0ver the past 20 years the vintage costume jewelry market has changed dramatically. Yet as fashions changed, one overriding aspect has remained the same: prices have consistently risen. Collectors of vintage costume jewelry have become more discerning and increasingly well educated thanks, to an increased awareness of the subject and the proliferation of resources dedicated to the collector and wearer.
Collecting vintage costume jewelry originally became popular in the United States in the early 1980s. From a small group of collectors "in the know" a thriving and vigorous field of collectables has grown. Interestingly, the most collectable pieces were European. American collectors greatly prized early Chanel and Christian Dior jewels and many came to Europe in search of them. Other European designers became better known, and the popularity of designers such as Coppola e Toppo, Line Vautrin, Lea Stein, Henkel & Grosse, Theodor Fahrner, Roger Scemama, and Elsa Schiaparelli increased. In addition to these, a plethora of unsigned pieces from throughout Europe became increasingly sought after.
For many years it was European costume jewelry that commanded the highest prices in the American market. However, the relatively small quantities in which these pieces were originally produced stifled the market and American collectors turned to their own heritage, and what a heritage it was. Upon their own doorstep was a truly magnificent art form, and the market exploded. A relatively small group of collectors grew into a host of collectors and wearers. Vintage costume jewelry was no longer the province of a few and suddenly "everyone" was wearing vintage pieces. From the rich and powerful to business women and ladies of leisure, vintage jewelry was what one was almost expected to wear. Anyone could buy a piece of new jewelry but it took qualities of cunning, guile, and taste to find that exceptional piece of vintage, which would not only complement an outfit but also be almost irreproducible.
This imperative has driven the market ever since. People search high and low for unusual pieces, either to add to their collection or to wear. In many ways the fashion for pieces has come full circle, as European jewels again demand top prices, but this time an elite of American-made pieces has joined the most desirable list. The desirability of vintage costume jewelry differs from location to location. For example, the demand for certain a piece on the West Coast of the United States is different from that on the East Coast, while the market in the UK values pieces differently from that in Germany. Knowing what dealers are buying and where the pieces are from gives a good indication of relative values. In these days of internet communications, it is much easier than it used to be to determine how much a piece may sell for in different parts of the world. In the pre-internet days the difference between, say, United States West Coast prices of vintage Bakelite and those of the East Coast was quite marked. A flourishing trade from California to New York existed, with dealers cultivating relationships with flea market traders in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The pieces, once transported to the East Coast, subsequently fetched exorbitant prices as New York collectors battled to add to their collections. In return, Trifari, Corocraft, Schiaparelli, and Chanel jewels were sold to West Coast dealers. The geographical differences in the United States were magnified across the Atlantic and within Europe. English dealers scoured American flea markets for Trifari and Corocraft and then sold them on to, above all, Italian dealers. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Italians had a deep love affair with costume jewelry, and were most enamoured with Trifari. Gustavo Trifari himself was of Italian extraction, of which Italians approved most wholeheartedly, but also much of the Trifari they liked, the pieces from the 1940s and '50s, were imitations of large gold brooches and necklaces, which appealed to Italian taste.
There are many aspects to costume jewelry that make it appealing. Its relative inexpensiveness allows greater access than jewels of precious stones. Intrinsic value plays little part in self-adornment and the fun nature of costume jewelry exemplifies this. The use of non-precious materials freed designers to follow their muse, liberated from exorbitant costs; as a result, designs became increasingly artistic and bold. The incorporation of unusual motifs and innovative materials created a renaissance of Victorian flamboyancy. Nowadays, these two original reasons for the popularity of costume jewelry still apply, but their appeal has been enhanced by the fact that these pieces are hard to find, which gives them a curiosity value. The richest and most stylish figures now wear vintage costume jewelry as a statement of individuality.
As we have seen, costume jewelry's uniqueness makes it very desirable, and to find a certain unusual vintage piece of costume jewelry takes more than money: it takes savvy and style, and knowledge of where to look. In addition, there are historical characteristics to vintage costume jewelry. Battles of personalities, poaching of designers, and stealing of designs all add to the mystique that is costume jewelry. When these vintage jewels were being produced, the designers were able to call upon methods of production, craftsmanship, and materials (for example stones of unusual colour, texture, and shape) that are simply not available any more.
To a collector, several factors are important in deciding whether or not to buy a piece of vintage costume jewelry, the visual appeal of a piece not always being one of them. Some collectors disregard the aesthetics of a piece for the sake of the completeness of a collection.
Before you start a collection you have to decide what form it is going to take. Is it going to be a collection of jewels that are primarily to be worn? If so, you may prefer to collect either earring, bracelets, or necklaces, for example, are depending upon what you like to wear. You may be partial to a particular colour and this may be one of the main criteria for your collection. Most collectors, however, collect by theme (for example brooches in particular shapes, such as flowers or animals), by manufacturer and designer, by age, or by style (for example 1940s Retro-looking jewels). Many others simply collect pieces they like and have broad tastes covering many decades of production and styles.
Values have increasingly come to reflect the rarity of pieces and to some extent the method and materials of manufacture. Central to deciding the rarity of a piece is identifying the manufacturer and in some cases designer (where different). In most cases, collectable jewelry can be identified by simply turning the piece over and finding the maker's mark on the reverse. For those manufacturers who did not mark (or sign) their pieces, identification must be achieved by other means. This book will help you in that goal with practice it is possible to identify a piece from the front, without having to turn it over.
The age of vintage costume jewelry also plays a great part in value, but probably not in the most obvious way. One might assume that the older the piece, the more valuable it is, but this is only sometimes the case. Pieces from certain periods of a costume jewelry manufacturer's production may fetch more than either earlier or later periods. Designers joined and left manufacturers and pieces attributable to a designer as opposed to a manufacturer may determine price and desirability. Miriam Haskell employed many designers over the years, and pieces by some designers, such as Frank Hess, Robert Clarke, and Larry Vrba, command a premium over others. A further example is that of Trifari. The earliest pieces of Trifari, although in demand, do not achieve the same prices as those designed later by Alfred Philippe.
Superimposed upon this are trends in the fashion world, which may demand a return to the swinging days of the 1960s or the austerity of the post-war years and for a year or two prices of certain ages and styles of vintage costume jewelry may surge rarely to drop again.
The condition of vintage costume jewelry is an important determinant of value. Damage to pieces can vary from missing stones or scratched enamel to broken metalwork. Some repairs are easy, as is mostly the case with missing stones, but one must be aware of other problems, which may be almost impossible to repair, as well as of the fact that repair can seriously devalue a piece.
For the wearer, the value of the piece should primarily be in its wearability and suitability, but for the collector a raft of other factors become important. In the antiques world, provenance can dramatically affect the value of a piece, and in the world of vintage costume jewelry it also has a place. Original receipts, although interesting, do not add value. A photograph of a relative wearing the piece soon after it was bought (especially in the 1920s-40s) would definitely add saleability but not necessarily value.
But if an individual piece of jewelry can be traced back to a star (many film, stage, and music stars collected and wore costume jewelry), then value will be added. If a piece can actually be traced to an individual film (almost all the jewelry in the golden days of film was costume) then its value will definitely rise.
Aside from rarity and condition there is another very important factor influencing value, and that is its style. Now "style" is obviously difficult to define, but suffice to say that a good piece of costume jewelry should be considered as a product of its time or even slightly ahead of its time. Fashion changed at a strikingly fast pace from 1900 through to the 1970s, and a piece produced by the designers and craftsmen of the time should have been a In mode; to be fashionable is, after all, the whole point. Nowadays, we recycle fashion more than we recycle paper, so yesteryear's fashions are always fashionable.
Some pieces of vintage costume jewelry are very desirable indeed and fetch high prices. It is always the case that this interest attracts forgers and copyists and one must always be alert to forgeries. Some forgeries are contemporaneous to the production of the original and fetch good prices on a curiosity level. Other copies have been produced recently and can easily fool the unwary. This book should help you learn to tell the difference, and to look for the many gems, or "sleepers", out there waiting to be discovered. Education and familiarity with the genuine article are the best defence, and this book gives many pointers to help you to decide if a piece is authentic, along with why similar genuine items can vary dramatically in price compared to each other.
The range of prices is quite large. Indeed, in 2004 a small Bakelite brooch in the form of a Hallowe'en pumpkin man (see illustration on p.13) sold for £10,000 ($17,000), but other, similar, figures may fetch only £50 ($85). Also, one can pay LW ($17) for a Trifari brooch from the 1950s or £5,000 ($8,500) for one from the 1940s.
The skill of the designers and manufacturers is evident in the pieces they have left for us to find. The quality of production cannot now be matched, because the better pieces were made to the same exacting standards as (sometimes even surpassing) those of the world of precious jewelry. In terms of design, precious jewelry often even copied its more innovative cousins in the costume jewelry design houses, and many designers moved from the diamond houses to the rhinestone ones.
So, having decided that you want to buy vintage costume jewelry (and, let's face it, why wouldn't you?), where do you go to find it? Well, finding good vintage costume jewelry is an art form and a skill in itself. There are several types of place you could try. Firstly, as with any other type of collectable, you could search the antique shops and galleries. These are very useful resources and generally run by trustworthy dealers. In addition, because shops tend to be relatively permanent, you can always go back to them if there is a problem. Shop keepers tend to be knowledgeable and helpful; they are interested in your custom and know they have to behave responsibly because they have a reputation to uphold. Secondly, you could try auctions, which, for the same reasons, are another great resource. Many of the larger auction houses now have regular costume jewelry sales. A third option is antiques markets and fairs and flea markets, which can also provide fertile hunting grounds for vintage costume jewelry. It is here that you have to be more careful because, owing to the rather ephemeral nature of such markets and fairs, you need to be quite sure about the purchase you are about to make, as returning an item could be a problem.
The internet is becoming an increasingly important source for vintage costume jewelry, but a cautionary note needs to be sounded here. As condition and authenticity are all-important in the value of an individual piece of jewelry, buying over the internet, either from a shop's website or through an online auction house, requires the purchaser to be very vigilant. A thorough description must be provided along with good photographs of both the front and reverse of each piece. Details of any signatures, losses, and wear must also be given to help avoid any disappointment later. One of the better ways to buy on the internet is if you know the dealer and are happy with previous purchases from them. If you have no experience of an individual and their trading practices, always proceed with care and caution.
Throughout this book we will be giving advice and tips on what to look out for in terms of what may affect the value of a piece and any known problems that may affect its value in the future, such as weak spots or difficulty of repair and restoration. Books such as this and others will be very helpful. However, experience seeing, touching, and buying costume jewelry is the best education of all. As to what to buy, this book will provide invaluable guidance, but eventually it comes down to your own taste.
Note that the prices given in this book are based on retail prices (and American prices converted at a rate of $1.7 to E1), and that values can vary according to geographical location or demand.
Writer – Steven Miners