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.

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 Antique Victorian 10k Gold Onyx Pearl Aei Eternal Love Dangle EarringsVintage Art Deco 14k White Gold Rock Crystal Diamond Necklace PendantFine Rare Antique Victorian Gilt Sterling Silver Natural Citrine BraceletVtg Antique Edwardian Solid 14ct 14k Gold Natural Turquoise Fringe Drop NecklaceFine Rare Antique Victorian Gilt Sterling Silver Citrine Riviere NecklaceVintage Outrageously Gaudy Trifari Demi Parure Set Necklace/bracelet/earringsVtg Chinese Filigree Sterling Silver Blue Enamel Turquoise Long Pendant EarringsVtg Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Collar Necklace Book Chain Locket PendantAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Carved Salmon Coral Cameo Pendant NecklaceVtg Art Deco Egyptian Revival Sterling Silver Marcasite Pendant Watch NecklaceAntique Late Victorian 14k Gold Diamond Seed Pearl Heart Pendant BroochFine Antique Art Deco Sterling Silver Guilloche Enamel Slide Pendant NecklaceJob Lot Vintage Antique Costume Jewellery Paste Bracelet Watches Brooches Ring +Rare Antique Victorian 14k Gold Bearing Quartz Locket Necklace Pendant Fob CharmRare Antique Victorian 14k Gold Onyx Seed Pearl Aei Eternal Love Memento LocketVintage 1920's Art Deco Czech Peking Onyx Glass Enamel Flower Bangle BraceletVintage Costume Jewelry Lot Rhinestone Some Signed Trifari Kjl Florenza NapierVintage Estate Sterling Silver Natural Lapis Lazuli Disc NecklaceVery Rare Vintage Art Deco Bauhaus Wmf Germany Silver Ikora Art Glass BraceletVintage Chanel Gripoix Black & White Baroque Pearl, Crystal Sautoir Necklace 66"Chunky Artist Signed Vintage Mexico Modernist Sterling Silver Amethyst BraceletAntique Victorian 14k Gold Pearl Salmon Coral Column BroochVintage Philippe Ferrandis Paris France Haute Couture Giant Rhinestone BraceletArt Deco Chinese Dragon & Green Stone Dress ClipAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Locket With Ornately Engraved Paisley DesignAntique Victorian Faceted Natural Honey Baltic Amber Bead NecklaceVintage Ysl Yves St Laurent Runway Dicronic Glass Runway NecklaceBeautiful Vintage Handpainted Trifari Fruit & Vine Pin W/ Ladybug & RhinestonesVintage Deco Czech Egyptian Revival Neiger Scarab Glass Bead Flapper NecklaceUnusual Antique Berber Ethnic Tribal Silver Enamel Talisman Box Pendant NecklaceVictorian Saphiret BraceletAntique Victorian Era Real Undyed Old Coral Beads Lovely Necklace Vtg 1930's French Art Deco Machine Age Coral Pink Glass Necklace Bracelet SetVtg Pate De Verre Art Glass Cluster Pink Flower Italian Necklace Earrings SetVintage Deco Venetian Opalescent Cranberry Bi Colour Foil Glass Bead NecklaceVtg Solid 14ct 14k Rose Gold Large Smoky Smokey Quartz Cocktail Ring Uk PVintage Genuine Art Deco Cherry Red Amber Bakelite Bead Necklace 52g Graduated Vtg Kramer Goldtone Pearl Ab Glass Dangle Bib Cluster Necklace Earrings SetHuge Vintage Mexico Horacio De La Parra Sterling Silver Repousse Bird Brooch Vtg Rhinestone Jewelry Lot Coro~weiss~sets~brooch~ab~stunningAntique Chinese Gilt Sterling Silver Carved Malachite Dangle EarringsJuliana Gorgeous Pink Copper Fluss Rhinestone 5 Link BraceletRare Antique Art Deco Cherry Amber Bakelite Barrel Bead Necklace Beautiful Condition Signed Sherman Bracelet & Brooch Blue Aurora BorialisVintage Karl Lagerfeld Haute Couture Runway Massive Gripoix Anchor NecklaceVintage Valentino Couture Runway Quilted Massive Ruby Jeweled Cuff BraceletStunning Huge High End 100pc Vtg Mod Signed Rhinestone Glass Jewelry Lot Sw107Vintage Ciner Jewelled White Enamel «frog Vintage Lot Cameo & Limoges Brooches Micromosaic Cross Old Ring & More457 Pieces Huge Vintage Jewelry Lot - 925 Trifari Dodds Germany JapanVtg Antique Georgian Victorian Sterling Silver Clear Paste Drop Pendant EarringsAntique Victorian Rich Red Bohemian Garnet Gold Gilt Bangle Bracelet Lot Of 50+ Vintage/antique Estate Cameos & Lockets-necklaces,brooches & EarringsVintage Miriam Haskell Purple Glass Bead & Rhinestone Multi-strand BraceletVintage 1970 Cartier Charles Revson Aldo Cipullo Gold Electroplate Love BraceletNapier Gold Tone Bib Necklace Vintage Signed Costume Jewelry Vintage Long Chandelier Moghul Earrings -- Trifari Vtg Large Sterling Silver 925 Ornate Filigree Perfume Scent Locket PendantStunning Vintage Signed Crown Trifari Verified Alfred Philippe Fur Clip!!! 6188uRare Antique Chinese Enamel Silver Box Hidden Deity Mandarin Court Necklace

Recent News: Costume Jewelry

Source: Google News

9 Ways to Score Big at a Yard Sale
TIME, August 29th

Between summer renters unloading stuff, parents clearing out space for back-to-school gear, and teens leaving behind their childhood rooms for college dorms, Labor Day weekend can be a bonanza for yard-sale shoppers. To get the best deals, though, you ...Read more

New antique store opens on Amsterdam's South Side
The Recorder (subscription), August 16th

From a turn-of-the-century peacock vase, to antique clocks and vintage costume jewelry, Joya, the new South Side antique store, has it all. The store, owned and operated by Robert Constantine, has officially opened at its 47 Bridge St. location...Read more

165 Monmouth Drive Fayetteville, Georgia, United States Of America
The Citizen.com, August 3rd

Roosters galore, dolls, depression glass, vintage Pyrex, vintage pottery, and copperware, cookie jars, vintage heads, lamps, kerosene lanterns, antique pen well school desk (pristine), 60's 70s retro.... to start.... TONS OF VINTAGE COSTUME JEWELRY...Read more