Costume jewelry may have a reputation for being “cheap” knock-offs of diamond rings and other forms of fine jewelry but this does not tell the whole story. In truth, costume or “fashion” jewelry is indeed fabricated using semi-precious or completely base materials like glass, plastic, and synthesized stones. Such pieces may be lacking precious metals and gemstones but they more than make up for this shortcoming with design, aesthetic appeal, and overall beauty.
The term “costume jewelry” originated on the stages of Vaudeville and Broadway because it was used as part of the costumes for actors and actresses. Because pieces had to be seen by people at the back of a theatre, they were designed to be overly “flashy” and often featured ornate designs with an almost gaudy display of rhinestones and other semi-precious stones that happened to catch the light.
Starting in the 1920’s, the popularity of fashion jewelry spread beyond the stage and into popular culture. The surge in popularity led to a number of manufacturers entering into the industry and thus flooding the market with a wide array of designs and styles. Some of the most popular manufacturers include:
High quality pieces often featured sparse use of precious metals like silver and gold. Silver over brass and gold over silver were very common combinations for the upper end manufacturers. Even ivory was used to an incredible degree given its relative rarity, especially in men’s fashion pieces. Lower quality pieces tended to be made out of plastic, acrylic, and a host of other synthetic materials. However, despite being mass produced, many vintage pieces were actually hand crafted including rings, bracelets, chains, necklaces, pendants, and earrings.
The gems used to make vintage fashion pieces were often semi-precious and could include: amethyst, aquamarine, amber, opal, garnet, and even freshwater pearls. Some manufacturers like Eisenberg and Borgoff were renowned for using gems of exceptionally high quality, despite their semi-precious status. If well-cared for, some vintage costume pieces can command $100’s despite originally being sold for a fraction of that amount.
To preserve the quality and value of vintage pieces, it is important to wipe them off after use to remove any oils, sweat, and dirt. A soft cloth is often best for this task but it is important to remember that harsh chemical solvents may discolor or permanently damage a piece. Strong solvents like alcohol have been known to dissolve the epoxy that holds stones in place and forever destroy the piece and render it worthless. Therefore, be sure to apply an hairspray or gel well before putting on a piece of jewelry to allow the solvent to dry. When finished wearing the piece, be sure to store it in a soft pouch or the original packaging for safe keeping.
While we would all love our jewelry collections to be filled with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other examples of fine jewelry–this is a very expensive proposition and completely impractical for most of us. Fashion jewelry is often designed to emulate fine pieces so a quality piece will still make you look fantastic without breaking the bank. And since you can buy costume pieces for a fraction of what you would spend on a piece of fine jewelry, you can add more pieces to your collection and give yourself more options when accessorizing your wardrobe.
Fashion pieces are the perfect way to introduce young girls to the world of jewelry. Because children have a tendency to lose or break jewelry, costume pieces are perfect because they allow a young woman to look great without worrying about the financial consequences of losing or damaging a high quality necklace, bracelet, etc.
Finally, vintage costume jewelry may have been known as “cheap” and relatively worthless when it was first introduced. Nowadays, however, there are thousands of collectors searching for vintage pieces to add to their jewelry collections and they are paying several times the original sale price. Depending on the demand, supply, and quality of the piece, some costume necklaces, brooches, and other pieces of jewelry can command $300 or more!
As the holidays approach and our credit card limits become stretched, costume jewelry may be the perfect solution to buying a great gift without shelling out a fortune in the process. If you take the time to find the quality pieces, a “cheap” gift today could well be worth big money down the road!