Shakespeare warned that “all that glitters is not gold.” In fact, I’ve found that most of what glitters is not gold; it’s usually gold vermeil, or gold plate, or gold-filled, or even faux gold-washed. All this false finery might bother you, if you believe that fakery is a pure abomination. I’m not that much of a purist, though–I’m perfectly fine with the occasional fake, as long as it’s well done. Yes, even those of us who worship at the altar of the real and the rare can be led astray by great style. When an object is well-designed, well-made, and infused with fun, it’s pretty hard to forgo that fabulous fake.
Case in point: the glittering array of vintage costume jewelry, once made for the masses, and now coveted by collectors. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, costume jewelry was primarily made to imitate the look of fine gemstone pieces; it wasn’t until the early 20th century that designers moved beyond mere imitation and found their muse in fashion. Note, though, that not all costume jewelry from this era is created equal; some makers were far better than others. Some of the finest and most fun examples were produced in Providence, Rhode Island, the center of American costume-jewelry production during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; two Providence-based firms that reigned supreme were Coro and Trifari.
The golden age of costume jewelry dates from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s. At Coro and Trifari, creativity and craftsmanship flourished during this time, and designers weren’t afraid to incorporate unconventional materials, including the new plastics, such as Lucite and Bakelite. A host of innovative production techniques were also perfected during this era. Necklaces, earrings, brooches, pins, dress clips, and bracelets in gold and silver finishes (or sterling silver during the war years, when base metals were needed for military uses) were set with rhinestones, paste, imitation cabochons and pearls, enamel, wood, ceramic, even textiles. Designs ranged from geometrics to floral and fruit motifs to whimsical animal and insect forms. The look was so iconic, the designs so fresh, that fine-jewelry makers actually began to look to costume artisans for their inspiration.
Coro was the largest manufacturer of costume jewelry, employing more than 3,500 workers and producing a huge volume of pieces in various quality and price ranges, from as little as 50 cents to as much as $100 for specialty designs. The firm was known for its wide array of styles, including versatile dress clips, Mexican silver jewelry, and the “Coro Duette,” a pin suite that could be worn as one piece or broken down into smaller pieces and worn separately.
Trifari was also prolific. Designs were superbly crafted and closely resembled the look of fine jewelry; many pieces were hand-set with Swarovski crystal rhinestones. Pieces dating to the 1940s and those by its signature designer, Alfred Philippe, are most desirable. Philippe believed that each piece of costume jewelry should be a work of art. He’s most widely known today for his beloved “jelly bellies”–pins in which the body of an animal is shaped from a clear Lucite stone.
Both firms produced jewelry into the 1990s, but later pieces suffered in quality. For the best examples, look for jewelry dating from 1930 to 1960; you’ll find items online, in vintage shops, and at auction. Both Coro and Trifari pieces should be signed or marked. They’re no longer priced for the masses–expect to pay $100 to $500 per piece–but they’re worth it. They may be fakes, but they’re still the real thing.