Costume jewelry’s designer roots

By Karen Parr-Moody


Costume jewelry was popularized by French fashion designer Coco Chanel and her Italian contemporary Elsa Schiaparelli during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, at GasLamp and GasLamp Too, one can always find a special piece of vintage costume jewelry. In fact, I recently bought the peacock brooch in the photo, right, at Showcase 538, which is filled with beautiful baubles.


In 1924 Chanel began pushing this craze for “vrais bijoux en toc,” which is the French term for costume jewelry that looks real. Chanel was at that time dating England’s Duke of Westminster, and while in London she scandalized London by piling on multiple ropes of pearls with her daywear. This was bad taste in the eyes of English society; such ostentation was traditionally reserved for evening attire. But the Frenchwoman had the further audacity to blend real jewels with costume jewelry, which was considered truly beyond the pale.


As for Schiaparelli’s contribution, she was a fashion designer inspired by the Surrealism movement in art, designing such iconic pieces as a hat in the shape of a shoe (worn by socialite Daisy Fellowes) and her famous “Lobster Dress,” a gown festooned with a large lobster appliqué (which Wallis Simpson wore to be photographed by Cecil Beaton for Vogue magazine).


The pair of Schiaparelli haute couture ostrich clips, seen in the photo at left, are from her Circus Collection of 1938. These are not located at GasLamp, but are in a private collection; such pieces are incredibly rare. Early costume pieces from the famous fashion houses, including Chanel and Christian Dior, are highly collectible today and sell for thousands.


The popularity of affordable costume jewelry, also called “cocktail jewelry,” skyrocketed with the advent of the Second World War, when the production of fine estate style slowed down considerably. A variety of costume jewelry houses picked up in popularity during this time, including Weiss Jewelry, which was founded by Albert Weiss in 1942. The bracelet in the photo, right, is a Weiss piece currently at GasLamp ($75; Showcase 538). The most well-known Weiss designs include ones encrusted with smoky rhinestones and designs that utilized Swarovski’s polychromatic aurora borealis crystals.


Throughout my four years of working for GasLamp, I have found many pieces from costume jewelry makers that are considered collectible. Among them: Eisenberg, Weiss, Lisner, HAR and Miriam Haskell. Personally, I love the name brands, as well as the ones that with no brand whatsoever. There are some true beauties like this multi-colored leaf brooch in the photo, below left that show off the designs that cropped up during the post-World War II era ($42.98; Showcase 538).


Following World War II, there was an increased availability of synthetic gemstones and sparkling crystals. This allowed for a wide array of design possibilities for producing even more vibrant and elaborate creations. The market was right for costume jewelry, as well, since years of wartime austerity had left women with an appetite for luxury. Since costume jewels were more moderately priced, compared to gemstones and precious metals, women could acquire multiple pieces for daily wear as well as for evening. Can you imagine how gorgeous this crescent-shaped pin would make either a cardigan for day or a cocktail dress for evening (photo, right; brooch, $32)?


During the 1950s, women would layer many accessories together in the style epitomized by Chanel. The same can be true of today. When I first began wearing costume jewelry in my teens, I would layer long strands of pearls together. Today I love to wear a triple strand of shorter pearls topped with a vintage brooch. I am a true believer of what Chanel once said: “Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth, but to make them beautiful.”


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