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History of Costume Jewellery

(August 25, 2010)

History of costume jewellery

Costume jewellery is enjoying something of a resurgence. The great design houses are showing stunning collections, using a plethora of crystals, crystal pearls, glass and rhinestones. And similar designs  are filtering through to the high street too.

The costume jewellery that originated in the 1930's was designed for people who wanted visually stunning pieces, but were unable to pay the cost of 'fine jewellery' (think Tiffany and Cartier). This type of jewellery was meant as more of an accessory (to a specific outfit) than as a long-term investment, or heirloom piece, which reflected the inter-changable and flippant nature of fashion at the time.

Lots of the fashions and trends were inspired by the cinema stars of the day.  Stars like Joan Crawford led the way (although the majority of her pieces were fine jewellery, not costume). Sales of costume jewellery increased as a result, as fans tried to replicate their favourite stars' on-screen glamour in their day-to-day lives.


Amber Brooch 1
Vintage gold plated and amber brooch


Amber Brooch 2


Costume jewellery was typically made using cheaper alternatives to the more expensive metals, such as silver, gold, and platinum,  and plated metals became more common. This became of special importance during the 'war years' when precious metals were used for the 'war effort'.


Amber Brooch 3
Vintage amber rhinestone and gold plated brooch


Amber Brooch 4
Vintage amber rhinestone and gold plated brooch


During this enforced creativity some of the strongest and best recognised jewellery designers became well known. One of the most famous designers of the period was Coco Chanel.

Already an established designer of couture clothing, Chanel started designing jewellery pieces to accompany her fashion ranges, which were very well received. 


Red Gems
Dramatically coloured red rhinestones


Although rhinestones had been around for many years - they were invented by Georg Friedich Strass   in Alsace the 1730s - they began to be used increasing from the 1930s. Design houses such as 'Weiss' (which ceased trading in 1971), used them extensively. One of the main attractions of these foil-backed glass gems was that the level of shine and brilliance they afforded compared so well to the brilliance of faceted gemstones.


Brown Gems
Selection of loose rhinestones


Rhinestones continue to be very popular, and feature heavily in Autumn/Winter 10 collections. They are often accompanied by numerous rows of pearls or intertwined with chains. And they continue to add glamour to any outfit.


Red Brooch
Vintage rhinestone brooch


Florenza was another key design house. Its founder, the jewellery designer Daniel Kasoff, named the company after his wife Florence.  Many of the heirloom inspired pieces currently seen on the high-street echo Florenza's use of cameos and Aurora Borealis (AB)crystals.

The present-day leaders in the creation of beautiful and dramatic costume jewellery are undoubtedly Butler & Wilson and Swarovski.


Butler Brooch
Butler & Wilson Flamingo Brooch


Simon Wilson was born in Glasgow and has been designing pieces for over forty years. His dedication to his art is prodigious, his life totally absored and immersed in the design of new pieces. Pieces from his collections are bold and colourful, often using many hundreds of foil-backed rhinestones and/or Swarovski crystals in their designs.

Butler & Wilson are particularly well known for their range of brooches and spectacular statement chokers. Their ranges have been best sellers at Harrods for many years and they have a thriving buisness on QVC. Echoing the costume jewellery ethos of the 1930s, Butler & Wilson jewellery undoubtedly relies on a sense of 'dressing up' - of adding a key piece or pieces to an outfit for it to be completed, a sense of 'finishing off', as it were.

However, with modern day pieces such as those by Butler & Wilson, rather than being simply an 'accessory' to an outfit, the pieces become the focal point, not simply adjuncts.


Swarovski 1
Shadow Silver Avente Garde pendant


The other major name in the modern day costume jewellery field, for me, is Swarovski.


Swarovski 2
Crystal pearls and crystals, created by Swarovski


Swarovski was founded by Daniel Swarovski (1862-1956), whose father worked as a glass cutter. As he grew up he became fascinated with the possibilities for using glass as decorative items and he devised a machine that allowed him to create facets on glass.  From these early beginnings, Swarovski went on to design a huge number of items; ranging from elaborate chandeliers, to figurines and jewellery. Recent additions to the Swarovski range have been home accessory ranges, keyrings and phone accessories. Even headphones and computer equipment are now adorned with these beautiful faceted crystals.


Swarovski 3
pearls and crystals


Swarovski have also developed a technique for creating  'pearls', which are an admirable alternative to the real thing. They are able to create a whole spectrum of pearl colours that do not occur naturally, giving the designers full control over the design process. Their astonishing array of colours includes 'Coral', 'Light Grey', 'Brass' and 'Mystic Black'.

Recently, Swarovski have created a new range of ceramic faceted crystals, which have a marble-like effect.


Swarovski 4
crystal heart pendant

Statement broochs are also becoming more popular, both with designers and on the highstreet. First coming on to the catwalk in the 2008 season (although broochs have always been in vogue in the fine jewellery market). With designer Matthew Williamson recently designing a statement brooch inspired by the Spring season (using Swarovski crystals).

Vintage inspired diamonte broochs are also becoming popular - either added to wedding dresses to form a focal point on the outfit, or a small number of them attached in a group to the side of a bustier or corset - giving a chic Miss Haversham feel to a bridal outfit.

Claire Meredith, September 2010





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