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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Researching Costume Jewelry

Researching Costume Jewelry

Jewelry lovers, venture through this amazing database of vintage jewelry articles, catalogs, and brochures, as well… [read review or visit site]

Emerald City Vintage Costume Jewelry

Emerald City Vintage Costume Jewelry

It looks like we're not in Kansas anymore with Elizabeth Rowlands' site on vintage costume jewelry from the 1940s a… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Vintage Antonio Aquilino Sterling Silver Jelly Belly Cat & Fish Bowl BroochRare Vintage Miriam Haskell Turquoise Glass Gilt Leaf Lariat Clip NecklaceRare Vintage Coppola E Toppo Italy Black Glass Bead Bib NecklaceAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Vermeil Bohemian Garnet Cuff Link LocketRare Vintage Trifari Claire De Lune Faux Moonstone Rhinestone NecklaceVictorian Shell Cameo Of St Catherine, Holding The Martyr's Palm, BroochRare Vintage Har Gold Plate Enamel Rhinestone Genie Fortune Teller Brooch27 Gr Genuine Natural Baltic Amber Round Beads Necklace Egg Yolk Butterscotch 155 Pc All Signed Vintage Brooch Pin Lot Crown Trifari Coro Art Monet Lisner Nn2Rare Vintage Coro Craft Sterling Silver Enamel Rhinetsone Bird BroochAntique Art Deco Green Jade Apple Blossom Oval Brooch PinRare Vintage Har Gold Plate Enamel Rhinestone Genie Fortune Teller BroochVintage Art Deco Signed Czech Chrysoprase Green Glass Dangle Pendant NecklaceRise-on Chanel Gold Plated Cc Logos Clip Vintage Earrings #115aAntique Victorian Turquoise Enamel Lady Portrait Glass Photo Locket PendantVintage Miriam Haskell Amethyst Art Glass Rhinestones Necklace Bracelet EarringsAntique Silver Austro Hungarian Tourmaline Garnet Pearl PendantRare Vintage Art Deco Sterling Silver Open Back Set Alexandrite Glass NecklaceOld Authentic Vintage Chanel Paris «gripoix» Brooch/pendant, 1980’s – With Box! 1920s Art Deco Fishel Nessler Sterling Silver Sapphire & Diamante Paste BraceletVintage Art Deco Modernist Jakob Bengel Red Galalith & Chrome Geometric NecklaceBeautiful Antique Iridescent Tasmanian Maireener Shell NecklaceStunning Vintage Cherry Amber Red Bakelite Graduated Bead Necklace 38.5" 60.85gRise-on Chanel Gold Plated Cc Logos Hat Black Charm Chain Necklace Choker #123aMiriam Haskell Signed Vintage Necklace Egyptian Revival?Vintage Signed Miriam Haskell Baroque Pearl 5 Strand Dove Clasp Necklace Rare Vintage Miriam Haskell Baroque Pearl Red Glass Beaded Collar Bib NecklaceHigh End Costume Jewelry Lot Rhinestone Sets,juliana,austria,coro,trifari,lisner170 Pc Vintage Pendent Lot Cross Flower Animal Rhinestone Locket Filigree Nn4Lot Of 12 Victorian Long Slide Chain Lariat Necklace Watch Fobs Gold FilledRare Vintage Deco Cherry Amber Antique Bakelite Prayer Bead Necklace 42.9 GramsMassive Vintage Estate High End Rhinestone Signed Weiss Coro 203 Pc Lot!!! B114Wonderful Antique Vintage Chinese Bovine Carved Bone Bangle Bracelet Lion DecoVintage Rare Signed Hobe Saphiret 3 Strand Necklace Needs Repair Restrung N/rAntique Pietra Dura Micro Mosaic Necklace Bracelets Earrings Pins ItalyVerified Juliana D&e Dome Brooch & 5 Link Bracelet Blue & Clear Rhinestones SetVictorian Vtg Sterling Gold & Gold Fld Jewelry Chatelaine Cigar Cutters Lot 100gVintage Chinese Coral Turquoise Enamel Moth Bug Dangle NecklaceRare Vintage Florenza Saphiret Rhinestone Clip Earrings48 Pc Vintage Cameo Lot Necklace Pendent Earring Stick Pin Ring Locket Lady Nn9Lot 26 Antique Stick Pins Victorian Art Deco Essex Crystal Gold Filled*omg* *rare* Vintage Estate Signed Coro Rhinestone Huge Flower Brooch!!! G3535Vtg Kenneth Lane Kjl Mogul Jeweled Maltese Cross Glass Baroque Pearl 62" SautoirHuge 65 Vintage Estate Costume Jewelry Lot All Rhinestones/stones Brooch Pin Er+Vintage Crown Trifari Ruby, Emerald & Sapphire Cabs Necklace, Bracelet, EarringsRise-on Chanel Silver Plated Cc Logos Turn Lock Clip Vintage Earrings #117aAntique Neiger Brothers ? French ? Collar Necklace Cherub Heads Shields PendantWow! Junk Drawer Lot Jewelry Watches Fobs Pins &more Vintage Antique SteampunkHeavy Oscar De La Renta Couture Russian Gold Sapphire Crystal Star Bib NecklaceAntique Victorian Jewelry LotSigned Vintage Marcel Boucher Gold Enameled Multi Stone Bracelet 1955-1965280 Pc Vintage Brooch Pin Lot Angel Bow Flower Holiday Rhinestone Animal Leaf...Huge Lot Antique Victorian Etruscan Art Deco Gold Filled Lockets PendantsVtg Art Deco Venetian Murano Wedding Cake Roses Aventurine Glass Beads NecklaceVintage Juliana Orange & Brown Rhinestone Bib Style NecklaceFine Antique Chinese Repousse Silver Bracelet BangleVintage Lot Bit Of Everything Huge Lot! 25+lbs. Bracelets, Earrings, NecklacesExquisite Kenneth Lane Kjl Salamander Mogul Coral White Huge Couture Runway CuffVintage Rhinestone Jewelry Lot *rare* Vintage 1940s Art Deco Signed Eisenberg Original Rhinestone Brooch! G4830