I love jewelry. No, make that, I adore jewelry. Ever since I was three and pretended my aunt’s marquis cut diamond bracelet was a snake, I’ve loved the shiny and the glittery. I am hardly unique in being fascinated by gaudy embellishment. Since the oldest eras of human history, the walls of caves and the tombs of monarchs reveal the jewels our ancestors used to beautify them and create marks of their status.
In my book, The Lives of Things, Rebecca Katz owns a silver bracelet made by the historic Mexican silver designer Hector Aguilar. The soul of Señor Aguilar, who lives in her bracelet, wants many things from Rebecca. He wants her to take him back to Taxco, where he was born, but more importantly, he wants her to recognize what an important artist he was, an ongoing theme with artists of all ages.
To me, what makes jewelry so delightful is the tiny, beautifully executed workmanship. I attended the Cartier exhibit that visited the Field Museum in Chicago in the 1990s and was almost in tears at the intricacy of so many pieces. Since I can no more purchase a Cartier necklace than I can sprout wings and fly, I’ve discovered the glories of costume jewelry, particularly vintage pieces made in the 1930s and 40s.
The golden age of costume jewelry coincided with the Great Depression. This is no accident. Because a quarter of the nation was unemployed, and the fortunes of many formerly rich people had evaporated, the demand for high-end jewelry fell precipitously. Many of the fine craftsmen who worked for Tiffany, Cartier, and a host of other jewelers had to adapt, and adapt they did.
Taking exquisite designs intended for execution in platinum with diamonds, they worked their magic setting rhinestones into silver and brass. It’s ironic that in a time of great poverty, people wanted to wear what looked like fabulously expensive jewels. Perhaps it was another of those fantasies that helped them get through their days.
The most popular costume jewelry designers often signed their pieces. Whether or not a piece is signed, the marks of high craftsmanship in costume jewelry include prong set stones, open backs on set stones, and no obvious glued parts.
Famous names in costume jewelry include Hattie Carnegie, Nettie Rosenstein, Coro, Florenza, Hargo, Schiaparelli, Kramer, Krementz, Van Dell, Eisenberg, Weiss, and Trifari. These are companies all employed superior craftsmen to design their jewelry.
Trifari, for example, is best known for their Art Deco line, designed by Alfred Philippe, who previously worked for Van Cleef and Arpells. Although the company never used real gemstones, gold, or silver, the jewelry is of the very best quality.
Today, the vintage look in costume jewelry is once again VERY popular, and most of the ready to wear clothing manufacturers are showing ornate crystal necklaces to compliment everything from cocktail dresses to blue jeans. Naturally, I am in heaven about this. But I have a secret to impart. The next generation of fabulously fake jewels is being made … of course, in China.
Gifted in the creation of intricate and ornate designs (I saw a man painting the inside of a tiny bottle with a feather when I was in China in 2005), the Chinese are also master copiers; so many famous jewelry patterns are being turned out for a song. I recently bought two rhinestone necklaces on eBay for about $12 each – and that included shipping from Hong Kong!
I wonder how the Depression era designers would feel, those talented artists from France and Germany, who toiled away in New York and Chicago in the 1930s, knowing that their work is now being replicated a hundred thousand times and sold over the Internet to a worldwide audience? Would they be happy because so many people can wear a little bling, or sad that the pieces are so cheap they are practically disposable? I guess I don’t want to know.