I’m waiting patiently for a new piece of jewellery, but this time it’s costume jewellery. How can this be, you cry! Well, Polly has a pair of costume jewellery earrings that she absolutly loves, and she’s having them copied in gold and with the real gems – peridot and pearls – and I’m inheriting the faux pair because I love them too. While I’m waiting I’ve been reading about costume jewellery, and saying I’ll tell you all about it in one article is like saying I’ll explain the universe in one sentence… so instead I’ll take you on a gallop through the centuries and hope it’s a fun ride.
Imitation jewellery – as opposed to fake, but more about that later – has always been around. As far back as Egyptian times immitation gems have been manufactured in glass and in 1565, for goodness sake, a rosary maker dropped some beads in a bowl of water where he’d been scaling fish. When he took them out he saw that the beads had taken on a pearlessence, and this clever chap went on to figure out how to extract the pearlessence from fish scales and make shiny beads! But race ahead to the 18th Century which is the proper advent of costume jewellery when paste was perfected and gems of all colours, particularly diamonds, could be made and cut and set properly, cleverly emulating the real thing that so few could afford, and at the same time giving jewellers the freedom to experiment with cut and design
which they would never have been able to afford with real gems and precious metal. The first commercial paste was made in Bohemia, but it wasn’t as bright and glittery as diamonds, so to enhance its appearance paste stones were foiled on the back with a wafer thin sheets of bright metal, either copper or silver. Because these would tarnish and change colour if they got exposed to the elements in any way, a whole new way of setting stones was necessary and jewellers perfected very tight, close settings to prevent discolouration behind the stones. As there was no industrialisation back then, so no mass production, costume jewellery was made by traditional jewellers so this innovation was a valuable addition to their already considerable skills.
Because of this surge in popularity and affordability the trade evolved rapidly. In the 18th Century Christopher Pinchbeck, a clock maker, invented a substitue for gold by combining zinc and copper to make ‘gold’. It looked like gold and was easily worked and went very well with paste. At about the same time a steel worker called Matthew Bolton combined cut steel with marcasite; the jewellery was finely made and then highly polished and the marcasite glittered as brightly as diamonds. He produced such fine work that Queen Charlotte wore it, but it was still costume jewellery and affordable.
In 1813 wealthy Prussians were ‘encouraged’ to turn in their gold jewellery to help fund the uprising against Napoleon, and in return they were given a small piece of Berlin Ironwork like a ring or a brooch. The ironwork quickly came to symbolise patriotism and its popularity grew rapidly. My grandmother gave my Mum this Berlin Ironwork necklace (sadly, I don’t know where Granny got it) and it’s a pity this fashion was so short lived, it’s wonderful work. On the other side of the war coin, Naploeon’s Josephine was single handedly responsible for reviving the jewellery trade in France; she loved her jewels and insisted on wearing them but the war had tightened belts and the only way the ladies could keep up with Josephine was to have her jewellery copied, which they did. An additional reaction to the end of the bleakness of war was the appeal of sentiment. A lock of hair or a portrait of a loved one was often included in jewellery and tokens of love abounded. In this ring the stones spell a sentimental message; ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond – REGARD, and others might be inscribed with amitie like this little pendant of Mum’s.
By the 19th Century costume jewellery (although it wasn’t called that till the 20th Century, actuallly) was a full blown industry and by the Victorian era it was being mass produced, really, and everyone was involved. I discovered that the Suffragette colours of green, violet and white which translated into brooches and pins made with ‘peridot’, ‘amethyst’ and ‘pearl’ also stood for Give Votes to Women. Who knew? Another interesting thing I discovered is that Renee Lalique of the wonderful glass fame was actually a jewellery designer first and foremost and was probably one of the best goldsmiths in Paris in the Art Nouveau period. But Art Nouveau was shunned by the influencers in England who steered fashion towards the less racy Art Deco style which was greatly influenced by Picasso, and resulted in cubist and linear designs which they thought more appropriate and acceptable. And this was the era when plastics were coming into their own. First was celluloid in 1900, but this was so flammable that it was deemed a bad idea of jewellery; then came galalith which was made with formaldahyde and a sour milk derivative – ! – and then finally bakelite was discovered, quite by accident in a garden shed by a home chemist – and it was strong, bright, carvable, versatile and not flammable so obviously it took over the market. This really was the advent of cheap and cheerful jewellery, too. It was made to suit the fashion of the day and when that fickle fashion changed, the jewellery was discarded in favour of the newest fashion.
Wars, inevitably, have a huge effect on luxuries and once again the fashion in costume jewellery changed more out of necessity than desire. Women’s clothing became more minimal and austere mostly because of the shortage of fun and desirable fabric so women brightened up their rather dull and manly clothes with costume jewellery. Of course paste could no longer be brought in from Czech and Austria so wartime jewellery was more metal than stones, silver in particular, and it was now that vermiel was invented; silver plated with gold. When the war was over though, and paste could be imported again, the pendulum swung the other way and costume jewellery went right OTT – huge and plentiful, very obviously fake stones like brightly dyed ‘pearls’, and enough for everyone. But it was an overreaction to the austerity of the war and was short lived, and very quickly costume jewellery went back to being better made with better stones, better design and more care and class. And another change in direction was taken when Coco Chanel hit her stride; she decided that a piece of jewellery should be a deliberate part of an outfit, the finishing touch, rather than just an accessory. Her clothes were classic and minimal and she designed jewellery deliberatly for each outfit. But not everyone wanted Coco Chanel which was quite exclusive anyway; costume jewellery was being mass produced to quite a high standard both in England and America, and the leaders in fashion decided that catering to the young was the way forward. French designer Emmanuelle Khan said ‘haute couture is dead’ in 1964, and designers like Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin obviously agreed and focussed directly on the young, mass market. Thus materials like acrylic and plexiglass flooded the shops, and with mass production came mass communication; magazines, television, movies, global news all spread the word, and very quickly image was everything; fashions changed year by year, season by season, and now that costume jewellery could be mass produced and quickly, it could follow and indeed set the trends for each fashion change. Then in the 70s the hippy hand-made look filled the shelves, but in the 80s costume jewellery enjoyed a revival of glamour and glitz, perhaps in reaction to the throw-away 60s and the hippy handmade 70s, but also because now women were no longer a novelty in the board room and they needed power jewellery to go with their power jobs. What better way to express your individuality than with a bit of faux glitz on your expensive and elegant suit?
At the beginning of this article I mentioned fake jewellery; let me explain this. Jewellers who produced good costume jewellery – faux jewels – quite quickly became very wealthy and sought after and so their work was copied and stamped and sold as the real thing; effectively they were fakes of fakes! This makes it very difficult for collectors, apparently, because not only did a lot of jewellers not sign their pieces, or they signed some and not others, or they had several makers marks, but then along came the knock-offs to muddy the waters further. Infuriating for the designers and frustrating for the collectors, certainly, but for a real magpie it doesn’t matter who signed the back or who didn’t; what matters is that it glitters and I love it, and if I want to mix it with my real gold and gems I will, because that’s the essence of being a real magpie.