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, 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    

125 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Juliana Weiss Noir Ora Bakelite LbsArt Deco Antique Vintage Venetian Bi-colour Foil Glass Beads NecklaceAntique Art Deco Gilt Brass Enamel & Blue Czech Glass Necklace120 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Juliana Kramer Kirk Folly Lisner LbsAntique Mid-19thc Woven Hair Acorn 18k Earrings & Gf Mourning Hair Broach Pin NrVintage Eames Era Modernist Black Gray Enamel On Copper Egyptian Collar NecklaceVtg Ming's Of Honolulu Sterling Silver Carved & Tinted Bird Of Paradise BroochVintage Antique Victorian Vulcanite Or Whitby Jet ? Old Mourning Cameo EarringsVtg 76pc Hi End Designer Rhinestone Brooch Lot Juliana Weiss Hobe Limogues Sets5 X Vintage 9ct Gold Opal & Gem Set Dress Rings NrVintage Crown Trifari Rare Pearl Belly In Dragon Fish Clip Pin Brooch,c1935,pat.Vintage Sterling Silver Carved Coral Flower Glass Bead NecklaceSigned Authentic Chanel 7 Row Baroque 8.5-9mm Faux Pearl Choker Necklace Nr TmnSigned Authentic Chanel 7 Strand Gold Tone Byzantine Layered Chain Necklace Tmn128 Pc Vtg High End Costume Jewelry Rhinestone Brooch Bracelet Necklace Ring LotSherman Vintage Green & Powder Blue Rhinestone Bracelet 7/8" C.1950'sVintage Signed Aldo Cipullo 18k Gold Nail Jabot Pin Designer For Cartier Nr TmnVintage King Baby Cross Snake Pentagram Flaming Heart Sterling Gothic Flip RingVintage Juliana D&e Ab Blueish Green Rhinestone Earring Brooch Set Minty! G6762Antique Designer Signed Hand Constructed 925 Sterling Marcasite Onyx Swan PinTrifari Alfred Philippe Moonstone Fruit Salad Flower Fur Pin Clip & Earrings1980s Chanel Matelasse Quilted Charm Pendant Necklace.Sherman Vintage Japaned Green Color Combination Rhinestone Bracelet 7/8" C.1950s*exceedingly Scarce* Sherman Deep Purple & Ab Blue Rs Rigid Cuff Bracelet C.1950Vtg Juliana D&e Book Piece Blue Hexagon Rhinestone Bracelet Brooch Earring SetJawdropping Vintage Juliana D&e Ab Rhinestone Earring Brooch Set Minty!!! G6768Vtg Ysl Yves Saint Laurent Couture Gripoix Baroque Pearl Tassel Runway EarringsVintage Eames Era Modernist Rame Sky Blue Enamel Copper Collar Necklace EarringsVintage Italian Designer Coppola E Toppo Black & White Amazing Necklace Huge 150 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Brooch Rings Juliana Weiss LbsHuge 140 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Brooch Rings Juliana Kramer LbsSigned Trifari Sterling Jelly Belly Jeweled Bird Of Paradise Pin BroochJuliana Book Piece Pink Margarita Flower Rhinestone Bracelet120 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Juliana Kramer Star Weiss Lisner Lbs130 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Juliana Bakelite Hobe Kramer Sets LbVintage Art Deco Blue Black Ribbon Bow Clamper Bakelite Bangle Bracelet Tested!Huge Oscar De La Renta Haute Couture Glass Jeweled Bracelet Ring Combo HandpieceVintage Sherman Bracelet Signed Good Condition Crystals Antique Late Victorian Gold Filled Paste Rhinestone Ivy On Brick Locket NecklaceAntique Vintage Lot Collection Estate Gold Silver Antique Victorian Bohemian Garnet Star Dangle NecklaceVintage Trifari Kashmir Green Red Gold Pearl Rhinestone Pin Brooch Earring SetVintage Trifari Rhinestone Bird Pin By Alfred Philippe 130 Vtg & Lot Of Quality Rhinestone Jewelry Brooch Rings + Juliana Art Coro LbsColorful Antique Victorian Italy Micro Mosaic Dove Bird & Flower BroochSherman Vintage Bird Of Paradise Rhinestone Pin & Earrings Set - Early & RareVintage Art Deco Glass Crystal Bead 29" NecklaceRare, Wide 30s Trifari Art Deco Diamante Paste, & Tricolor Fruit Salad BraceletStunning High End Huge 275 Pc Vtg Signed Rhinestone Gf Brooch Jewelry Lot Tr128Antique Victorian Era Gold Filled 8 Carved Beige Lava Cameo Portrait Bracelet NrHuge Lot 1675+ Vtg Jewelry High End Rhinestone Eisenberg Swarovski Sterling GoldVintage Chanel Necklace*lariat*gripoix(poured Glass):pearls,beads,flower,crystalVintage Crystal Baguette Rhinestone Choker NecklaceTrifari Sterling Lyre Bird BroochAntique Victorian Etruscan Revival Gold Filled Coil BraceletEarly Mb Boucher "bird In Flight" Pin/broochVintage Estate Italy 800 Fine Silver Filigree Leaf & Genuine Red Coral NecklaceMinty Rare D&e Juliana Book Set Necklace & Earrings Poured Glass Ab Rhineston NrCartier By Charles Revson Love Bracelet 1970 With Box 18 Karat Gold ElectroplateLg Vintage Victorian Lady Horse Crystal Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Pin Necklace

Recent News: Costume Jewelry

Source: Google News

An Hour With Grandma
Huffington Post, November 30th

So an hour would be far too short to share everything I'd like to with my grandmother: to look at travel photos on my laptop, to show her my small collection of opal jewelry and my larger collection of vintage costume jewelry, to introduce her to our...Read more

Chester Historical Society appraisal event; Find out just how valuable your ...
Shoreline Times, November 5th

Paul Indorf of CT Jewelry Appraisers, Norman and Linda Legassie of Stepping Stones Antiques, Steve Lutar of Guilford Coin Exchange, Peggy Maraschiello of Riverwind Antiques, John Newman (glass), and Gay Sherman Weintz (vintage costume jewelry)...Read more

A cornucopia of costume jewelry arrives in Clifton
The Courier-Journal, October 22nd

2023 Mid-Century Modern, a local shop selling modern furniture, accessories and jewelry, now has a large collection of vintage costume jewelry from the 1940s to the 80s. Many of the pieces are signed by jewelry maker Albert Weiss and are in excellent ...Read more

Costume jewelry collectors in town
The Providence Journal, October 11th

"Most of our attendees are collectors of vintage costume jewelry who appreciate the rich heritage of Rhode Island in terms of the jewelry manufactured there," said Pamela Wiggins, who with Melinda Lewis cofounded the organization with about 5,100 ...Read more

3 tips to determine value of costume jewelry, August 20th

Vintage costume jewelry can be very desirable in the secondary market. (Photo: Garrett Hoyer/Special for The Republic). If you're like most people who are downsizing or cleaning house, and you come across a drawer of costume jewelry, your first...Read more

Thrifting Thursday: style with vintage costume jewelry, April 23rd

Thrifting Thursday: style with vintage costume jewelry. Rhinestone Rosie on Queen Anne specializes in restoring and selling vintage and antique costume jewelry. Loading… Post to Facebook. Thrifting Thursday: style with vintage costume jewelry...Read more

Ruse on the Loose: Costume jewelry sparkles for Sparta woman
Daily Record, January 17th

When she left teaching three years ago, Joyce Simmons knew she wouldn't actually be retiring. Just switching gears and moving on to other passions, mainly history and vintage costume jewelry. "I think it's also good after you retire that you can still...Read more

When Shopping Meets Collecting: All About Vintage Costume Jewelry
The Fashion Spot (blog), May 15th

Most women have a soft spot for vintage jewelry. Whether it's memories of a parent or grandparent's jewelry or just that magpie drive for all things pretty, shiny and sparkly, vintage costume jewelry holds a certain extra glamour often without a...Read more