Gaudy, glamorous, and maximalist at its core, costume jewelry is a fashion staple. Let’s look at how it’s evolved over time.
Like so much of fashion history, the history of costume jewelry (at least, as it’s known in the Western world) begins in France. In 1724, jeweler Georges Fréderic Strass created faux diamonds from high-lead-content quartz crystals he found along the banks of the Rhine river.
To further their verisimilitude to genuine gemstones, Strass coated the backs of his “rhinestones” with metallic powders, like ground bismuth and thallium. These powders altered the stones’ colors.
Strass opened his own business in 1730, and by 1734, his pierre précieuse simulée (simulated gemstones) were so popular that he was awarded the title of “King’s Jeweler” by Louis XV.
Jewelry made with Strass’s rhinestones was cheaper to produce than pieces created with genuine gems, but they were still considered highly-prized luxury items.
Even Marie Antoinette, an infamous lover of fine jewelry, collected and often wore pieces set with imitation gemstones. This added to their popularity among the French aristocracy and the Western world at large.
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Fake Gemstones Around the World (and Across Time)
Eventually, the quartz crystals the stones were made with ran out along the banks of the Rhine River. Jewelers had to turn to high-lead-content glass to meet demand. Colored glass had already been used in place of gemstones in jewelry for centuries, especially in the East.
In fact, colored glass has been found at Mesopotamian archeological sites dating back to 1400 BCE, and in Han Dynasty China (206 BCE to 220 CE). Leaded glass was cast to imitate jade for use in figurines, jewelry, and small vessels.
These types of glass were also common in medieval Europe, where they were used to create mosaic tiles, enamels, stained glass windows, and imitation precious stones.
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Leaded glass is more refractive than regular glass and, thus, has a more diamond-like sparkle. It’s also softer and easier to cut, plus the addition of metal salts during the molten stage allows the glass to be colored to mimic the appearance of just about any gem.
Swarovski Steps Up the Sparkle
Until the late 19th century, however, imitation gemstones still had to be cut by hand, a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. But in 1892, Daniel Swarovski patented the first electric cutting machine for leaded glass.
Swarovski was the son of an Austrian glass cutter who owned a small glass-cutting factory near what’s now the Polish border. Daniel learned the basics of his craft from his father and was further educated in France and Vienna. Here, he developed an interest in electricity and began work on his electric glass-cutting machine.
Swarovski’s “crystals” were backed with foil to enhance their shine. Their precise, mechanized cutting made them more brilliant than any of the hand-carved crystals that came before them.
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Costume Jewelry Comes to the Masses
Costume jewelry as we know it today, however, didn’t really take off until the early 20th century, when advancements in manufacturing and automation reduced production costs. Mechanization opened up the market to a much wider audience.
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“Prior to and including the 1920s, costume jewelry was most often created to mimic fine jewelry,” says jewelry historian and dealer Harrice Miller. “The 1900 Paris Exposition inspired a huge interest in jewelry, and gave birth to a new generation of creative artisans who designed ‘imitation’ jewelry, offering to the masses baubles that were previously available only to the elite.”
Chanel and Monet Make Baubles Fashion-Foward
In the 1920s, Paris couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret began accessorizing their dresses with jewelry made of crystals and non-precious metals, a practice soon imitated by designers like Chanel, Lanvin, and Patou.
Freed from the restrictions of high-prices, designers were able to create trend-driven jewelry season after season. Coco Chanel in particular created unique jewelry for every new collection.
Chanel is often credited with popularizing modern costume jewelry for the fashion set. Her imitation pearl necklaces and renaissance-inspired bejeweled crosses achieved widespread popularity. But, French fashion designers weren’t the only ones driving the costume jewelry boom.
In 1934, monogramming business Monet hired former Cartier jeweler Edmond Mario Granville. With this move, Monet soon became one of the most successful and prolific costume jewelry businesses of the 20th century.
American Accessories Were DIY and Droll
The outbreak of World War II made costume jewelry even more ubiquitous. Precious materials like platinum and many alloys were reserved for use in the war effort. Jewelers in Europe stopped production entirely.
In America, jewelers harvested the beads, rhinestones, and pearls from old evening dresses and stage costumes. They made jewelry out everything—wood, clay, olive pits, and upholstery fabric.
Magazines also published DIY instructions, so women could make jewelry for themselves at home.
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After the war, as incomes rose across America, jewelry went from being an heirloom worn only for special occasions to an every-day accessory.
The 1950s and ’60s saw the introduction of plastic to costume jewelry. Plastic pearls were produced for the first time in 1965. This allowed for the creation of pearl earrings the size of golf balls and multi-strand necklaces hundreds of beads long.
Jewelry was now lighter and cheaper than ever, allowing consumers to amass large collections . . . and quickly and inexpensively pile on as much as they wanted.
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Costume Jewelry Copycats
But even as the the mass market for costume jewelry grew, the market for high-end costume jewelry remained strong. Brands like Coro and Trifari, which were hugely popular among celebrities and society elites, have become extremely collectible since their mid-century heyday.
First lady Mamie Eisenhower famously wore Trifari lookalike pearls to both of her inaugural balls. Jackie Kennedy had much of her fine jewelry copied for travel by costume jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane.
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Lane is arguably the most famous high-end costume jewelry designer of the 20th century and was a brilliant knock-off artist. He created a best-selling replica of the diamond and emerald Cartier panther bracelet given to Wallace Simpson by Edward VIII.
Lane used to lurk outside the windows of David Webb, sketching Webb’s designs for later replication. (Webb, unbothered—at least initially—reportedly once even invited Lane in for a better look.)
Trends Come and Go Throughout Time
The ’70s saw the rise of “tailored jewelry”—simple golden and silver pieces with minimal adornment and gemstones—designed for working women to wear to the office.
In the ’80s, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Pieces that were bigger, louder, and gaudier than ever before gained popularity . . . at least until the early-mid ’90s as minimalism became the dominant look of the period.
The industry came back strong in the 2000s, though, and has been on the rise ever since. In 2020, the global costume jewelry industry was valued at $33 billion and is expected to reach a value of $60 billion by 2026.
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Gen Z, Maximalism, and Sustainablility
Of course, more jewelry also means more waste. As the industry continues to experience its most robust growth in the mass market, today’s costume jewelry is both at its most affordable and most highly-disposable.
The vast majority of the costume jewelry sold today isn’t meant to stand the test of time. After just a few wears and an Instagram post or two, many of these pieces find their way into landfills.
As for what’s next, it’s hard to say. Gen Z’s love of maximalism, cheap clothing, and accessories manufactured in sweatshops and sold online for next to nothing certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of our planet.
On the other hand, their awareness of climate change and desire to see it curbed does offer a glimmer of hope.
Maybe the next trend in costume jewelry will be something more sustainable than what has come before. After all, as lovely as jewelry is, the last thing any of us need is more sparkly garbage.
Cover image via PHOTOARTDESIGN.