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The Surprising History of Costume Jewelry

From Paste Pearls to Dye-mond Rings

 

Louise Brooks shows off her pearls in 1928. Photograph by Eugene Robert Richee.

Once upon a time, it was a society woman’s biggest fear to have it discovered that her finest string of pearls were nothing more than paste. In the Victorian era up until the 1920s, ladies of style (but not necessarily of means) relied on jewelry made of aluminum, glass or majorica pearls to give their jewelry the look and feel of precious gems.

But costume jewelry was never just about fakery. While some women, like the middle-class heroine of Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace,” longed to fake their way into high society using incredibly realistic costume jewelry, others were satisfied to wear “paste” pearls and gems that had absolutely no value but looked striking nonetheless. As Halloween approaches, we thought we’d take a brief look at the legacy of costume jewelry from its humble beginnings to its vaunted vintage status.

 

By 1925, Marshall Fields department store declared that “the imitation is no longer a disgrace.”

In the Victorian era, when wealth and status were absolutely everything, the idea of wearing fakes out of the house was enough to disgrace an entire family for years. As the years went on, however, the art of the “fake” spawned its own appreciation from highbrow designers like Coco Chanel and Madame Premet. By the 1920s, with Egyptian-inspired art all the rage thanks to the 1922 uncovering of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The classic string of pearls was replaced by colorful, almost gaudy-looking gems, baguette bracelets, and lavaliers. By 1925, Marshall Fields department store (later to be bought out by Macy’s) declared that “the imitation is no longer a disgrace.”

 

A 1926 sketch for a Cartier Egyptian-inspired belt buckle brooch.

 

Elsa Schiaparelli’s Ostrich Pendants from the “Circus Collection,” 1938.

Not only was the imitation a perfectly acceptable form of jewelry, it became a favorite of 1920s flappers and 1930s gals-about-town, eager to shine up their look with some rhinestones or other non-precious, yet highly sparkly, gems.

 

Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali collaborated on costume jewelry throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

Into the 40s and early 50s, imitation jewelry became even more important due to the scarcity of real gems during wartime. Jewelry was the last thing on the American public’s mind during World War Two, especially with so many women joining the workforce and saving every penny they could to provide for their families. Even though the 1950s ushered in a new era of lush, expensive fabrics and decadent styles, costume jewelry remained a staple of many women’s wardrobes.

A faux-pearl swan brooch from the 1920s. 

The 1960s and 70s were, of course, all about vintage. With young women looking to pick and choose from fashions of every decade, costume jewelry enjoyed another renaissance. If you’re lucky enough to have a grandmother or great-aunt’s jewelry stash left over from the 1940s and 50s, chances are you’ve got some stunning costume jewelry of your own just waiting to be repurposed.

This Halloween, why let your stunning imitation jewelry go to waste? Whether you’re dressing as a slutty nun or a be-lavaliered flapper, try on your inherited costume jewelry and take it for a spin. Or, failing that, go for the real thing.

A happiest All Hallow’s Eve to all of you, from us at Bazooka Grooves.

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