Costume jewelry stays in the limelight

By Karen Parr-Moody


French fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883-1971) once said, "Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth, but to make them beautiful."

Indeed it was Chanel who popularized the notion of costume jewelry as an artful fashion statement, along with her Italian contemporary (and rival) Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). From separate perches, these two women kicked off a craze for what the French call "vrais bijoux en toc"  – or custome jewelry that looks real  – during the 1920s and 1930s. 

In modern times, it matters not that a stylish lady has Bulgari, Asprey or Cartier in her jewelry box – she will always reach for costume jewelry on occasions that call for a splash of frivolity and drama.


Such is certainly the case with the young lady in the photo, right, who accents her 1950s party frock with a matching brooch and earring set in milky blue. At a mere $46, this set is one of many vintage costume pieces that collector Brenda Dillingham sells for reasonable prices in her S-538 showcases at GasLamp and GasLamp Too. (All jewelry featured in this story is from Dillingham.)


The milky-blue brooch has a round stone at its center that is cut in the smooth cabochon style; this is typically considered to be European. It is surrounded by tear-shaped cabochon stones along with smaller, faceted ones.


Chanel, who had many loves but never married, dated England’s Duke of Westminster in the 1920s, a man who lavished her with expensive jewelry (along with fine art and a London home). At that time she scandalized London by piling on multiple ropes of pearls with her daywear, blending real pearls with fakes. The ostentation of wearing a large amount of jewelry with daywear, along with blending authentic jewelry with imitation, shocked high society. But at Chanel’s core there existed a duality of simplicity and drama. Yes, she created the “little black dress.” But her humble beginnings were in designing dramatic, if streamlined, hats.


In the mood of Chanel’s simple-meets-dramatic style, the young lady in the photo, left, wears an evening gown designed with simple lines that is accented with a show-stopping brooch.


Costume jewelry, also called “cocktail jewelry,” skyrocketed in popularity with the advent of the Second World War, when the production of fine estate style slowed down considerably. During this period the jewelry firm Swarovski created polychromatic aurora borealis crystals. These iridescent stones are seen in the brooch and earring set in the photo, right. The brooch is comprised of pink, faceted aurora borealis stones cut into round and oval shapes, along with faux seed pearls.  


The increased availability of synthetic gemstones during the 1940s allowed for a wide array of design possibilities. As jewelry firms produced ever elaborate creations, they used materials such as Bakelite, was an early synthetic material that was a forerunner to plastic. This material is seen on the young lady in the photo, left, who wears a bracelet and earring set comprised of lavender Bakelite disks trimmed with white enamel petals in a gold-toned setting.


As the 1940s melted into the 1950s, the market continued to grow for costume jewelry. Years of wartime austerity had left women with an appetite for the luxurious look of such moderately-priced accessories (compared to gemstones and precious metals). A smartly-attired woman would wear a sparkly set with her evening gown, like the one pictured on the young lady, photo right. This necklace is created by using a generous amount of blue rhinestone baguettes accented by clear, round rhinestones.


Today’s collectors of costume jewelry continue to search for notable designs that were produced from the 1920s to the 1950s. Popular names include Miriam Haskell, Weiss, Eisenberg, Chanel and Schiaparelli; the latter two names can run to the thousands of dollars in price. But fortunately for those of us who prefer to wear costume jewelry rather than keep it in a glass case, beautiful examples can still be found at GasLamp for palatable prices.






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