Friday, November 20, 2009

Baubles, Bangles and Costume Jewelry

By Polly Guerin, Fashion Historian

Fashion has had an awakening, and the search is on for vintage jewelry pieces, imitators of fine jewelry, that covet high prices at retail counters and at antique dealers. After all the blitz and glitz on the runways, costume jewelry has come full circle with the luster of pearls, the gleam of crystals, diamond-like rhinestones and brilliant colored stones.

       One of the most alluring aspects of collecting vintage costume jewelry is the thrill of acquiring pieces of incredible beauty and unprecedented workmanship. Early pieces from the 1930s to the 1950’s were made by craftsmen, high- end jewelers from the fine jewelry trade, who applied their handicraft to costume jewelry. Imitating fine jewelry, the handcrafted prong-set designs used faux pearls, colored enamels, simulated precious gemstones and Swarovski crystals in necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets that defied anyone calling them “fake.” So painstaking to detail was the work of the artists that the incised name of a designer or a manufacturer’s mark makes a significant difference in value. Signed pieces by Boucher, Ciner, Miriam Haskell, Panetta and Eisenberg command steep prices, as are pieces incised with a manufacturer’s marks such as Coro, Monet, Napier, Trifari and Vendome.

        It is curious that along this glittering path was Coco Chanel, who invented ‘costume jewelry.’ She turned the jewelry rules upside down in the 1920s, making fabulous faux jewels a high fashion essential. Other couture houses followed her example, including Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior and Yes Saint Laurent. These high-end showstopper, costume jewelry pieces were designed to complement the designer’s haute couture and prêt a porter (ready-to-wear) runway fashion collections. However, many of the extravagant costume jewelry pieces attributed to haute couture designers actually were designed by legendary French fine jewelry designers, including Gripoix, Robert Goossens and Roger Jean-Pierre. The distinctive quality of vintage costume jewelry pieces from the 1930s also focuses on the work of Parisian designer, Marcel Boucher. He came to New York and worked for Cartier, but left in the 30s to set up his own firm, explains jewelry historian Joyce Jonas. “[Bocher’s] first collection of three-dimensional pins was made with colored rhinestones and unusual translucent enamels. Nothing like it had ever been done before. Each piece was beautifully crafted and prong-set. Originally priced from $40 to $60, in today’s market these same pins go for $800 and better, and at the high-end sell for $1,500 to $l, 600.”

       “Chanel was a visionary and the high quality of her costume jewelry was made and prong-set like fine jewelry,” says Pauline Ginnane-Gasbarro, a New York dealer who specializes in Chanel pieces that sell from $4000 and up. Chanel gave master jeweler Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, his start as a costume jewelry designer, and he later created the house of VERDURA. He first introduced the combination of multi-colored stones and pearls in necklaces, cuff bracelets and brooches. Chanel was often photographed wearing her favorite Maltese cross cuff bracelets and other signature pieces by Verdura. Today Verdura has transformed itself into a high-end fine jewelry house using real precious stones in just the same Maltese cuff. For costume jewelry buffs look for Kenneth Jay Lane’s version. He revived this design in the 60s.

       New plastic materials originating at the turn of the 20th century introduced Bakelite, a plastic material that was worked in vivid, bold colors, and often incised with hand-carved geometric or floral motifs. Bakelite was also fashioned into a type of whimsical costume jewelry that became popular in the 30s. Today Bakelite is having a renaissance, and most fashionable is the staking of bangle bracelets in multi colors, or wearing whimsical figurative brooches—bunnies, dogs, and clowns, some with moveable parts. Carmen Miranda’s Bakelite fruity jewelry was also popular. Bakelite pieces that may have sold for $50 in the 1930’s today might sell in the hundreds and thousands depending upon the rarity of the piece. “A French Bakelite design, signed by Auguste Bonaz would bring much more money than unsigned pieces,” says Ginny Redington Dawes, co-author with Corinne Davidov of the BAKELITE JEWELRY BOOK. One world of caution, I’ve heard that some fakes have penetrated the seller’s market, so be sure you know what you are purchasing when it comes to Bakelite.

        What to purchase can be perplexing. “Costume jewelry is getting hot,” says Harrice Simons Miller, a New York dealer and author of ‘THE OFFICIAL PRICE GUIDE TO COSTUME JEWELRY, “Now is a great time to collect Eisenberg enamels, Trifari, Panetta, Ciner, Chanel, Dior and YSL pieces.” Knowledge of buying and selling trends can best be acquired by keeping close tabs on vintage costume jewelry auctions and estate sales held at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Doyle in New York and Skinner’s in Boston. A mint condition Chanel sautoir and oblong pendant, circa 1935, in silver-plated metal set with rhinestones and imitation emeralds was auctioned at $1,500 at Doyle. In the 30’s the same sautoir may have sold for just two hundred dollars. Miller says, “As for the future of collectibles, you should consider purchasing contemporary jewelry by top designers now and put it away for 20 years to age its intrinsic value.” It is interesting to note that Providence, Rhode Island from the 1920s to the ‘50’s was the center of the American manufacturing of the handcrafted and prong-set costume jewelry, and much of the costume jewelry is still manufactured there, albeit mass produced and not with the same vintage characteristics. Costume jewelry reproductions are filtering the market from China so it is best to take a magnifying glass with you and examine the incised maker before making a purchase. Today some of the most collectible costume jewelry includes Kenneth Jay Lane’s oversized earrings, large necklaces, animal bracelets and bold pins. In 2005, a KJL tiger bracelet sold for $540. Today the price would be considerably higher.

Recently I attended the Antiques Show at the Pier with vendors of jewelry, both real and imitators; it was quite overwhelming. However, I found an adorable artistic bracelet watch under $50, so there are still ‘finds’ out there, but you have to look very carefully to authenticate a piece’s origin by examining the incised signature.

THIS JUST IN:  "The Vintage Woman: A Century of Costume Jewelry in America 1910-2010" exhibit is now open at the Forbes Galleries on 62 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street.♥

Bio: Polly Guerin's first job in journalism was as Accessories Editor at the fashion bible, the trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily where she honed writing about accessories and later as professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she lectured on Product Knowledge. Polly also wrote on this subject for Art & Antiques magazine. She is also a vice president of the Romance Writers of America/New York Chapter and on the board of the Art Deco Society of New York. Visit her at with links to her Internet PollyTalk column and blog


  1. I love my costume jewelry but am rather surprised at the prices some of these pieces are going for! Too bad I didn't keep more of my mother's stuff from the 50's. (I did keep the ones I really liked and even wear them sometimes.)
    It brings a famous Guy de Mauppassant short story, The Necklace, to mind. Does anyone rememeber that one? It's worth a read (or re-read).
    Interesting post, Polly, and I the picture is beautiful!

  2. Your post reminded me of the costume jewelry set, necklace, earrings and bracelet that my Aunt Mary left me when she died a few years back. Your blog inspired me to take a closer look, and I found that my costume jewelry is Sarah Coventry circa late 50’s early 60’s. I’ve always treasured the set, but this added bit of history makes it even more special. Thank you!!! Anne Mohr

  3. Now that I've read your post, I have to stop by my mom's and look through my grandmother's costume jewelry. My Grams had wonderful pins and necklaces. I have one pin right here with me on my desk of a small horse with a two pearls for its body and pearl chips for the head.
    Great article.