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Expert in vintage costume jewelry from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s & 1950s


Jewelry Styles by Decade

Because jewelry is an accessory to fashion, any discussion of jewelry styles has to include information about fashion silhouettes.

THE 1920s

Fashion Silhouette

The first two years of the 1920s marked the beginning of the Art Deco era and provided a transition from the post-war fashion silhouette (where waistlines were just under the bust, and hemlines were ankle length) to that of the flapper. “At the very beginning of the 1920s it was fashionable for women to wear high-waisted, rather barrel-shaped outfits, and tunic-style tops were popular” (Victoria & Albert Museum).

Between 1920-1922 waistlines dropped to hip-level, and hemlines for daywear were just below the calf. Attractive shoes had replaced high-button boots when hemlines rose. Hair had also gotten shorter. Part of this change was due to the practicality required by women working in factories and on farms during World War I; part was also due to a general liberation in fashion. One question that was continuously debated in newspapers and magazines for a good part of the decade, however, was “To bob or not to bob?”.

By the mid-1920s, the long, straightened and flattened silhouette, known as the garçonne look, took hold of women’s fashion. This tubular, androgynous style featured dropped or invisible waistlines and hemlines that rose from ankle-length in 1924 to knee-length the following year. This style became synonymous with the flapper, who embodied the free spirit of the 1920s.

Because she wore her hair short, a new style of hat – the French cloche – came into fashion, but berets, turbans and toques were also popular. Brightly-colored and geometrically-patterned dresses as well as trousers for day wear became an emblem of the emancipated woman. In the evening, sleeveless tunics cut low at the back and with slits in the skirt were made of fabrics chosen for their ability to fly away from the body. After all, dancing was an important aspect of the Jazz Age!

Costume Jewelry Styles

With shorter hair in style, women’s ears required adornment. Even though an August 1, 1901 Vogue article decried the wearing of earrings as semi-barbaric, they continued to gain popularity and length in the first two decades of the 20th century. By the early 1920s, long, dangling earrings enhanced the neck and contributed to the era’s emphasis on movement.

Strands of beads of varying lengths (to suit any neckline) and the all-important strand of pearls added to the “razzle-dazzle of the outfit. Everything that glittered or dangled captured the imagination” (C. Jeanenne Bell). Sautoirs (long strands of beads that ended in a tassel) and lariat necklaces were often worn at the back. Long necklaces were also wound around the wrist to form a bracelet.

By this time flexible bracelets (also known as line bracelets) had made their appearance in both fine and costume jewelry. They remained an important wardrobe accessory – to adorn bare arms – throughout the 1920s, when they were worn in multiples. Brooches, too, were essential: they were worn on shoulders, applied to belts and placed at hip level; they adorned cloche hats and jacket lapels.

In the early 1920s, much of the costume jewelry produced still emulated precious jewels – in fact, ads referred to these pieces as reproduction jewelry. Materials including white metal, clear and richly-colored glass stones and beads, faux pearls, and shimmering stones (diamanté and marcasites) achieved the same contrasting colors and textures as precious metals and gemstones used in the creation of fine jewelry.

The filigree bracelets, brooches, earrings and necklaces, so popular in the first part of the 20th century, were still worn in the 1920s. A variation of this look was produced in the former Czechoslovakia, the source of gilt-metal filigree pieces set with glass stones and sometimes embellished with enamel.

By this time, another style – what we now call Art Deco – had made an impact on costume jewelry design. Influenced by avant-garde art movements, the Ballets Russes, African art and the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, the Art Deco style was characterized by strong color contrasts, geometric shapes, clean lines, and stylized motifs (such as hieroglyphics, pharaohs, and scarabs – everything Egyptian – as well as images denoting speed – gazelles, airplanes).

Still another style of jewelry introduced in this decade is what we often refer to as novelty jewelry – pieces made from plastics (Celluloid, Bakelite, Galalith, etc.). Hair combs and hat pins had been made of celluloid since the turn of the century. Celluloid bracelets, often embellished with rhinestones, were especially popular in the 1920s. By that decade, the availability and low cost of plastics allowed designers to experiment with designs and achieve styles that didn’t imitate precious jewelry and produce trendy, whimsical jewelry in an almost limitless range of colors.

By the mid-1920s, costume jewelry had gained respect, thanks in large part to Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. When they designed and promoted jewelry made from imitation stones and plastic to accessorize the clothing they designed, costume pieces became not only acceptable but highly desirable.

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THE 1930s

Fashion Silhouette

The worship of excess and luxury, which was synonymous with the 1920s, came to an abrupt end with the stock market crash in October 1929. By 1930, when the Great Depression had taken hold of economies world-wide, hemlines were ankle-length, the natural waistline was restored, and femininity was in style again. “Softer, sculptural clothes now accentuated the contours of the female form …The Great Depression effectively froze the silhouette for the decade, because most women could not afford to update their wardrobe” (Clothing Through American History: 1900 to the Present).

Evening dresses made of bias-cut fabrics clung to the curves of the body, and gowns made of satin and with low-cut backs were popular. During the day, women wore form-fitting, knee-length suits. Shoulder pads, first used by Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, became the norm because they flattered the waistline. Fur stoles and collars as well as small hats embellished with feathers or floral details and worn at an angle were popular. Hair was worn longer but with curls at the nape of the neck.

By the 1920s, moving pictures had already become the most popular leisure activity in America. But Hollywood’s influence on fashion only increased during the Depression, when people regarded the movies as an escape from their problems. The movie industry, in turn, created a desire for the glamour and lifestyle of the rich portrayed on the big screen. Clothing retailers courted this influence by using photos of movie stars in their ads.

Costume Jewelry Styles

While many women could not afford to buy new clothes regularly, they could refresh and change the look of their outfits with accessories. Jewelry makers obliged by inventing new types of pieces. The dress clip became the most important jeweled accessory in the 1930s. Clips were often worn in pairs at the neckline or singly on jacket lapels, hats, purses and belts. Then the double-clip brooch was invented in France, for fine jewelry, and brought to America by Gaston Candas of Paris. He patented his invention in the U.S. in 1931; Coro bought the rights in 1933 and launched their first Duettes in 1935. This product was so successful that other companies started inventing their own devices for mounting separate clips on a single frame that could be worn as a brooch. The first double-clip brooches were designed with two pieces that were mirror images; in the 1940s, these pieces became asymmetrical and more three-dimensional.

Also in the 1930s, the baskets of fruit and flowers (known as fruit salads or tutti frutti) marketed by Cartier and other fine jewelers produced a wave of imitations among costume jewelry makers. Companies such as Coro, Trifari and Boucher, among others, produced lines of costume jewelry made with molded glass that imitated the Indian-carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds. In addition to fruit salads, the Art Deco style evolved to include Far East-inspired motifs with materials that imitated coral, mother-of-pearl, and carved jade.

More whimsical, imaginative jewelry was produced in this decade. One reason for this trend was the influence of Surrealism on designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli. The other reason was the increased use of inexpensive, colorful plastics. “Bakelite was well-suited to the chunky, heavy jewelry styles of the ‘30s. It could be laminated into geometric shapes (polka dots were a popular motif), set with rhinestones, clad or inlaid with metal, carved on a lathe, made into the shapes of animals, fruits, or other realistic figurals … Bracelets of all types – solid and hinged bangles, link, elastic “stretchies,” cuffs, and charm bracelets – brooches, dress clips, shoe clips, buckles, earrings, rings, necklaces, beads, and pendants were all made from Bakelite” (Christie Romero).

During this decade, the Art Deco style continued to evolve and later became known as Art Moderne or Streamline Modern. This change was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus School in Germany (1919 – 1933). Following their teachings, a group of industrial designers wanted to strip away all surface decoration from products and apply the principle of streamlining – originally developed to make planes, trains and automobiles go faster – to the design of everyday objects. In architecture, sharp angles were replaced with simple, aerodynamic curves; exotic woods and stone were replaced with concrete and glass. Other characteristics included a horizontal orientation to buildings as well as the extensive use of chrome hardware. This aesthetic was applied to costume jewelry, aided by innovative manufacturing techniques developed in Pforzheim, Germany, and later adopted by U.S. jewelry manufacturers. Among the makers of jewelry in this Machine Age style was Jakob Bengel.

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THE 1940s

Fashion Silhouette

By 1939, World War II had begun in Europe, and in 1941 the U.S. entered the conflict. Not surprisingly, the war years had significant effects on fashion and jewelry. With the influence of European fashion cut off by the war, American designers as well as Hollywood and its stars defined the style of the 1940s. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were the idols of the time, and American women emulated their style in clothing and accessories. For the first time, fashion reflected the American sporty, relaxed lifestyle instead of the elegance of French haute couture.

The war affected fashion in another significant way: government regulations set guidelines for domestic production and consumption, with restricted access to certain materials. These measures dictated the amount of fabric that could be used in a garment and prohibited nonessential details (such as ornamentation) and certain types of clothing (such as woolen wraps). “Everything was restricted, including pleats, the number of buttons, use of metal zippers, cuffs, yokes, and pockets” (Clothing Through American History: 1900 to the Present).

As with the previous war, women took men’s places in the workforce and participated in volunteer organizations. Daytime attire changed to masculine, well-tailored suits inspired by military uniforms, with straight, knee-length skirts and long, tight-fitting jackets with wide padded shoulders. Pants and culottes became acceptable wear for women everywhere, not just in sports activities, because so many rode bicycles to work. Dresses with fitted bodices and square, V, or round necklines were somewhat more feminine. For evening, the triangular silhouette of long dresses in the early 1940s, created by padded shoulders, narrow waist and flared skirt, eventually became the slim sheath, as fabric shortages caused skirts to become narrow.

Hair was longer and worn up during the day for safety reasons. Upswept styles included the French twist and the victory roll (created by curling and then rolling voluminous curls around the face). When worn down, the hair was generally parted on the side without bangs and curled into a page-boy at the base. Hats were an essential accessory that allowed women to make a fashion statement during these years of austerity. Various styles prevailed, including berets and broad-rimmed hats in the early years, then smaller styles as the war progressed.

In 1947, Paris regained the spotlight of world fashion when Christian Dior presented his New Look collection. It revived the image of the feminine, romantic woman. The slim, short skirts and padded shoulders that epitomized war-time austerity were replaced by a new silhouette: soft, sloping shoulders, uplifted tight bodices, slim waists, and mid-calf-length skirts either full (over multiple crinolines) or pencil thin (hugging the hips and legs). Women began to cut their hair shorter, arranging it with waves and curls close to the head as well as short bangs. Some hats that were fashionable during the war continued to be popular. New styles, including small hats worn on the side of the head and covered in a net veil, were introduced.

Costume Jewelry Styles

While clothing became more masculine, jewelry became more feminine. In addition to stylized flowers, birds and animals, popular motifs included buckles, bows, ribbons and fabric-like folds, drapes or pleats. Pieces with patriotic symbols and/or colors such as flags, eagles and military insignias were also worn. Themes from Native American and Aztec folklore as well as the Old West also found their way into jewelry designs. Some designers took inspiration from earlier styles, resulting in a Victorian Revival in the late 1930s to early 1940s. At the same time, Machine Age icons such as tank track and other repeating patterns were reinterpreted in yellow- and rose-gold finishes.

Bracelets were wide and three-dimensional in the early 1940s. Charms of personal significance became a way of expressing sentiment. Double-clip brooches continued to be popular, but the Art Deco version of geometric, symmetrical sets evolved into more three-dimensional, asymmetrical images. Clips continued to be worn at the neckline. Brooches were large and worn on shoulders of day and evening attire. Necklaces were typically worn high up on the neck. Linked bracelets and bangles were worn over gloves or on unadorned wrists. Large finger rings with square-edged stones and layered, stepped edges were popular.

The war years brought major changes to the jewelry industry itself. The precision equipment and skilled metal workers of many American jewelry manufacturing facilities were re-tooled for war-related production. The makers who continued with jewelry manufacture were faced with shortages of materials, and the pieces produced in the war years reflected this situation.

Sterling silver replaced base metals, which were restricted to war use. Pink-, green-, yellow- and rose-gold plating – often with multiple colors in the same piece – replaced rhodium. Seed pearls from the Gulf of California and imitation turquoise, coral and jade made from plastics were used to overcome the shortages in faux pearls, previously imported from Japan, and high-quality rhinestones from Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Other popular materials included wood, leather, Bakelite, Lucite, natural shells, plaster and ceramic. In 1940, Trifari invented the Jelly Belly to make use of an abundance of Lucite. In many pieces in this decade, metal was the predominant material: these tailored pieces were flat, flexible, and supple, in the form of snake chains, narrow links and woven mesh.

Despite these challenges, the costume jewelry industry in the U.S. blossomed during this time. The incredible design output is illustrated by the vast number of design patents issued. Sales reached an all-time high – with little clothing available, accessories had become all-important. By 1946, Providence, Rhode Island, was the costume jewelry capital of the U.S. The quality of costume pieces had climbed to new levels because many jewelers and craftsmen had switched to costume jewelry during the Depression and because many skilled workers fled the political situation in Europe for the U.S. Costume pieces were produced in all price ranges.

According to C. Jeanenne Bell, “Trifari, Krussman & Fishel was the style leader. Their jewelry was priced from $10 and up. R.M. Jordan was a leader in the medium-priced jewelry: $1 to $20. Monet was known for its tailored jewelry, and Forstner was the leading producer of the popular snake chains”.

Unfortunately, European jewelry manufacturers did not fare as well during the war years. At best, their production was halted; at worst, their factories were destroyed.

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THE 1950s

Fashion Silhouette

In the 1950s, the hourglass silhouette, introduced by Christian Dior’s New Look in 1947, continued to dominate women’s fashions. With its emphasis on the female figure, the style’s rounded shoulders, pointed bosom and nipped-in waist illustrated society’s expectation that a woman’s role was that of wife and mother. Evening wear featured full skirts (to further emphasize the small waist) or tight pencil skirts (to hug the waist and hips), and low necklines. The little black dress was still a popular evening uniform. Close-fitting suits with flared or pencil skirts, straight sheaths with jackets, or skirts with sweater sets were worn for business, luncheons, or shopping, while shirtwaist dresses and separates (skirts, slacks, sweaters and blouses) were appropriate casual attire.

Short hair with pin curls framing the face was popular in the 1950s as was long hair pulled back in a French twist or chignon (or ponytail for casual attire). Hats were an essential accessory for all activities outside the home. Many styles and trimmings were popular. The pillbox hat was introduced by Balenciaga early in the decade.

Costume Jewelry Styles

Jewelry was still as important an accessory as the matched shoes, handbag and gloves selected for an outfit. Tailored costume jewelry, one 1950s style, featured graceful and classic pieces, in gold or silver metal, often without stones. Gold-tone (more popular than silver) bangle bracelets, earrings and charm bracelets were essential parts of this wardrobe. Earrings and brooches were variations of the same shapes: spiky sprays, snowflakes, circles and floral and leaf motifs. Texture was emphasized, with metal replicating linen, embroidery and wicker in finishes such as Florentine and satin.

Thanks, in part, to Hollywood, costume jewels imitating precious ones were highly-desirable. These fabulous fakes meant that women of modest means could afford pieces that copied Marilyn Monroe’s “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” and Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s jewels.

Big brooches that accentuated the bodice, drippy bib necklaces to fill décolletage, massive chokers, wide bracelets and hair ornaments were all essential. Stones cut in fancy shapes that emphasized the flowing lines of the design were often combined with faux pearls. The baguette-cut gave the illusion of sweeping or trickling movement in swirls, loops and drapes. The all-diamond look, which had reigned supreme in the late 1940s, was replaced by color in jewelry by the mid-1950s.

By the late 1940s, the parure – a set consisting of a necklace, bracelet, earrings, and brooch, or two or three of these pieces – had regained popularity and reflected women’s preference for accessories that matched.

The simple strand of pearls remained supreme. After all, June Cleaver wore one every day on Leave It to Beaver. Pearls were relied on to complete an outfit for business or cocktail party and to dress up almost anything else. Along with strands of pearls, bead necklaces were also very popular in this decade. Beads were mottled, speckled, and flecked with streaks and dots of color, much like the tweed fabrics that were popular for daytime wear. Beads and faux pearls were now made in a wide range of colors.

Because rhinestone jewelry was in great demand, stone makers from Austria and Czechoslovakia developed new stone colors and what Julia Carroll calls specialty glass stones (i.e., “glass stones with special colors, textures, or composition”). Costume jewelry designers from this decade used these stones to great effect.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s pieces from the late 1940s-1950s, for example, featured large, unfoiled stones in unusual shapes; textured, iridescent lava rocks; and multi-colored stones faceted to form an eight-pointed star design. (These stones are called tourmalines; the faceting, dentelle. The pink/green combination is known as watermelon.)

In the same era, Schreiner produced pieces with amazing art glass stones as their focal point, along with ingenious color combinations. And one of the most important innovations of all was the debut of the aurora borealis stones, perfected by the Swarovski firm in Austria in 1955, which gave an iridescent-rainbow appearance to faceted glass beads and rhinestones.

Color was one of the most significant elements in 1950s jewelry. Innovative combinations included faux emeralds and sapphires, turquoise and blue, fuchsia and olive, purple and violet, and orange and yellow. New shades, such as Schiaparelli’s shocking pink, were introduced.

Another trend was the use of several shades of the same color in a single piece, such as shades of brown – topaz, light brown, citrine and caramel. Jewelry’s new palette also complemented the new, soft colors introduced in fashion: mauve, blue, lavender, peridot, yellow and gray. Then Balenciaga and Dior eschewed color and revived the 1930s trend of white.

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