There is primal circuitry present in the head of every woman that fires instantly to life at the blaze of gemstone jewellery. Imitation is the sincerest and, in this case, the most profitable form of flattery. With rare, expensive jewels unavailable for all but the rich, royal, or dubious of character, catching the eye with lesser materials has been for centuries a lucrative, creative field for jewellers all over the world.
In the 18th century, George Friederich Strass, discovered that coating one side of clear, coloured glass in a metal powder increased its reflective and refractive properties. This simple step allowed cheap materials to glisten as enticingly as diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. In many parts of Europe, ‘strass’ is still the term used for costume jewels without expensive inclusions.
Natural rock crystal dredged from the silty bottom of the Rhine gave faux gems, whether glass or naturally occurring crystals, a generic name — rhinestone. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel, brought rhinestones to Couture in her groundbreaking fashion shows in Paris.
By the 1950s, even Elizabeth Taylor, who could afford diamonds as big as quail’s eggs, had her stash of rhinestone flash in brooches, rings, bracelets, dress clips, shoe-buckles, and earrings. Fabulous crystals from Swarovski in Austria and Preciosa in the Czech Republic were used to stud Hollywood stars and trust-fund multi-millionaires, and are still sought after by today’s fashionistas.
The golden era did not demand that your rhinestones had to be even faintly convincing as genuine gemstone, and, by the 1960s, costume jewellery was a highly respected, luxuriant area of accessorising.
If it was well-made, beautifully designated, with a searing refractive index, and perfectly appointed for an outfit, rhinestone was glamour writ large. Various chemical and metallurgical coatings to the stones delivered a range of iridescent reflected effects, from the heavenly twinkle of Aurora Borealis introduced by Swarovski to the formal, polished face of black jet.
Many fine jewellery-makers, including Christian Dior, had their own lines in semi-precious and rhinestone jewels made to exacting standards of cut, set, and finish.
Starting a collection of vintage rhinestone, there’s an overwhelming choice of jewels and a myriad of sources — so a small budget is no obstacle to some really nice and quite old pieces.
Every Western woman alive from around the 1940s on owned some bit of flash, and there’s a swooning mountain of the sparkly stuff back out on the market — online, at boot sales, in the classifieds, and carefully cabineted in many charity shops. Scruffy as I may be otherwise, I love big blinging American cabochons from the 1950s and multi-gem ‘fruit-salad’ brooches to confuse and tantalise my friends. It seems pointless to buy jewels you cannot or would not wear. Big and bold is the way to go.
A name stamped into the mount on the reverse of a piece gives you the opportunity to research the maker, but don’t expect every name to add to value, as quite tatty or late pieces can carry a name.
Look for good condition, quality of design, and finish. For example, in a spray of flowers, does a brooch or earring have a pleasing flow and are the stones firmly and nicely prong-set and spaced against each other?
There are names to conjure with costume jewellery from the great age of Hollywood glamour, and you could pay several thousand euro for a genuine pair of 1950s dress earrings by, say, Eisenberg or Trifari from a specialist dealer. Discovering what lights you up, and refining your collection — well, what’s a girl to do?
Suited to the complete starter or anyone with an interest in vintage costume jewels, Miller’s Costume Jewellery (2010) is a highly regarded guide authored by Judith Miller, herself an insatiable collector, €17.21 from Mitchell Beazley.