All about costume jewellery

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Costume jewellery, trinkets, fashion jewellery, junk jewellery, fake jewellery, or fallalery is jewellery manufactured as ornamentation to complement a particular fashionable costume or garment as opposed to "real" (fine) jewellery which may be regarded primarily as collectibles, keepsakes, or investments.


The term costume jewellery dates back to the early 20th century. It reflects the use of the word "costume" to refer to what is now called an "outfit".


An example of gold plated jewellery

Originally, costume or fashion jewellery was made of inexpensive simulated gemstones, such as rhinestones or lucite, set in pewter, silver, nickel or brass. During the depression years, rhinestones were even down-graded by some manufacturers to meet the cost of production.

During the World War II era, sterling silver was often incorporated into costume jewellery designs primarily because:

  1. The components used for base metal were needed for war time production (i.e., military applications) and a ban was placed on their use in the private sector.
  2. Base metal was originally popular because it could approximate platinum's colour, sterling silver fulfilled the same function.

This resulted in a number of years during which sterling silver costume jewellery was produced and some can still be found in today's vintage jewellery marketplace.

Modern costume jewellery incorporates a wide range of materials. High end crystals, cubic zirconia simulated diamonds, and some semi-precious stones are used in place of precious stones. Metals include gold- or silver-plated brass, and sometimes vermeil or sterling silver. Lower-priced jewellery may still use gold plating over pewter, nickel or other metals; items made in countries outside the United States may contain lead. Some pieces incorporate plastic, acrylic, leather or wood.


Costume jewellery can be characterized by the period in history in which it was made.

Art Deco period (1920–1930s)
The Art Deco movement was an attempt to combine the harshness of mass production with the sensitivity of art and design. It was during this period that Coco Chanel introduced costume jewellery to complete the costume. The Art Deco movement died with the onset of the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II.

According to Schiffer, some of the characteristics of the costume jewellery in the Art Deco period were:

  • Free-flowing curves were replaced with a harshly geometric and symmetrical theme
  • Long pendants, bangle bracelets, cocktail rings, and elaborate accessory items such as cigarette cases and holders

Retro period (1935 to 1950)
In the Retro period, designers struggled with the art versus mass production dilemma. Natural materials merged with plastics. The retro period primarily included American-made jewellery, which has a distinct American look. With the war in Europe, many European jewellery firms were forced shut down. Many European designers immigrated to the U.S. since the economy was recovering.

According to Schiffer, some of the characteristics of the costume jewellery in the Retro period were:

  • Glamour, elegance, and sophistication
  • Flowers, bows, and sunburst designs with a Hollywood flair
  • Moonstones, horse motifs, military influence, and ballerinas
  • Bakelite and other plastic jewellery

Art Modern period (1945 to 1960)
In the Art Modern period following World War II, jewellery designs became more traditional and understated. The big, bold styles of the Retro period went out of style and were replaced by the more tailored styles of the 1950s and 1960s.

According to Schiffer, some of the characteristics of the costume jewellery in the Art Modern period were:

  • Bold, lavish jewellery
  • Large, chunky bracelets, charm bracelets, Jade/opal, charm bracelets, citrine, topaz
  • Poodle pins, Christmas tree pins, and other Christmas jewellery
  • Rhinestones

With the advent of the Mod period came "Body Jewellery". Carl Schimel of Kim Craftsmen Jewellery was at the forefront of this style. While Kim Craftsmen closed in the early 1990s, many collectors still forage for their items at antique shows and flea markets.


Costume jewellery has been part of culture for almost 300 years. During the 18th century, jewellers began making pieces with inexpensive glass. In the 19th century, costume jewellery made of semi-precious material came into the market. Jewels made of semi-precious material were more affordable, and this affordability gave common people the chance to own costume jewellery.

But the real golden era for the costume jewellery began in the middle of the 20th century. The new middle class wanted beautiful, but affordable, jewellery. The demand for jewellery of this type coincided with the machine-age and the industrial revolution. The revolution made the production of carefully executed replicas of admired heirloom pieces possible.

As the class structure in America changed, so did measures of real wealth. Women in all social stations, even the working-class woman, could own a small piece of costume jewellery. The average town and country woman could acquire and wear a considerable amount of this mass-produced jewellery that was both affordable and stylish.

Costume jewellery was also made popular by various designers in the mid-20th century. Some of the most remembered names in costume jewellery include both the high and low priced brands: Crown Trifari, Dior, Chanel, Miriam Haskell, Monet, Napier, Corocraft, Coventry, and Kim Craftsmen.

A significant factor in the popularization of costume jewellery was the Hollywood movie. The leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s often wore and then endorsed the pieces produced by a range of designers. If you admired a necklace worn by Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, you could buy a copy from Joseff of Hollywood, who made the original. Stars such as Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Russell appeared in adverts for the pieces and the availability of the collections in shops such as Woolworth made it possible for ordinary women to own and wear such jewellery.

Coco Chanel greatly popularized the use of faux jewellery in her years as a fashion designer, bringing costume jewellery to life with gold and faux pearls. Kenneth Jay Lane has since the 1960s been known for creating unique pieces for Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Vreeland, and Audrey Hepburn. He is probably best known for his three-strand faux pearl necklace worn by Barbara Bush to her husband's inaugural ball.

In many instances, high-end fashion jewellery has achieved a "collectible" status, and increases in value over time. Today, there is a substantial secondary market for vintage fashion jewellery. The main collecting market is for 'signed pieces', that is pieces which have the maker's mark, usually stamped on the reverse. Amongst the most sought after are Miriam Haskell, Coro, Butler and Wilson, Crown Trifari and Sphinx. However, there is also demand for good quality 'unsigned' pieces, especially if they are of an unusual design.


Costume jewellery is considered a discrete category of fashion accessory, and displays many characteristics of a self-contained industry. Costume jewellery manufacturers are located throughout the world, with a particular concentration in parts of China and India, where entire city-wide and region-wide economies are dominated by the trade of these goods. There has been considerable controversy in the United States and elsewhere about the lack of regulations in the manufacture of such jewellery—these range from human rights issues surrounding the treatment of labour, to the use of manufacturing processes in which small, but potentially harmful, amounts of toxic metals are added during production. In 2010, the Associated Press released the story that toxic levels of the metal cadmium were found in children's jewellery. An AP investigation found some pieces contained more than 80 percent of cadmium. The wider issues surrounding imports, exports, trade laws, and globalization also apply to the costume jewellery trade.

As part of the supply chain, wholesalers in the United States and other nations purchase costume jewellery from manufacturers and typically import or export it to wholesale distributors and suppliers who deal directly with retailers. Wholesale costume jewellery merchants would traditionally seek out new suppliers at trade shows. As the Internet has become increasingly important in global trade, the trade-show model has changed. Retailers can now select from a large number of wholesalers with sites on the World Wide Web. Some of these sites also market directly to consumers, who can purchase costume jewellery at greatly reduced prices. Some of these sites include fashion jewellery as a separate category, while some use this term in favour of costume jewellery. The trend of jewellery-making at home by hobbyists for personal enjoyment or for sale on sites like Etsy has resulted in the common practice of buying wholesale costume jewellery in bulk and using it for parts.

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