Costume Jewelry Still Sparkles

By Karen Parr-Moody

May 1, 2017


French fashion designer Coco Chanel once said, “Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth, but to make them beautiful.”


Indeed, it was Chanel (1883-1971) who popularized the notion of costume jewelry as an artful fashion statement, along with her Italian contemporary Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). From separate perches, these two women kicked off a craze for what the French called “vrais bijoux en toc” – or costume jewelry that looks real – during the 1920s and 1930s.


Chanel was particularly instrumental in promoting costume jewelry as an attractive and acceptable way to wear jewelry, giving accessibility to the average woman, who could purchase stylish pieces without spending a lot of money.


One of the early trends Chanel jumped on was the use of Bakelite in costume jewelry. This early plastic was developed by chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907 and ushered in what is known, among chemists, as the Polymer Age or the Age of Plastics (photo, right: green Bakelite bracelet, $26; yellow Bakelite bracelet, $39; both at Showcase S-505).


As the world's first wholly synthetic product, Bakelite could be molded quickly and inexpensively. These properties, which were an enormous advantage in mass production processes, grabbed jewelry designers by the lapels.  


Bakelite's popularity coincided with the emergence of Art Deco style, as well as with the onset of the Great Depression. This is where Bakelite found its mark: A woman of this era could visit mass merchandise stores, such as Sears and Roebuck, and purchase some stylish “pick-me-up” jewelry to momentarily escape the economic pressures of the day (Bakelite bracelets, photo left: $19 each at Showcase S-505).


The popularity of costume jewelry, also called “cocktail jewelry,” skyrocketed with the advent of the Second World War, when the production of fine estate jewelry slowed down considerably. The cocktail jewelry trend continued into the 1950s, after years of wartime austerity had left women with an appetite for the luxurious look of moderately-priced accessories.


Popular names that eventually joined Chanel and Schiaparelli were Miriam Haskell, Weiss (founded by Albert Weiss) and Eisenberg & Sons (founded by Jonas Eisenberg).


The show-stopping brooch in the photo, right, is from Eisenberg & Sons and bears the jeweler’s mark on the back ($985; Showcase B-225 at the orginal GasLamp). The setting is made of sterling silver.


Known for its use of Swarovski crystals and colored stones, as well as for superior craftsmanship, Eisenberg & Sons was one of the most highly regarded costume jewelry manufacturers of the last century. The company was famous for its replicas of 18th-century fine jewelry, which appeared authentic right down to color of the metal. The brooch, at left, is made of sterling silver ($985; Showcase B-225).


The charming brooch in the photo, lower right, is not from any collectible name or brand, but it is lovely nonetheless ($365; Showcase B-225). It features several milky-blue, round stones that are cut in the smooth cabochon style; this is typically considered to be a more European way of cutting or manufacturing stones, whether they are real or costume. The brooch is surrounded by smaller, faceted stones in a summery green.


Back in the day, every smartly-attired woman added some sparkle to her ensemble via costume jewelry. In modern times, it matters not that a stylish lady has Bulgari, Asprey or Cartier in her jewelry box – she should always reach for costume jewelry on those occasions that call for a splash of drama.









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