Learn about costume jewellery, and the history of it, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how it has developed over the years.
Although it is sometimes thought of non-precious or imitative, costume jewellery has its own rich history and is considered a craft and an art form in its own right. Costume jewellery may lack the intrinsic value of its “fine” bigger brother, but this has placed more emphasis on design and material making some costume jewellery very interesting and desirable to collectors and the fashion-conscious.
Making Costume Jewellery: Materials and Methods
In order to imitate fine jewellery, costume jewellery designers and manufacturers have generally used either non-precious stones or highly polished lead crystal glass known as ‘paste’. The most popular diamond imitation stones are rhinestones, marcasite and lucite. Rhinestones were originally sourced from natural crystals and take their name from the German river in which they were found, although today the term generally applies to lead crystal paste too. Lucite, a better term for poly-methyl methacrylate, is an extremely useful plastic also known as acrylic or Perspex.
Imitation stones are chosen because of their high refractive indices (scattering the light) and high dispersion (splitting light into colours). To add to this, they’re backed with a shiny foil to add to their luminous appearance. On the other hand, a wide variety of other materials have been used, in particular during the 20th century to make pieces desirable in their own right, rather than as imitations. Murano glass beads, ivory, Swarovski crystals, ‘Russian gold’ filigree and hand-blown faux pearls were expensive in their own right and were used by the most sought after designers such as Christian Dior and Stanley Hagler. In many cases sterling silver or gilt metals were used in high quality costume jewellery.
A Short History of Costume Jewellery
Costume jewellery has a history much broader than the 20th century USA fashion that it is often associated with. Before the Wall St. Crash in 1929, most costume jewellery had been British or continental European and had been in production for two centuries. Georges-Frédéric Strass was the first to create imitation gem-stones from lead crystal glass in the 1730s and were known as ‘strass jewels’. During the 19th century, figural designs became popular which paved the way for the more ambitious designs of the 20th century. Around the same time as Strass was working with glass, Christopher Pinchbeck invented a gold substitute which was workable much like real gold although this was later supplanted by gilt metal.
In the cash-strapped economy of 1930s America, jewellers took to the use of non-precious stones in a new way, bringing the craft into an age of jazz and female emancipation. Due to its affordability, costume jewellery fashion could change quickly, and it soon became big business. The growth in US costume jewellery soon intersected with the European fashion industry through the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli and later Christian Dior. The Second World War was also crucial to the history of costume jewellery as precious metals began to be used due to the prohibition of other metals for the war effort.