Some 60 years ago, discussing her newly designed costume jewellery, fashion designer Coco Chanel said: ‘It doesn’t matter if they are real as long as they look like junk’. The famed French caricaturist, Sem, who greatly admired Chanel’s innovative ideas, also commented: ‘At last we imitate the fake’. Chanel wanted her jewellery to be a foil for her elegant clothes, to be larger than life, and her attitudes paved the way for a new era in costume jewellery.
Collectors have long delighted in finding 18th- and 19th-century paste jewellery or the colourful avant-garde pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. However, the latest wave rippling through the antique markets and jewellery shops is the craze for collecting jewellery of the 1950s and 1960s, accelerated by a revival of the period’s fashions and styles.
After the restrictions imposed during the Second World War, stylized, functional and often colourless jewellery was replaced by rich, flamboyant designs with an emphasis on colour and movement. Deep necklines called for grand neckpieces, often inspired by classic 18th-century jewellery, or rows of beads worn as chokers. Striking lapel pins replaced brooch clips in the hair. Naturalistic subjects were popular and favourites were swaying flower heads, animals (particularly dogs) and fruit.
The Americans established supremacy in the 1950s. There are a number of important firms to look out for: Trifari, Marcel Boucher, Coro, Monet, Napier, Weiss, Jomaz and Kramer.
Jewellery by Christian Dior is now avidly collected. The English firm of Michel Maer made much of his jewellery until 1955; in this year Henkel and Grosse of Pforzheim, Germany, became the exclusive world-wide licensee for him. His work is always marked and very often dated, which gives confidence to the inexperienced collector and leaves a vital record of his changing style. Some of Dior’s best pieces from this period are sumptuous necklaces comprising rows of coloured beads and elaborate settings.
Copper jewellery, now enjoying a revival, was enthusiastically worn in the 1950s. Copper brooches, earrings, necklaces and chunky bracelets were ethnic in flavour and had a hand-finished appearance. The best came from Mexico, notably the work of the sculptor Rabacas.
Czechoslovakia, France, Austria and Germany – all traditional producers of costume jewellery – continued to flourish in the 1950s and were joined by Scandinavia. In England new firms were established, notably Attwood and Sawyer (of Porthcawl, mid-Glamorgan), Sphinx (London) and Corocraft (Gatwick). There were many others and the quantity of work dating from this period that still exists is evidence of the huge and constant demand. Beginning to be collected, but still extremely cheap, is the Celtic-style jewellery of the Birmingham firm of A Hill who mark all their work with the word ‘Miracle’.
The joy of collecting costume jewellery is its cheapness. Do not be governed by whether or not a piece is marked. Look for originality of design and quality of manufacture and then look for a name.
Prices in the lower bracket tend to range from pounds 5- pounds 50 and rarer pieces, perhaps those using silver rather than base metal, can cost up to pounds 200. Some of the best bargains are found at the provincial antique fairs, or in local junk shops and charity shops.
Shops specializing in past costume jewellery in London include Merola, the Pruskin Gallery, Cobra and Bellamy, John Jesse and Irina Laski; markets like Antiquarius, the Chenil Gallery, Portobello Market, Alfie’s Market and Gray’s Market all have stalls.