Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who greatly broadened the market for “costume” jewelry in the early 20th century, encouraged women to wear their fine and fashion jewelry together. In fact, she very famously led by example.
What follows is an introduction to Chanel costume jewelry, including some advice on understanding the brand’s varied marks and avoiding reproductions.
Chanel Through the Decades
Mixing high with low is common practice in fashion today. But it was considered radical when Chanel, who died in 1971 at the age of 87, introduced costume jewelry to her fashion collections, turning something considered cheap and tacky into a symbol of modern style.
The first costume jewelry pieces made by the House of Chanel date from about 1914 to 1939. These are always unmarked and can be difficult to identify correctly, even for seasoned jewelry collectors. Examples made with colorful glass produced by the House of Gripoix can be some of the costliest and most coveted early Chanel pieces. Many jewelry items are misidentified as containing Gripoix glass, so that’s an excellent side topic to research if you’re serious about learning to identify older Chanel.
Throughout its history, the House of Chanel has employed some remarkable lead jewelry designers. Duke Fulco di Vedura served Chanel in this capacity for eight years beginning in 1927. His most famous design, roughly based on the Maltese cross, was first made into a pair of brooches. Avid jewelry collectors are much more familiar with similar crosses that embellished wide enameled bracelets set with colorful stones introduced around 1930. The style has been widely copied, even by Chanel in later iterations, since then.
RELATED MATERIAL: COSTUME JEWELRY BASICS
During the World War II years, Chanel closed her fashion house. When it reopened in the 1950s, the design of costume jewelry resumed. Pieces made from 1954 through the 1960s were only occasionally marked. The talented Robert Goosens designed many of the captivating pieces produced during this era. He continued to work for Chanel even after the death of Madame Coco in 1971 and went on to collaborate with Karl Lagerfeld later. The partnership with Gripoix continued as well, with many of their glass stones, beads, and faux pearls embellishing Chanel designs in the mid-century era. This includes some really remarkable Byzantine revival pieces.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Chanel costume jewelry was more consistently marked. When Lagerfeld joined Chanel in 1983, the brand’s familiar CC logo was also featured more and more prominently in the design work he oversaw (and this trend is alive and well as fashion-minded shoppers and logo-enthusiasts continue to drive this segment of the market today). Gold-plated metal was used widely in Chanel pieces during this era as well simulated baroque pearls. Charm bracelets, large pendant earrings and sautoir-length strands of faux pearls from the ‘80s and ‘90s are all popular with collectors as are pieces imitating the famous twist-lock clasp originating on Chanel handbags.
One thing to keep in mind with Chanel jewelry made during the 2000s is that the quality is sometimes lacking when compared to vintage pieces. This isn’t to say newer Chanel designs sold in their boutiques aren’t collectible. Some of the costlier couture pieces are of good quality and quite fabulous. You’ll just find that lower priced pierced earrings and pendant necklaces with dainty chains, for instance, may not be as nicely made.
Understanding Chanel Marks
As previously mentioned, early Chanel costume jewelry was not marked. When the fashion house reopened after the war in 1954, they began marking some jewelry and this continued through the 1960s. During this period a round Chanel cartouche with three stars or a block mark stamped directly into the piece were the norm.
Moving into the ’70s, a round mark was used with copyright and registered symbols flanking CHANEL in all caps along with made in France and the CC logo. Variations were used going into the 1980s, and some have the year the piece was produced as well.
Oval marks were used after the early 1980s, and some indicate the fashion season correlating to the piece such as “©CHANEL® 2 CC 3 MADE IN FRANCE,” in which the 2 and 3 indicate season 23. Others may have numbers and letters like “93 CC P” or “94 CC A” meaning the piece was made in 1993 for the spring season or 1994 for the fall season respectively. Some Chanel jewelry was also produced in Italy beginning in the 1990s and it is marked as such.
Collectors should also be aware that jewelry made with a Chanel mark in script was not designed or sold by this couture house. A company named Reinad, doing business as Chanel Novelty Co., made those pieces in America in 1941. Although the fashion house was closed at the time due to the war, Coco Chanel aggressively protected her brand and made Reinad stop using the name. Chanel Novelty Co. pieces, which are limited in number due to the short production time, are interesting and collectible in their own right. They are not, however, true Chanel designs.
Although the House of Chanel has very actively attempted to quell reproductions and replicas of their jewelry and other fashion accessories, there are still many infiltrating the collector’s marketplace. Some of these well-made fakes are hard to distinguish for the beginning collector. Educating yourself and asserting a buyer-beware attitude when buying from inexperienced sellers can go a long way in avoiding expensive mistakes.
The best way to identify a Chanel reproduction is to examine it next to an authentic piece of the same design, including the back. If that’s not possible, the devil is in the details. The plating on authentic Chanel jewelry is usually very thick and will not wear easily with proper storage and care. Faux pearls should be heavy (made of glass with a pearl coating, rather than a plastic), and any marks present will be completely legible under magnification with a jeweler’s loupe. Sometimes close inspection reveals sloppiness on a signature plaque, and this is a telltale sign that the piece is a fake.
Also keep in mind that authentic signature plaques glued in place can become dislodged and lost on authentic Chanel items, especially when it comes to items made from the early 2000s onward (although it happens on vintage pieces now and then, too). While having a mark present helps to identify and date authentic Chanel CC logo jewelry, don’t automatically assume a piece is fake, or older than it really is, just because a mark is not present.
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