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Costume Jewelry – The History of the Glorious Fake

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You may not realize it, but costume jewelry has been around for centuries. Originally termed “costume” jewelry – with costume being another word for outfit – semi-precious jewelry gained in popularity for its affordability.

In the 18th century, some jewelers began making pieces with inexpensive glass. In the 19th century, semi-precious materials like metal plating, stones, and other jewels came into the market to make jewelry more affordable to common people. This also meant that a greater range of styles could be purchased to fit a wider range of ensembles.

However, the golden age for costume jewelry began in the mid-20th century when the new middle class wanted both beautiful and inexpensive necklaces and other decorative pieces. Sterling silver in jewelry also became more popular as the other base metal materials, like brass and steel, were shipped off for war.

Costume jewelry developed for those who wanted less expensive jewelry alternatives. The industrial revolution also made the process of carefully replicating admired heirloom pieces possible.

As the working culture changed, so did measures of wealth – to the point that even a working class woman could own and wear beautiful costume jewelry. When the market was opened up to faux designs, any average women could amass a large collection of jewelry that was both stylish and affordable.

Designers also popularized costume jewelry in the mid-20th century. Brands like Dior, Chanel, Monet, Napier, and others included now-famous pieces in their collections. Coco Chanel took her jewelry to the next level with elaborate pieces constructed with gold and her signature faux pearls.

Popularized by the pieces worn by actresses in Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s, costume jewelry replicas of even more famous Hollywood designs made it into the mainstream.

If women admired the necklaces worn by stars like Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, Rita Hayworth’s snake set of cuff, necklace, and tiara in the 1947 film Down to Earth, or Marilyn Monroe’s earrings in Some Like it Hot, they could pick up replicas of many pieces, made by Joseff of Hollywood, at a their local department stores like F.W. Woolworth.
The original appeal was that these pieces could be owned by ordinary women, but their additional allure with bold designs and trendy style cannot be understated. Some pieces have even become iconic parts of American culture. A collection of Joseff of Hollywood original creations, with low-shine matte finishes to look perfect under the glare of studio lighting, recently found themselves at an exhibition in the international terminal at San Francisco Airport (SFO).

In some cases, high-end fashion jewelry has reached “collectable” status and can increase in value over time. There is the greatest demand for stamped or “signed” vintage jewelry, however there’s also a market for good quality pieces by unknown designers, especially if it’s an unusual design.


Guest post by Judy Robinson

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