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Discover Mid-America— September 2009

Costume Jewelry Resurges as a Hot Trend

Stones shimmer and sparkle, casting prisms of light around the shop as a young woman tries on a wide bracelet of shiny pink rhinestones. After about 20 minutes of looking through the jewelry offerings, she decides that the 1950’s style bracelet, with matching rhinestone earrings, will add just the right touch of pizzazz to the dress she plans to wear tonight at a dinner party.

Bryzelak Sayyah a k a Rhinestone Rosie (r) with friend at the 2001 Vintage Fashion and Costume Jewelry 2001 convention

She’s not alone in her fondness for vintage jewelry. Vintage jewelry has been a hot trend for the last few years, with customers of all ages enjoying the wide variety of designs and styles available at antique shops and malls. Everything from demure, elegant items to big, clunky, gaudy pieces is available. No matter what one’s style, from flamboyant to delicate, companies have produced jewelry to suit anyone’s taste. Not only is jewelry wearable, but also it’s a great item to collect, because vintage jewelry often keeps its value or increases in value over time.

Costume, vintage or antique?

What is vintage jewelry? Is it the baubles found in grandma’s dresser drawers? Is it the jewelry that glamorous movie stars wore in their films? Or is it the fake jewelry that was made to copy expensive, authentic jewelry of royalty and millionaires?

Actually, it’s all of these. Vintage jewelry is often called costume jewelry, fake jewelry or even junk jewelry. Vintage jewelry is usually made out of non-precious stones, synthetic stones, paste (a powdered glass or stone mixture), plastics or base metals, and is considered to be 20-100 years old.

Costume jewelry can be of any age. The general term “costume jewelry” got its name from the garment industry, as being a piece that is worn with a particular garment or “costume.”

The term “antique jewelry” refers to pieces that are over 100 years old. Often this older jewelry is made of real stones and precious metals such as silver and gold, which is called fine jewelry. This type of jewelry is usually expensive. However, the term “antique jewelry” can also refer to a 100-year-old or older piece made of imitation materials, in which the piece would be more specifically called “antique costume jewelry.”

De Luxe Rhinestone 3-inch Drop Earrings

Fine jewelry can be old or new. Sometimes designers actually used gold settings in making vintage jewelry, or sometimes they added a few small precious stones among the synthetic ones, making it a hybrid of fine and costume jewelry.

Vintage jewelry can occasionally be found at garage sales, estate sales or auctions, but one of the best places to find vintage jewelry is at antique shops. Most shops have at least a small collection of jewelry. A number specialize in costume jewelry, where collectors can find hundreds of pieces to choose from. Prices start low, under $10, and can run up to $500 and higher for outstanding and unusual designs. Collectors can find many good pieces in the $20-50 range.

Asserting a style

Who hasn’t watched the romantic movie Titanic and seen the “Heart of the Ocean,” the fictitious blue diamond worn by the character, Rose? The movie begins and ends with the necklace, which represents true love, as the audience learns.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used the brooches that she wore as a subtle form of communication. They became her signature style. Two hundred of her pins are currently on display at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, in an exhibit Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection.

Onyx Necklace

Former First Ladies Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Bush were known for wearing classic pearls, while Princess Diana was known for her engagement ring and tiaras. Audrey Hepburn was known for the tiara she wore in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Actress Elizabeth Taylor always wore fine jewelry and even wrote a book about it, called Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, in which she mentions some of the amazing pieces given to her. Singer Madonna is known for wearing lots of rhinestones and hair clips during her performances.

These are just a few examples of famous women using jewelry to assert their individual style. While most of these famous women were wearing fine jewelry, many jewelry companies made inexpensive imitations, so that others could afford the same designs. Some women like to imitate their role models, while others just enjoy wearing beautiful styles by prominent designers.

Some well-known women, including actresses Suzanne Summers and Jane Seymour, and soap opera star Susan Lucci, sell their own contemporary costume jewelry lines. They try to offer great designs at an affordable price.

Whether one wears dangly earrings, classic cameos on black velvet chokers, rings adorning every finger, whimsical lapel pins or other pieces, each makes a statement about the wearer. With a collection of jewelry, a person can change accessories to match their mood, their clothing, to impress others or for many other reasons.

What to collect

“Costume jewelry is all about the design, and the fun and wearability,” says Rosalie Bryzelak Sayyah, better known as “Rhinestone Rosie.” She owns a jewelry shop of the same name in Seattle, WA. In business with her daughter, Lucia, they have thousands of pieces of vintage jewelry for sale, dating from the 1870s to the 1970s, and even a few contemporary pieces.

“Buy what you like,” says Sayyah. “Buy the best that you can afford.” She advises investing in one well-made pin, rather than buying two or three inexpensive pins, because the well-made pin may be more durable and holds its price better.

Ivana Trump Jewel Stones on Gold

Ann Homburger, who owns Annie’s Collectibles, a shop within the Mission Road Antique Mall, in Prairie Village, KS, gives similar advice. “Buy what makes you happy. Don’t worry about something trendy or valuable.” She notes that trends come and go, and prices go up or down depending on what is the hot style at the time. Something that a person enjoys will have a lasting personal value, no matter how much actual price changes over time.

The hardest part about collecting is that there are dozens of designer names to collect, as well as different eras of styles and pieces made of different materials. Some may enjoy bold designs and bright colors, while others prefer delicate butterfly designs, blue crystals or pieces made entirely of copper. Some collect only Czech glass beads, while others like only pieces made of jet (a black stone made of fossilized wood).

Some of the more collectible jewelry designers in the 20th century are Miriam Haskell, Schiaparelli, Coro, Hobé, George Jensen, Weiss, Trifari, Spratling, Eisenberg, as well as Sarah Coventry, Matisse, Renoir, DeRosa, Juliana (also called D & E), Boucher and Pennino.

Many of these designers had specific ways of signing their pieces. Serious collectors would be wise to obtain The Collector’s Guide to Costume Jewelry, by Judith Miller, Warman’s Jewelry, 3rd edition, by Christie Romero, or other detailed guides to identifying jewelry, which include pictures of each designer’s work and information on each designer’s marks.

Like many other collectible items, the value of vintage jewelry depends on condition of the piece, as well as rarity, how well it’s made, and how representative the piece is of a particular era or style. Another, very subjective factor in determining a piece’s collectibility is its appeal or beauty.

Popular trends today

With differing clientele, each shop owner noted different buying trends.

“I’m selling lots of rings, many with colorful rhinestones,” says Gay Comboy, jewelry seller at Brown’s Emporium in Independence, MO. “Necklaces are always a good seller. Amethyst is also popular.”

For Joyce Boyer, jewelry seller at Paramount Antique Mall in Wichita, KS, “Signed jewelry is popular right now. I’m selling lots of flashy jewelry, especially to younger people. Pieces by Renoir, Matisse and Hobé are also selling well. Also long necklaces.”

French Snake Brooch

Gene Cusick, owner of Gene’s Collectibles in Vinita, OK, is currently selling “lots of brooches. Brooches in the shapes of animals. Also flag pins and Christmas pins.”

At Rhinestone Rosie’s, Sayyah is seeing several trends.

“Many brides right now are wearing strapless gowns. They’re buying chokers, or big necklaces and hair ornaments to complement the dresses. Brooches and earrings are always popular, especially Victorian earrings. We’re seeing lots of silver lockets sold, as well as chunky necklaces and wide, chunky bracelets. We sell lots of cameos at Christmas. The 1950s modernist jewelry, copper and silver shapes in all forms, are popular right now.”

Tips for spotting authentic vintage jewelry

Because of the popularity of vintage jewelry, a number of current companies are duplicating the old designs of vintage jewelry.

“Collectors should read books and look at lots of authentic jewelry, to get familiar with it,” says Boyer, noting that buyers need to be able to tell it apart from the modern duplicates. “Otherwise, collectors may be paying too much for jewelry that is not authentic.”

“Look at the pins on the brooches,” suggests Cusick. “The pins are longer on the older pieces. Also, the older glass is better quality.”

Boyer notes, “In older brooches, the stones are usually prong set. In the newer ones, they may be glued in.”

Sayyah adds, “Glued in pieces that overfill the cup are not authentic. If you see this, it’s either a new piece, or is the old piece with replaced stones glued in. Also look at the backs of brooches. The older pieces were better made. The backs were hand-polished. If it is signed, look at the signature. In the newer pieces, the signatures tend to be blurry.” Also, in modern pieces, the metal part may be all one stamped piece, rather than being soldered together.

Other general things to note are that in older necklaces the clasps tend to be smaller than in modern ones, and certain colors of stones were more popular in certain eras, helping to date pieces. For cameos, older ones are translucent when held up to the light.

Rose Quartz Scarab Pin

“There’s lots of fakes when it comes to Bakelite and other plastics,” says Sayyah. She suggested that collectors might want to do any of three different tests.

The first is using a metal polish called Simichrome. The second is a plastic polish called Novus. In both cases, if you take a white cloth and rub a tiny bit on the inside of a Bakelite piece, genuine bakelite turns bright yellow. The third test, is to dip the piece quickly in hot water and sniff — if it smells like formaldehyde, it’s Bakelite. However, this test must be done carefully, and only on certain types of pieces, as water may damage the foil on rhinestones. Rhinestones are cut glass with foil backs, which give them different colors.

Comboy suggests that collectors may want to take an eyepiece with them when they shop for vintage jewelry, to be able to inspect the piece closely and to better see any markings on the back and other details.

Jewelry care

Once collectors have found their treasures, all agreed that the best way to take care of them is to store the jewelry separately, such as in separate compartments of a jewelry box, or in small, soft bags. Rhinestones, beads, and other glass parts can easily chip, scratch or crack each other if the pieces are jumbled together.

Rosie cautions against using Scrubbing Bubbles or 409 to clean Bakelite jewelry (or for testing it), as it can harm the plastic. She also discourages cleaning with ultrasonic cleaners because they can shake out the foil of the rhinestones.

Eras of jewelry design

Victorian jewelry was made throughout most of the 19th century and featured ornate jewelry, realistic nature designs and glass buttons. The Art Nouveau period followed around the turn of the century and is characterized by soft curves, pale colors, translucent stones, stylized nature designs and enameled jewelry.

Artists embraced the Art Deco period in the 1920s and 1930s, with its angular, geometrical shapes, as well as bangle bracelets, cocktail rings and long pendants, and lots of white pave crystal rhinestones.

The Retro period came around 1935-50, and with it came plastics such as Bakelite, as well as jewelry with a military influence due to WWII. This time period also included elegant jewelry with lots of floral designs, perhaps due to the emerging influence of the movie industry.

During the war, many European designers immigrated to the United States. Since precious metals and gems were hard to obtain, designers of fine jewelry turned to making costume jewelry, creating many new high-quality jewelry designs and styles.

The Art Modern period emerged about 1945 and lasted until around 1960, characterized by bold, bright, chunky jewelry, as well as Christmas jewelry and poodle pins. Rhinestones became popular again. From the 1960s on, many different styles of jewelry were popular, and designers used all kinds of materials.

Whether one wears dangly earrings, classic cameos on black velvet chokers, rings adorning every finger, whimsical lapel pins, shoe clips or other distinctive jewelry, each makes a statement about the wearer. With a varied jewelry collection, a person can change accessories to match their mood, their clothing, to impress others or merely to brighten their day. That’s just the bonus of owning a vintage jewelry collection, which hopefully will increase in value over time.

Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. She can be contacted at

For contact information go to

Contact Info:

Joyce Boyer
Paramount Antique Mall

13200 W. Hwy 54 (Kellogg)
Wichita, KS
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 10-7, Sat., 10-6, Sun., 12-6

Gay Comboy
Brown’s Emporium

13720 E. US Hwy 40
Independence, MO
Hours: Sun.–Thur., 10-6, Fri.-Sat., 10-7

Gene Cusick
Gene’s Collectibles

223 S. Wilson
Vinita, OK
Hours: Mon.-Wed., Thur., Fri., 9:30-6, Sun., 1-6, Tues. closed

Ann Homburger
Annie’s Collectibles

(at Mission Road Antique Mall)
4101 W. 83rd St.
Prairie Village, KS
Hours: 10-6 daily

Rosalie Bryzelak Sayyah
Rhinestone Rosie

606 W. Crockett St.
Seattle, WA
–Mon. closed

Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry Club

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