Celebrating 1950s costume jewelry

Popular costume jewelry of the 1950s reflected a positive outlook and increased economic prosperity. Many contemporary collectors treasure the costume jewelry of this period not only for its creativity of design and quality of construction, but also for its optimistic associations.

Costume jewelry, or jewelry made of non-precious materials, including silver, reached incredible popularity in the 1950s. It permitted women of all socio-economic classes to follow changing styles and to accent individual outfits without spending a fortune. After the restraint of the war years, costume jewelry also offered women the ability to luxuriously accessorize every outfit and to impart a sense of glamour into everyday events.

This enthusiasm for accessories, coupled with increased spending power, created a high demand for costume jewelry. Jewelry manufacturers eagerly incorporated Czech and Austrian pastes into their creations. This addition offered designers a brightly hued spectrum of colors with which to work. Increased availability of multi-colored crystals, rhinestones and Swarovski’s invention of the iridescent rhinestone in the mid-’50s, further expanded the possibilities of jewelry design.

With a large number of companies costume jewelry, creativity and originality became key to attracting customers. In her 1987 book discussing the history of costume jewelry from the 1920s to the early 1980s, All That Glitters: The Glory of Costume Jewelry, Jody Shields divides 1950s jewelry into four main thematic groups: Oriental, Renaissance, Edwardian and Tailored.

The Oriental style of 1950s costume jewelry reflects both the exotic Far East and the glamour of the cinema. Hollywood productions of The King and I and Kismet greatly influenced this style of theatrical display. Designers created elaborate chandelier earrings; wide, bejeweled bracelets; and V-shaped “bib” or fringe necklaces that dripped with combinations of pearls, rhinestones, and beads. Large metal rings, embedded with rhinestones or mounds of beads also appealed to the 1950s sense of luxury.

Modern collectors prize both signed and unsigned examples of this style. Particularly elaborate and exuberant pieces in excellent condition command high market prices. For instance, according to Ronna Lee Aikins in her 2003 book Brilliant Rhinestones: Vintage and Contemporary Jewelry from the Ronna Lee Collection, an unmarked, inch-wide, rhinestone bracelet might sell for $165 to $195. A five-row expansion bracelet of the period commands a price of $250 to $290. A striking, unsigned bib-type necklace holds a retail value of $105 to $225, depending on the quality of the stones. Of course, as with all antiques and collectibles, jewelry prices vary with availability, region and economic trends. The best advice regarding any purchase is to buy what you like, since few items guarantee a consistent appreciation rate.

The Renaissance style of costume jewelry, particularly championed by Coco Chanel, further incorporated a sense of theatricality and luxury into everyday life. Pendants, crosses and medallions strung on heavy chains, strands of pearls pinned to the shoulder with a weighty brooch, and sumptuously set stones created this look.

Today, collectors often find elegant and inexpensive examples of this style among the many unsigned pieces of the time. A rhinestone-encrusted Maltese cross that functions as a brooch, watch pin and pendant retails for about $30 to $40 in an Internet antiques site. A small but ornate crest pin costs about $25 at a local antiques fair. A De Mario cross pin, however, easily retails for more than $100.

This period sense of drama introduced with the 1950s Renaissance style continued with the Edwardian style of jewelry. In response to the hit 1956 Broadway opening of My Fair Lady, this style embraced the pearl and beaded chokers. Worn singly, or two to three at a time for added effect, these designs proved anything but sedate. Jet glass beads, rhinestones and pearls strung in a multitude of colors and sizes assured consumers of finding the perfect choker for both casual and evening wear.

Again, this style offers collectors a wide range of designs and prices from which to choose. Many collectors consider Miriam Haskell’s pearl designs the best from this era. Excellent quality necklaces often command prices from $700 to a few thousand dollars. For the average collector, however, a simple but beautifully beaded Marvella or Coro choker instantly creates a sense of allure for an affordable $25 to $100.

Tailored jewelry remains the most common and the least theatrical type of 1950s jewelry. Usually gold or silver, this style often relies on texture to create interest. This category also incorporates the two basics of 1950s accessories — the whimsy pin and the charm bracelet. Scattered on a coat, sweater or blouse, whimsy or conversation pins appear in an endless variety of subjects, styles and sizes. Dogs, cats, fruit, flowers, bows, bugs and ballet dancers are a few of the popular pin designs of the time. Whimsical necklaces and earrings also appeared on the market, although they never achieved the overwhelming popularity of the pin designs. Charm bracelets, however, captured the imagination of the 1950s woman and rivaled whimsy pins with their variety and their wearability. Retailers sold charm bracelets both as a finished product reflecting a popular theme such as flowers, travel, school, etc., and as an empty chain waiting for individually chosen charms. The large variety of charms available appealed to all tastes and budgets of the time and allowed women to personalize their jewelry.

Today, this type of jewelry attracts collectors of all budgets and jewelry expertise. A beginning collector finds an excellent-condition whimsy pin an inexpensive and wearable treasure at $15 to $35. Often available as a corresponding conversation set, whimsy pins of matching cats, ballet dancers and lady bugs also offer collectors a delightful and affordable accessory in the $30 to $40 range. A jewelry connoisseur with extra cash eagerly pays $100 to $200 for a rare, signed Reja whimsy pin. Charms of the time also range in price from a few dollars to more than $100 depending on their workmanship, materials, manufacturer, and basic eye appeal.

The difference in price among 1950s costume jewelry depends mainly upon workmanship. The 1950s costume jewelry market embraced mass-production techniques, creating good-quality jewelry, but losing the hand-finished methods of earlier decades that produced superior quality jewelry. Many companies, such as Miriam Haskell, De Mario, Robert and Hagler, however, insisted upon producing handmade or hand-finished, limited-edition pieces. Tracy Tolkein and Henrietta Wilkinson list these companies, as well as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Eisenberg, Trifari and Boucher & Cie, as producers of top-quality costume jewelry in their 1997 book A Collector’s Guide to Costume Jewelry: Key Styles and How to Recognize Them. Naturally, dealers’ prices reflect this quality.

Today, collectors seem drawn to costume jewelry of the 1950s more than ever. Not only do they appreciate the uniqueness of design, the quality of workmanship, and the variety of price ranges available, but they also enjoy the optimistic connotations the sparkling creations hold.

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