women wanted their jewelry to match, too, so costume jewelry was produced in “parures,” with matching earrings, brooches, necklaces, and sometimes bracelets. These jewelry sets are technically “demi-parures,” as they are too small to be considered a full suite of jewelry.
The ’50s and ’60s also saw a revival in the sentimental Victorian Era charm bracelet, a trend popularized by Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Naturally, costume jewelers got in on the charm-making business, as young girls and women would add charms and lockets to their bracelets to signify meaningful moments in their lives.
As it turns out, given the craftsmanship and artistry put into costume jewelry, most people these days don’t consider it “junk” at all, as vintage costume jewelry, even pieces first brushed off as cheap plastic, is highly treasured by collectors.