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Costume and Fashion Jewelry


Costume jewelry came into being in the 1920’s and 1930’s as an inexpensive, disposable accessory meant to be worn with a specific outfit, but not meant to be handed down through generations. It was intended to be fashionable for a short period of time, outdated itself, and then be repurchased to fit with a new outfit or new fashion style.

Inexpensive jewelry also existed prior to the 1920’s. Paste or glass jewelry dated as far back as the 1700s. The rich had their fine jewelry duplicated for a variety of reasons, using paste or glass stones. During the mid 1800s, with the growth of the middle class, there were now different levels of jewelry being manufactured using fine, semi-precious and base materials. Fine jewelry of gold, diamonds, fine gems such as emeralds and sapphires continued to be made. Jewelry from rolled gold, which is a thin layer of gold attached to a base metal, entered the market for the middle class. This jewelry was often set with semi-precious gems such as amethyst, coral or pearls, and was much more affordable.


There was jewelry that most anyone could afford, consisting of glass stones and base metals made to look like gold. Clues that can help identify what era a piece of jewelry is from style, material, the type of piece. For example, dress clips came in during the 1930s and were out of style by the 1950s. Jewelry reflects styles, designs, colors and stones of an era. For example, from 1910 to 1930 silver was the favorite color for metal, so jewelry was found in platinum, white gold, silver or a base metal colored to look like silver. By World War II, gold was popular again but in short supply, since it was vital to the war effort. The gold that was available was made into very thin sheets and usually bonded to silver (called vermeil) before being turned into jewelry.


During the 1930’s rhinestone’s popularity was ever increasing in Europe. It was not available to the Americans until the 1940s. As a result, many of the pieces from this period tend to feature lots of metal and a single stone or a small cluster of tiny rhinestones. Vintage costume jewelry has a long and fascinating history. It is prized not only for its style, but also for the reflection of the historical period it represents. The brightness of Deco rhinestones and the shine of Bakelite cheered up the depressed 1930’s. The bold, lavish 1950’s jewelry expressed the mood of postwar booming economies. In the early 1900’s, working class Americans wanted to feel elegant but lacked the money to purchase precious gems and found that the sparkle of rhinestones rivals that of any precious stone.


The Art Deco movement was an attempt to combine the harshness of mass production with the sensitivity of art and design. The Roaring Twenties was an age of prohibition, cocktail parties, flappers, and the Charleston. It was during this period that Coco Chanel introduced fake or paste jewelry (costume jewelry) to complete the costume. The Art Deco movement died with the onset of the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II.

Some of the characteristics of the Art Deco period were:

  • Free-flowing curves were replaced with a harshly geometric and symmetrical theme
  • Color played an important role — black and white were preferred, but bold colors were prominent
  • Long pendants, bangle bracelets, cocktail rings, and elaborate accessory items such as cigarette cases and holders
  • Ziegfield Follies showgirls used spangles, feathers, and headdresses to draw the crowds


In the Retro period, designers struggled with the art versus mass production dilemma. Natural materials merged with plastics. Jewelry featured produced American-made jewelry that took on the American look. With the war in Europe, many European jewelry firms were shut down and several designers immigrated to the U.S. Europe was in a deep depression and the U.S. was enjoying an economic recovery.

Some of the characteristics 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 jewelry


In the Art Modern period following World War II, jewelry 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 1950’s and 60’s. In the 1950s, jewelers began selling their wares to wholesalers.

Some of the characteristics of the Art Modern period were:

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