In vintage fine jewelry, precious metals such as platinum, gold, and silver were routinely used as armatures and frames for gemstones like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. But in vintage costume jewelry, the base material that held the glittering rhinestones and sparkling pieces of paste in place was called white or pot metal, an inexpensive, kitchen-sink alloy of mostly tin and lead.

World War II changed all that, forcing costume-jewelry designers such as Trifari, Coro, and Haskell to anchor their baubles to silver, which was less valuable to the war effort than tin or lead. Unfortunately, it was also more expensive to work with. Prices for Trifari products tripled, in part because the company’s dies, and even its tools, had been melted down for the war. Starting in some cases entirely from scratch, some of its jewelry had to be made using traditional lost-wax-casting techniques, which added to the precious metal’s already high cost.

Little wonder, then, that after the war, manufacturers were anxious to return to base metals that were less costly. Unfortunately, costume-jewelry customers had gotten used to silver. To hype the return to a cheaper base metal, Trifari began advertising a "revolutionary" new metal called Trifanium, which was a made-up name for their new non-silver metal with a no-polish rhodium finish.

Vermeil is another page in the World War II costume-jewelry silver story. Though plated with gold, the core of vermeil was actually sterling silver. Pieces made during the 1940s, particularly those by Coro, are especially collectible.


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