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Costume Jewelry

Costume Jewelry

Costume Jewelry

Where did it all begin?

It seems that one of the first fans of costume jewelry was Madame de Sevigny, a French aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV of France. She popularized faux gems made of colored glass to accent the plunging necklines fashionable during the 1680’s. We know about this through her letters, which were the equivalent of the fashion magazines of today. At the time they were copied and circulated throughout French society.


Today we can only speculate where Madame de Sevigny got the glass jewels from.  Was Mr. Colbert’s shop in Versailles able to produce them or did they come from Murano or Bohemia?


No matter what, not much later, around 1720, an innovation opened costume jewelry’s path to fame.  Georg Friedrich Strass, an Alsatian jeweler working in Strasbourg invented an imitation gemstone. He apparently used a type of glass found in the river Rhine, which he then covered with a special paste made from bismuth and thallium to improve the refractive quality. This process produced a rainbow-effect on the glass and made it sparkle like diamonds, an effect never before seen in simulated gems. The imitations were, in his view, so similar to real gems that he invented the concept of the "simulated gemstone" to describe them.


In a further improvement of his invention, Strass considerably enhanced his gems' brilliance by gluing metal foil behind them. This foil was later replaced with a vapor-deposited mirror coating.


To imitate colored gems Strass developed different formulas (by adding metal oxides and certain salts) to produce the colors needed to simulate many other rare and valuable gemstones.


Strass opened his own business in 1730, and devoted himself wholly to the development of imitation diamonds. Due to his great achievements, he was awarded the title "King's Jeweler" in 1734. He was a partner in the jewelry business of Madame Prévot and his work was in great demand at the court of King Louis XV of France. As a matter of fact Strass controlled nearly the whole market for artificial gems.


Wealthy through his businesses, he was able to retire comfortably at age 52.


In honor of Mr. Strass - this method and resulting replicas are called “Strass” or “Strass Glass” and in English Rhinestone.


The name “costume jewelry”

The term ‘costume jewelry’ dates back to the early 20th century. Some fashion historians and collectors have published books wherein they claim the term reflects the use of the word ‘costume’ in making a fashion ensemble.


The path to acceptance and fame

Many sources credit Coco Chanel (born in 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel) as being the first to introduce costume jewelry as an acceptable accessory. In 1910 she opened a hat shop in Paris and in 1913 she began designing and making dresses. In 1919, she opened a fashion house where a lady might go and be decked out from head to foot with clothing and all accessories - including “real” and beautiful costume jewelry!


Custom jewelry was in high demand during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.


At the beginning costume jewelry was known pejoratively as fake or imitation jewelry. People designing and selling it were not considered craftsmen, even though the craftsmanship is very similar to that used in real jewelry.


The use of highly decorated costumes and accessories in shows such as the Ziegfried Follies promoted the acceptance of glittery jewelry. As the demand for new and better costumes grew - it helped several jewelry companies flourish and grow. Hobe was apparently one of the major suppliers for the Ziegried Follies.


However, one of the most important contributors to the acceptance of costume jewelry was probably Hollywood. More and more stars began wearing extravagant pieces in their films. The woman in the street aspired to the life and luxury of these movie stars and here was something they could afford and that would lend them some of the glamour viewed in films.


In 1954 - the copyright law for/applying to costume jewelry designs was passed. This was a major event in that it gave not only certain rights to the jewelry companies but also lent a certain validation to their products and efforts. No longer was costume jewelry an also ran but a thriving industry with all the rights and recognition of any industry. Costume jewelry has officially arrived!


How is costume jewelry made?

A designer sketched the idea, selecting shapes, colors and style of stones according to current fashion.


He would then produce a final drawing with all the specifications, which would be passed on to the craftmen. They would develop the mold or original model, which once it was approved, passed into production.


The base for the different stones was molded. Excess metal was trimmed and it was polished. The base was then plated, usually with copper and then sealed and bonded. For a smooth shiny surface nickel plating and finally a coating of gold, silver or rhodium was applied through electroplating. This improved the appearance of the metal and protected it from corrosion.  


The piece was then sent to the stone setters, where the stones would be hand set. Techniques would vary and included prong setting, glues, dogtooth setting, and bezel or cage settings. Many of these techniques are used in the production of precious jewelry.


What is costume jewelry made of?

Costume jewelry is composed mostly of non-precious materials. Instead of diamonds, rubies and sapphires set in silver or gold, early costume jewelry designers used Bakelite, brass and other alloys, celluloid, enamel, horn, paint, paper, rubber, textiles,  wood, galalith (milkstone or milk plastic) and lead glass crystal.


Milk Plastic Gems
Galalith, also know as ‘milkstone’ (Milchstein) was developed in 1897 by combining the milk protein casein with formaldehyde – today this is called milk plastic in children's science craft books. In the early 1900s however it was high-tech and used to decorate many household items. It was simple to make, inexpensive,  easy to color, and heat-resistant. In the year 1913 about 30 million liters of milk were converted to 1.5 million kilos of Milchstein.  The use of galalith for jewelry was prohibited in 1939 by the Nazi regime at the outset of WWII to save raw materials.


Swarovski Lead Glass Crystal
In 1895 Daniel Swarovski founded Swarovski Crystal with the assistance of Franz Weis and Armand Kossmann in a small town in Austria (Watten) located near a hydro electric dam. This was convenient because Daniel had just patented an electric crystal cutting machine. Instead of days or even weeks to create the best possible stone - it could be reduced into a matter of minutes or less! Daniel Swarovski had made a major accomplishment but yet he was not satisfied. He was still dependent on suppliers for quality crystal for his process so - he began to experiment and finally developed his own recipe for fine crystal glass that had a very high lead content. This particular recipe seemed to give the perfect facet and refraction combination. Between the years of 1908-1912 the Swarovski family perfected the art of making and cutting crystal. All early examples of Swarovski crystal are of course very valuable today.


Now the crystals were produced at lightening speed. However, to apply the foil that would further add to their sparkle created a huge bottle neck. The process to apply foil was delicate and it was impossible for a worker to apply more than a few dozen of them a day. That’s why Swarovski developed a method to vacuum plate the back of the stones with metal, creating the same effect as that achieved with foil, but a lot faster and in one process. This reduced cost and at the same time produced higher quality crystals that were less delicate to handle.


The firm was very successful all through the twenties and thirties, before they created their famous 'Aurora Borealis’ crystals in 1956. They are often abbreviated and called simply AB stones. The innovation produced gems coated with an almost imperceptible layer of metal to give the stone a rainbow sparkle. Almost holographic, the stone changes color as the light changes or movement occurs. Manfred Swarovski, Daniel's grandson worked with Christian Dior to perfect this process.


Today, Swarovski stones are widely used globally and often referred to as Austrian crystals. There are also a lot of stones out there that are called Swarovski but which are of cheap origin and usually lack the incredible sparkle of the real thing.  


Designers of costume jewelry:

Like for precious jewelry, custom jewelry had its star designers. Those include Jakob Bengal, Gustave Sherman, Rafael Alfandary, Jacques Hobe, Stan Haggler, Marcel Boucher, Gustavo Trifari, Alfred Philippe, McClelland Barclay, Napier, Richelieu, Albert Weiss, Vendome, Miriam Haskell, Eisenberg, Hattie Carnegie, Alice Caviness and more.

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Added by:  Precious

Date:  2nd Mar 09

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