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Compressing “collecting costume jewelry” into a tidy little package is no easy feat. I learned this several years ago by writing a book on the topic, Warman’s Costume Jewelry, and more recently lecturing to a group of fine jewelry enthusiasts. So many different companies, designers, periods, styles, and materials to cover makes for a daunting task. Answering a few basic questions, however, is great point of departure.

Pamela Wiggins Siegel

Pamela Wiggins Siegel

What is “costume” jewelry?

First, collectors who love it don’t refer to costume jewelry as “junk.” But, back in the 1930s when many of the most collectible pieces by Trifari, Marcel Boucher, Eisenberg and others were made, it was common to call these sparkling treasures junk jewelry. The jewelry was made to be worn for a season or two while it was in style and then replaced with pieces to complement more current fashions. These days it is most often referenced as costume jewelry – which can be vintage or contemporary – or fashion jewelry.

There are some exceptions, of course, but in general, costume jewelry is adornment made using artificial stones. Sometimes semi-precious stones may be incorporated into pieces, but the majority are made using decorative components such as rhinestones, hard plastics, or art glass.

Elizabeth Taylor for Avon “Elephant Walk” brooch, early 1990s

Elizabeth Taylor for Avon “Elephant Walk” brooch.

Base metal used in costume jewelry manufacture is usually an alloy that can be rhodium, silver-, or gold-plated. When it doesn’t have plating, it’s usually referred to as “pot metal.” Even sterling silver was used in making costume jewelry ranging from high end pieces in the 1940s when other metals were scarce to novelty pins in the 1950s and ‘60s. You’ll also find all types of costume jewelry made of various plastics, wood, and even ceramics.

What makes costume jewelry collectible?

Some of the most collectible costume jewelry takes the form of finely crafted pieces made during the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of these mimic fine jewelry styles that were introduced by jewelers like Cartier during the same period. Trifari, for instance, made a number of coveted designs based on Cartier’s famed “Tutti Frutti” jewelry. Instead of rubies, sapphires, and emeralds carved to look like miniature fruits, Trifari’s were made of brightly colored molded glass stones collectors call “fruit salad.”

Trifari matched set of dress clips with “Fruit Salad” stones, c. 1935.

Trifari matched set of dress clips with “Fruit Salad” stones, c. 1935.

Of course, many costume jewelry aficionados are drawn in a different direction with materials like Bakelite. The colorful and chunky bangle bracelets and whimsically carved brooches made of this type of plastic were originally sold in dime stores. These pieces can bring hundreds, if not thousands, today. In this instance, the appeal is entirely different than what might draw a collector to an early design based on fine jewelry.

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The history associated with costume jewelry also makes many different styles collectible. Take “Sweetheart Jewelry” dating to the World War II era as an example. These items usually feature patriotic colors with various military themes. They were often sent home to loved ones or purchased by mothers and wives to show their support for the troops abroad. Whether this type of adornment appeals to you or you’re a fan of, say, Art Deco or Egyptian Revival styling, what was going on in the world at any given time swayed what people wore. These periods in time and events still impact what we collect today.

Then you have the pop culture influences. In the 1800s when Queen Victoria embraced a new jewelry style, it didn’t take long for the look to trickle down to the masses. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation spurred an uptick in the wearing of crown pins. Movies and celebrities have also swayed jewelry popularity over the years. From Joseff of Hollywood’s early lines mirroring pieces they produced for Tinseltown productions to Elizabeth Taylor’s designs for Avon in the early ’90s, these examples are all considered collectible today.

Wooden “Sweetheart”  soldier brooch, early 1940s.

Wooden “Sweetheart” soldier brooch, early 1940s.

How to narrow your collection

With so many interesting choices available, you might be wondering where to begin. As you browse in local antique malls and shows, see what catches your eye first. Is it the glitter of sparkling rhinestones? Do you gravitate toward Victorian jewelry with its delicate symbolism? Are clever figural pins shaped like your favorite pets calling your name? The possibilities might seem endless, but chances are you’ll keep being drawn to a color, motif, or style again and again and suddenly a collection of wearable art is born.

As you narrow your focus, there are a couple of tried and true tips to keep in mind. The first is to buy what you love. If a piece speaks to you and the price seems fair, don’t hesitate to add it to your collection. Collecting costume jewelry is more about pride of ownership and personal expression than worrying about whether or not it will appreciate in value.

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Also remember to buy the best you can afford. If you love the best-of-the-best costume jewelry pieces and you can fit them in your budget, go for it. Just remember to do your research regarding reproductions beforehand and buy from a reputable dealer. If your pockets aren’t that deep, you can still own a really fun collection built around a more affordable theme. Even kids can have fun collecting jewelry purchased for a few dollars here and there.

What about condition?

Because costume jewelry was viewed as junk jewelry for quite some time, many pieces weren’t stored and cared for properly. If you find them with excessive scratching, worn enameling, missing components, pealing pearls and the like, it’s usually best take a pass unless the item is extremely rare.

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If you’re the crafty type, a piece missing a rhinestone or bead might be something you can handle repairing yourself. In fact, there are many references online to help you accomplish minor repairs. Pieces with lots of darkened or yellowed stones can be more difficult to overhaul, however, so think twice before acquiring those. And honestly, many people only buy items in excellent condition knowing they’ll never get around to tackling a big box of repair projects.

Hopefully this overview has piqued your curiosity about all the fun you can have putting together a collection of costume jewelry. Join me over the coming months as I delve deeper into what makes this such an enjoyable and interesting hobby.