Fake and Fabulous: Why We Love Costume Jewelry

Few know that throughout the 20th century, many fine jewelry designers turned to costume because it gave them license to experiment.

They would typically work with lesser quality metals (read: not gold or silver) and use predominantly fake gemstones resulting in bold and sometimes theatrical pieces that most women could purchase with little to no thought regarding price.

Coco Chanel was the first to fashion costume jewelry using real and artificial gems. Working closely with Maison Gripoix, she designed pieces that broke the rules for so-called “high” jewelry.

The trend in costume jewelry actually has its beginnings in the 17th and 18th century when diamonds were at a premium. Artificial diamonds or “paste” gems were developed and were so convincing, that even the wealthy would wear them. Most famously, the French firm of Gripoix invented new methods of rendering molten glass into replicas of gems and pearls that were so fanciful, they became celebrated for their remarkable beauty.

But the person who really changed the perception of costume jewelry was Coco Chanel, who in the 1920’s, created bold signature pieces that took high society by storm.Wearing costume felt outrageous and irreverent, and pairing it with real, high jewelry was the ultimate in chic.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli was decidedly different in her taste for jewelry, and leaned on her surrealist friends for bizarre and even shocking designs.

Working with Gripoix, Chanel mixed semi-precious, precious, and paste gems together, breaking all the rules of traditional jewelry design. Elsa Schiaparelli followed suit, but her designs reflected the people who surrounded her: Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, the surrealists and avant-garde whom she admired for their modernism. Today, Schiaparelli pieces can command exceptionally high prices at auction.

Some of the best costume jewelry came from the United States by makers such as Trifari, Napier, and Boucher.

Many of Trifari’s most famous pieces were designed by Alfred Philippe, who first worked for Van Cleef and Arpels. He became enamored with the ability to create dozens of different designs at a fraction of the price it cost to make a single piece for VCA.

At top,  a gold-plated, rhinestone, and paste Emerald necklace by Alfred Philippe for Trifari, circa 1940. Below, An enamel and paste necklace by Marcel Boucher.

Marcel Boucher began his career at Cartier in Paris and later in New York, before launching his own eponymously-
named company selling high quality costume jewelry. Both designers experimented with the metals they used, using chrome or silver plating. Many of their best pieces are plated in real gold, giving them a lasting brilliance compared with ordinary costume.

In the 1940’s, Hollywood studios called on Trifari and Boucher to create bespoke pieces for the movies, but a man known as Joseff of Hollywood was king of that domaine, designing pieces for some of the most iconic films in cinema history.

Elizabeth Taylor with a demi-parure by Joseff of Hollywood, for the film, “Cleopatra.”

Stars like Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor were so impressed with his pieces that they would often end up wearing the jewelry off the studio lot. Taylor, however, would replace the fake gems with real ones because, well, she was Elizabeth Taylor.