The end of the 1920s saw sea changes in the way costume jewelry was made, the materials it was made from, the type of people making it, and the styles and designs of the time. The causes of almost all of the above can be traced, at least in part, to the economics of the day. During the 1920s the Great Depression ravaged the American economy, and by 1929 its effects were being acutely felt in Europe. Not helped by the prohibition of the use of gold in 1933, the fine jewelers were having a very hard time and there was a mass movement of skilled artisans from precious to costume manufacture, where prices were better matched to the spending power of the populace. Costume jewelry makers also had to cut costs, and designs were strongly influenced by new mass-production methods. New, more easily handled materials, such as plastics, were increasingly used in an effort to bring down costs, creating a riot of colourful jewelry.
Skilled labour also came from other quarters, notably Jews fleeing the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Many other Europeans also made their way to the United States in search of an easier life. The high level of skill that these new immigrants brought with them and the low cost of their labour ensured that the American costume jewelry industry survived the almost total paralysis of the economy.
As through the ages, fashion played a prominent role in influencing the designs of jewelry. The square-cut neckline became popular in the 1930s, and this lent itself easily to the wearing of clips on either side of the square cut. Trifari held the first patent on a costume jewelry mechanism which allowed two clips to slide onto a frame and create one brooch (unlike the folding double clip) called a Clip Mate. It was Coro, however, who produced the most different designs and used their own clipping mechanism. This device was called a "duette", a term commonly used in France by precious jewelers. The cyclical nature of style brought diamonds back into fashion, and brooches and articulated bracelets in geometric designs, often galleried and claw-set, were popular (though by the mid-1930s these strong geometric forms began to evolve toward the more curvaceous lines typical of the 1940s). Adding to the effect of pave-set white stones (rhinestones or diamonds) was the use of a single coloured stone, increasing the contrast.
The grip that Europe, and especially France, had on the United States fashion world started to wane in the late 1930s. American isolationist policies had psychological effects as well as economic ones. To fill the space left by the reduction in the almost slavish following of European fashion came a new sense of independence. And then the movies came along.
For almost three decades, Hollywood held sway over the American public. It was probably the single most influential force on fashion in the country. It lifted ordinary people from their humdrum lives, as they became emotionally attached to the exploits of their heroes on the silver screen. What better way of emulating their lives than to dress like them: clothes, shoes, hats, handbags and, to complete the look, jewelry? Many manufacturers produced designs for Hollywood, but none was as prolific as Eugene Joseff. Originally a student of advertising in Chicago, he moved to California in 1929. After a difficult start he managed to get a toehold in jewelry production for the film industry. He would make one or two samples which were used in the production of the film, and then would reproduce these and sell them in high-class department stores. He became fabulously successful, and at the point of his untimely death 90 per cent of the jewelry used in Hollywood was produced by him. Of the iconic imagery of the day, that of the slender Joan Crawford best typifies the ideal look of the 1930s. She is commonly pictured wearing costume jewelry, and the modern collector generally pays a healthy premium for Pieces seen in her photographs or film roles.
Several designer/manufacturers started business during this decade: Marcel Boucher, a giant among designers, started producing his own jewelry in 1937 and his early pieces are of particularly high quality; De Rosa and Eisenberg both started in 1935; Francisco Rebajes started production of his copper jewelry in 1932; and Henry Schreiner started business in 1939 using fabulous-quality and unusually cut and coloured crystal stones.
In Europe, plastics chrome, and enamels ruled the day. Geometric forms in bright, contrasting colours were the fashion. High-quality crystals, semi-precious stones, and marcasites set in silver were produced in France and Germany. Design houses such as Theodor Fahrner made pieces of exceptional quality that even in their day were expensive and aimed at the top of the market.
The year 1939 saw the outbreak of war in Europe. The United States declared neutrality and started to bolster its defence industry, providing much needed well-paid work. All this was to have an effect on costume jewelry.
Writer – Steven Miners