Sunday, March 9, 2008

How to Spot Good Costume Jewelry #1

Your Grandma’s fake jewelry probably isn’t junk, but just how valuable is it?

My eyes fill with tears when I think about how my beloved Grandmother would wear her costume jewelry so proudly - each piece matched a specific dress or hat; worn in rotation, depending on the season, each brooch made it to church about six times a year. I have a shoe box filled with memories of her today. Of course I would never sell any of her pieces, I couldn’t. But it would be nice to know what they are worth, and why.

Dumpdiggers frequently find shiny metallic brooches, bakelite hairpins, nickel plated buttons, and loose rhinestones in their excavations in town dumps and privy pits. I have found ruby red glass beads and the remains of bracelets and necklaces in Toronto dumps. Costume jewelry is found in early 1900’s dumps because this inexpensive jewelry was disposable – if it broke or became tarnished it was discarded, and seldom repaired. Today however, it’s worth keeping around

Marshall Gummer, The Appraiser, ranks vintage costume jewelry as one of the ten best things to collect, in the MoneySense Magazine’s Trash or Treasure? March 2006 "Countless Canadian women received costume jewelry back in the 1950s to celebrate their high school graduations. Even though the jewels are fake, the better stuff is now worth big bucks."

What's the best costume jewelry to collect?
Mr. Gummer mentions Gustave Sherman of Montreal, and Rafael Alfandary (who signed simply "Rafael") of Toronto in the 1970s. Alfandary created unique pieces for Maggie Trudeau, Lorne Greene and Liberace. Both of these jewelry makers and others like Jacques Hobe, Stan Haggler, Marcel Boucher, and of course Gustavo Trifari…will be explored later in this series.

The secrets to collecting good fake jewelry are revealed only after amassing lots of otherwise useless information about the history of costume jewelry. The common sense wisdom of ‘the older the better’ doesn’t completely apply to this art of many forms... 'Name, rank and serial number' would be better advice. Which jewelry designer in which firm made the piece? When? Where? And from what materials?

Above is a Vintage Trifari Cabachon Crown Pin on eBay that sold for $72 US last week. The piece was made in 1944 and follows Trifari Sterling Des. Pat No. 137542. This pin was designed by Alfred Philippe as part of his ‘Jewels’ series – the design features at least six different types / colors of stones.

Here is another very similar Trifari Crown Pin on eBay that sold for $71 US a few hours later. Different sellers, different buyers, same price.

The best costume jewelry is ridiculously flashy... But where did it all begin? Did the Egyptians wear costume jewelry? How about the Romans? No. Probably not. But there were some baubles three hundred years ago…

Costume Jewelry in Louis XIV’s France
There is strange annotation in the 17th Century regarding Madame de Sevigne, a French aristocrat credited with popularizing faux gem-studded baubles to accent the plunging necklines in period clothing fashions. She wrote a series of open letters to her daughter, which included a trip to the waters at Vichy in 1676, and of Louis XIV’s court in 1688. The letters were copied and circulated throughout French society. One can only imagine how this primitive ‘press release’ stimulated the Great Age of French innovation – her letters served as a modern fashion magazine inspires designers today. I can only image that de Sevigne’s gem studded brooches were really composed of bits of colored glass; I wonder where that coloured glass was created? As Madame de Sevigne married François Adhémar de Monteil, Comte de Grignan, who became the Lieutenant Governor of Provence, I’d be inclined to believe the glass ‘gemstones’ originated from the Island of Murano in Venice, or maybe they were polished minerals from the mines and mills of Bohemia? Conversely, it is possible that the homegrown French glassmaking workshops that Colbert established for Versailles had already perfected the art.

Indeed some part of the combination of glass, art and jewelry was inspired by Lalique in the late 1800’s. His Art Nouveau pieces were highly esteemed on both sides of the Atlantic. Queen Victoria was one of his devotees and Agnew's of London even held a special Lalique exhibition in 1905.

The term ‘costume jewelry’ dates back to the early 20th century. Some fashion historians and collectors have published books wherein they claim the term reflects the use of the word ‘costume’ in making a fashion ensemble; ladies could use the ornamentation to accent their attire as they compose new stylish clothing combinations, everyday. Thus the jewelry worn with everyday fashion (costumes) grew to be known as "costume jewelry."

Another theory is that the term refers to the jewelry worn in theatrical productions, and indeed New York City was a hot spot for the design and manufacture of some early pieces. There is scant evidence today however on which to hang the idea that one particular play, piece, or designer inspired the entire art form.

Secret #1: Buy historic gemstones in fake jewelry
Costume jewelry is personal ornamentation composed entirely of non-precious materials. Instead of diamonds, rubies and sapphires set in silver or gold, early costume jewelry designers used bakelite, brass and other alloys, celluloid, enamel, horn, paint, paper, rubber, textiles and wood. Inside the art movements of the 1920s ‘material snobbism’ was rejected by young designers who spurned imitating expensive authentic jewelry and worked hard to make ‘fake jewelry’ respectable by the end of the Second World War.

“The House that Bengal Built’ by Mary Sue Packer follows Jakob Bengal’s rise from a provincial German watch chain manufacturer, through two decades of innovation and experimentation, to become a leading producer of costume jewelry in the 1920s and ‘30s. The book contains a comprehensive photograph collection of his best chrome and galalith pieces.

Milk Plastic Gems
Galalith, also know as ‘milkstone’ (Milchstein) was developed in 1897 by combining the milk protein casein with formaldehyde – today this called milk plastic in children's science craft books. In the early 1900s however it was high technology and used to decorate many household items. It was simple to make, and inexpensive; it was easy to color, and heat-resistant. Mrs Packer estimates that in the year 1913 about 30 million liters of milk was converted to 1.5 million kilos of Milchstein. Jakob Bengal made beautiful Art Noveau and Art Deco jewellery using this material. But the use of galalith for jewelry was prohibited in 1939 by the Nazi regime at the outset of WWII to save raw materials, and Jakob Bengel’s signature jewelry production thus came to an end.

Early Mineral and Glass Gemstones

Dumpdiggers love colored glass, in all shapes and sizes, and most vintage costume jewelry uses very well crafted synthetic gemstones in place of more valuable materials. Modern costume jewelry uses high end crystals, CZs or cubic zirconia simulated diamonds, and some semi-precious stones – but that wasn’t possible in the 1880’s.

Early costume jewelry features rhinestones and then ‘diamante’ which is a diamond simulant made from rock crystal. Originally, rhinestones were rock crystals gathered from the river Rhine. The availability was greatly increased in 1775 when the Alsatian jeweler Georg Friedrich Strass had the idea to imitate diamonds by coating the lower side of glass with shiny metallic powder. Hence, rhinestones are still called Strass in many European languages.

Swarovski Lead Glass Crystal
In 1895 Daniel Swarovski founded Swarovski Crystal with the assistance of Franz Weis and Armand Kossmann in a small town in Austria (Watten) located near a hydro electric dam. This was convenient because Daniel had just patented an electric crystal cutting machine. Between the years of 1908-1912 the Swarovski family perfected the art of making and cutting crystal. All early examples of Swarovski crystal are of course very valuable today.

The firm was very successful all through the twenties and thirties, before they created their famous 'Aurora Borealis’ crystals in 1956. The innovation produced gems coated with an almost imperceptible layer of metal to give the stone a rainbow sparkle. Manfred Swarovski, Daniel's grandson worked with Christian Dior to perfect this process.

Secrets to Collecting Costume Jewelry #2 will start with Coco Channel and the everyday fashion revolution that emboldened European and American women in the 1920s.

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ThunderpussGeisha said...

Great entry! I want to go shopping with you sometimes, my antique hunter. I can dress as a courtesan and you can be my courtier (0;

is me said...

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