The Origins of Costume Jewellery

Fashion jewellery, junk jewellery, fake jewellery, fallalery-all these are different terms for what is commonly known as “costume jewellery.” Costume jewellery is essentially jewellery that is made specifically to match or complement a specific outfit (or “costume” as nice outfits used to be known as) as opposed to real jewellery which was made and designed unto itself without regard for what it would “match.” Also unlike real jewellery, costume jewellery was/is therefore often made with more inexpensive materials and stones, such as base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetics, instead of real diamonds and rarer metals. Most people would recognise costume jewellery as that which originates from the early 20th century to the 1940s or 50s, including the lavish necklaces, bracelets, and especially the copious amounts of clip on earrings (since pierced ears were, in fact, considered uncivilised in bygone generations) with a myriad of lush styles in pearl clip on earrings, semi-precious gemstone clip on earrings, Swarovski crystal clip on earrings, and on and on. Indeed, nowadays, old costume jewellery is often preserved in collections as preciously as if it was made of genuine stones and metals.

The origin of cheap jewels and ornamentation cannot really be specifically dated, of course, but the real age of costume jewellery as it is recognised today came about in roughly the 1930s, when it was manufactured to accompany various fashion trends of that era. In this way, it became feasible for women to follow trends in jewellery without spending fortunes, and it thus opened up a whole new avenue of artistic freedom in jewellery-making and design. No longer were jewels primarily keepsakes, investments, or treasured heirlooms-they were expressions of a fashionable trend in the same capacity as clothing, and also as variable. Therefore, costume jewellery went through several eras of design to reflect the modes of fashion, notably three generally accepted main “periods” which are the Art Deco period, the Retro period, and the Art Modern period.

The Art Deco period occurred primarily from about 1920 to the 1930s, and it was, of course, also the first time costume jewellery was introduced into real mass production. The style was meant to be a marriage between the creative sensibilities of art and the angular, machine-oriented era of mass production that had taken over industry by that time. Geometrical patterns and symmetrical designs thus predominantly replaced smooth curves and roundness. The collections were also characterised by bangle bracelets, long pendants, cocktail rings, and ornate accessories such as cigarette cases and holders. However, the Art Deco movement came to a relative end when the Great Depression took over, as well as with the onset of World War II.

Next came the Retro period, which occurred about 1935 to 1940, and in this era the designs also reflected a dynamic between the genuine artisanship of traditional jewellery as opposed to mass produced jewels and ornaments. This time, however, the designs struggled with this dynamic rather than utilising it as an inspirational foundation for the overall style (with the machine-like geometric patterns of Art Deco), and so Retro period jewellery sought a union with more natural themes and materials along with plastic and man-made materials. Flowers, bows and sunburst designs became popular, especially in Hollywood, which in turn influenced fashion heavily via the medium of film. Also moonstones, ballerinas, horse motifs, and military influences, etc. came into play as jewellery attempted to reclaim a connection with traditional beauty and historical lifestyle imagery. Since America was recovering economically at this time, whereas Europe was at war and in a deep economic depression, America led the design and fabrication of jewellery at this time, until the Art Modern period came into play next.

The Art Modern period came after World War II, about 1945 to 1960, and though still following a trend back to traditional jewellery design, this period saw a diminishing of the big, bold themes of the Retro period. In general, the 50s and 60s jewellery was often more tailored and understated in its themes and references, if not understated in its overall look and bold style. Jewels of this era were very bold and lavish, with large, chunky bracelets or charm bracelets, and pieces utilising rhinestones, jade, opal, topaz and citrine. Pins were popular as well, and these pins would often express the most overt references to a specific theme or representational image in Art Modern jewellery, such as poodle pins and Christmas themed pins. In fact, Christmas themed jewellery collections were very much in vogue as well.

After 1960, it is a little more difficult to define the overall direction of fashion jewellery. Some say costume jewellery merged into a general plethora of jewellery being made available so widely it could no longer be said to focus on specific themes, styles, or fashions of an era. Particularly today, the global market makes it possible for the average jewellery consumer to select from countless cultural styles and modes of fashion from around the world and even from throughout history. This does not mean that there is not a very recognisable general look or trend in this generation, but, it is supremely more difficult to pin down with the explosion of global interchange, global production, global communication, and fashion trends that evolve as quickly as the internet or television can project them. Truly, jewellery and fashion reflects the era it exists in, and today, fashion is fast. Costume jewellery, though thriving, is often a mixed and variable thing much like all of modern art, industry and media.

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