Vintage costume jewelry earns respect and hefty bids
NEW YORK — Costume jewelry was once looked down upon as substandard. It’s true that this style of jewelry is made from cheaper materials and often mass produced to appeal to a wider audience, but it’s not cheap, junky jewelry any more.
Today, vintage costume jewelry is highly prized and admired for its design and originality. Buyers are knowledgeable about key designers and avidly seek nicely executed, well-preserved pieces with historical and artistic value. Sterling silver jewelry from the 1930s and ’40s remains distinctly popular. Several jewelry specialists consulted for this article noted that Asian buyers in particular have driven up prices in the costume jewelry market while hunting for choice pieces from prominent designers, especially those by Schreiner.
Henry Schreiner began making jewelry in New York in 1939 and his craftsmanship ensured the enduring desirability of his high-end costume jewelry. His pieces stand out thanks to his inventive use of color. Because each piece was made by hand, scarcity has steadily accelerated the value of Schreiner costume jewelry. Schreiner’s earlier pieces, which cover his debut to about 1951, were usually not marked and can be hard to identify, but those with a trained eye can spot his works. Some online sources claim that his stones were typically not foiled on the backs, but instead inset into cups upside down as each piece was made. A grouping of Schreiner costume jewelry, mostly pins, attained $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at Schultz Auctioneers.
Schreiner is but one designer of vintage costume jewelry whose works sophisticated buyers actively pursue. Another prestigious name is Trifari, a company founded in Italy by Gustavo Trifari in 1910. Created to mimic fine jewelry, Trifari’s costume jewelry featured interesting materials such as Austrian rhinestones set in vermeil-plated silver. It also favored invisible settings and delivered unique designs. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was among its most famous patrons, often ditching diamonds for Trifari jewelry when appearing at public events. A selection of 11 pieces of colorful Trifari jewelry, including earrings, brooches, necklaces and fur clips, made $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at Public Sale Auction House. Set in sterling silver, the pieces featured rhinestones and faux gemstones.
Miriam Haskell jewelry is still affordable despite the fact that her pieces are hard to find and sell fast. After moving to New York from her native Indiana in 1926 with $500 in her pocket, Haskell opened a jewelry boutique in the city. She designed and sold modestly priced pieces through the 1960s and marked them with her name, usually on the clasp or pin back. Her work is characterized by vibrantly colored stones, European beads, Bohemian crystals, gold filigree and seed pearls. Haskell also was one of the first designers to incorporate Lucite and plastic in jewelry designs. A faux malachite Haskell necklace was part of a group of four jewelry items that brought $450 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Auctions at Showplace.
According to some online sources, the success of costume jewelry would not have happened without the efforts of glassmaker Augustina Gripoix, who founded Maison Gripoix. In the 1860s, she began making copies of pearls and crystals with glass that she poured into ornate settings. The glass was ground up, colored and baked using a pate de verre technique, which gave them striking hues. These replicas were immediately popular with the wealthy, who wanted cheap copies of their finest pieces as a safeguard against theft and loss. Gripoix created costume jewelry for Charles Frederick Worth’s fashion house and others, but is most famous for her partnership with Coco Chanel, for whom she designed pieces. A Maison Gripoix amethyst-tone necklace having glass petals in gilt floral settings, likely made for Chanel, sold for $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Greenwich Auction.
Also demanding mention is French goldsmith Jacques Hobe. He founded Hobe Cie in 1887 to capitalize on the craze for costume jewelry and opened an American division in 1927. Hobe made all manner of costume pieces that reportedly delighted flappers, Hollywood actresses and the Ziegfeld Follies performers alike throughout the 1930s and onward, but his firm gained fame for its tasseled and beaded necklaces featuring tiny seed pearl-type beads. A set of beaded Hobe necklace and earrings realized $200 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at TheRedFinch Auctions.
Vintage costume jewelry satisfies many different goals held by collectors. Nostalgia is a forever potent draw; pieces that evoke a certain era or fond memories of a relative who originally owned a specific ring or necklace can inspire frenzied bidding at auction. Utility is equally important. Losing a favorite earring or necklace is not nearly as devastating if replacing it costs a few hundred dollars instead of tens of thousands. Costume jewelry comes in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes and colors to suit virtually every taste. And as with the realm of fine jewelry, costume jewelry boasts its own trusted brands and designers. Aside from the aforementioned Schreiner, Haskell, Gripoix and Hobe, there is Eisenberg, Kenneth Jay Lane, Hattie Carnegie, Marcel Boucher, and Coro as well as lesser-known names whose works can be just as compelling.