The history of jewelry - Throughout time - man (and woman) has sought to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Even animals will preen and parade around in a mating ritual. It is a natural occurrence for both man and beast.
Early man decorated himself with whatever available - sometimes seashells on a string, fish bones or even animal claws. The documented examples of “jewelry" can be dated back to around 20,000 BC. Man used whatever might make him stand out. We are not much different - only our available ornaments are much better and more diverse.
Jewelry has had many roles throughout the years - during the various periods it has always been used to establish a certain stature in society. It has also been used as religious offerings, decorations for the church and clergy, certain stones have been deemed able to ward off disease and ill fortune. Jewelry has played many roles throughout mankind’s existence. Quite honestly, it still does. What young executive on the rise does not want to sport a Rolex or other show of success? Yes, jewelry still plays a major part in our society and will continue to do so.
The history of “costume" jewelry - History of many sources credit Coco Chanel (born in 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel) as being the first to introduce costume jewelry as an acceptable accessory. In 1910 she opened a hat shop (in France) and in 1913 she began designing and making dresses. In 1919, she opened a fashion house where a lady might go and be decked out from head to foot with clothing and all accessories - including “real" and beautiful costume jewelry! This wonderful lady also developed and released her ever popular Chanel No. 5 Perfume in @1923. When World War II was imminent - she retired (@1939) but came out of retirement in 1954 to once again dominant the fashion world. She left us a wonderful legacy when she passed in 1971.
Many years ago the Ziegfield Follies was an extraordinary show. Acts and ladies attired in costumes glittering in rhinestones parading around (much like what you would expect to see now at a Los Vegas Show). The use of these highly decorated costumes and accessories did wonders for the acceptance of glittery jewelry. As the demand for new and better costumes grew - it helped several jewelry companies flourish and grow. My research tells me that Hobe was a major contributor and supplier for the Follies. It was a good choice - Hobe designed and manufactured some outstanding piePrior to this development - costume jewelry was mostly known as fake or imitation jewelry. The people designing and selling were not considered true craftsmen. The Follies helped the industry gain a certain amount of acceptance.
Probably the biggest major development was Hollywood. As more and more stars began wearing these extravagant pieces in their films - the average person developed a desire for them. The developments in manufacturing costume jewelry had made it much cheaper and affordable for the average person now. You could go to the movies and see your favorite star and leave the movie house and head to the department store and purchase a similar piece. You too could look just like Elizabeth Taylor! Well, almost look like Elizabeth Taylor.
Back during these time periods - the average person was not well traveled. Many never traveled over a hundred miles from where they were born but - we had Hollywood and the movies to show us what was stylish. We could see what the beautiful people were wearing and we wanted to be beautiful people too!
Costume jewelry was developed many years ago. Originally, it was still hand made - often times still set in gold. The only difference would be the stones or jewels. As far back in time as 3500 BC - craftsmen discovered that gold could be heated, hammered and shaped quite easily. Silver, copper and bronze metals were also used during this era.
In the era of kingdoms and holding court - a certain standard of opulence was expected. Gems were very expensive! Labor was not a concern. If it took weeks to fashion a stone by hand - then so be it. Jewelers could be commissioned to produce these pieces for a fraction of the cost of real gems. Traveling with very valuable jewelry was not a good idea. The distance between kingdoms was often long and treacherous.
The story of Robin Hood comes to mind. I don’t think there was a lot of giving to the poor going on but I do believe a rich, gold and jewelry laden coach and entourage might find themselves suddenly surrounded by robbers and stripped of their valuables. Hence, the courtiers still needed the flashy accessories demanded by their station but who could afford to replenish such expensive treasures?
Poor kingdoms that could not afford actual gems still had to project a certain image - an industry was born! This jewelry was still well made, still beautiful and often times was much more labor intensive because of fashioning and working the raw materials into a shiny replica of the original.
As discussed earlier - true gems were expensive and hard to acquire. An alternative was needed. How to imitate the luster and brilliance of fine diamonds and gems? Finally, a process was developed where glass was ground down into a powder. It could then be colored to simulate other gems or left uncolored to for the diamond effect. It was then placed in a mold and the kiln fired. The hardened “paste" could then be cut and shaped and polished into an acceptable replica.
Countless hours were spent on these new gems but labor was cheap and many a cottage industry supplemented their meager incomes by producing these simulated treasures.
This method or “paste" was perfected by George Strass (1701 -1773). Mr. Strass developed a glittering paste made from ground lead glass, potassium and other additives that could be used to replicate different transparent stones. This mixture brought a certain brilliance and capability to refract the available light not seen before in simulated gems! He also developed formulas (by adding metal oxides and certain salts) to produce the different colors needed to simulate many of the other rare and valuable gemstones of the day. In honor of Mr. Strass - this method and resulting replicas were often called “Strass" or “Strass Glass". This was surely a milestone in the history of our present day treasures.
My favorite contributor to the evolvement of our modern day costume jewelry was/is Daniel Swarovski. Mister Swarovski was born in Austria and into the “business". He followed his father in this trade but he was not content with the slow tedious process of producing these stones. After almost a decade of research and trial and error - Daniel managed to produce a machine that could cut this crystal (leaded glass) with more accuracy and precision than local craftsman could ever hope to achieve. A wonderful side benefit was that not only could these stones be cut more precisely but also could be produced far faster.
Instead of days or even weeks to create the best possible stone - it could be reduced into a matter of minutes or less! Daniel Swarovski had made a major accomplishment but yet he was not satisfied. He was still dependent on suppliers for quality crystal for his process so - he began to experiment and finally developed his own recipe for fine crystal glass that had a very high lead content. This particular recipe seemed to give the perfect facet and refraction combination.
What else could one man possibly do to revolutionize his industry? What else was left? Well, there was one thing that bogged the process down quite a bit. The stones were produced at what was considered lightening speed but - quite frequently these new stones had to have a foil backing applied. Here comes the bottleneck. What does it matter if you can produce a thousand stones a day but can only apply backing to fifty? So, here comes Daniel Swarovski to the forefront once more. He developed a means and method to vacuum plate the back of his stones with foil by machine thereby eliminating another costly and time consuming step in the production of his superior stones. Daniel could now produce many stones all in one process! Seldom has any one person done so much for his chosen field and I do have a great admiration for his abilities and ingenuity.
Swarovski stones are widely used here in the US and dominate the market. You may also hear them referred to as Austrian Crystals. His legacy still lives on and the company is alive and flourishing. In 1985, they began producing their own creations and marketing them. Currently, their designer marking is a swan and I suspect they will become highly collectable. We have the good fortune to have several pieces and they are a delight.
In @1953 - the process for creating the ever popular aurora borealis rhinestones was perfected. They are often abbreviated and called simply AB stones. This name is credited for the stones resemblance to the awesome Northern Lights displays. I cannot disagree with the analogy - simply amazing! This stone has had a very thin metal coating applied to the surface and this has an outstanding effect. Almost holographic, the stone changes color as the light changes or movement occurs. History credits this development to guess which company? Swarovski of course, with assistance duly noted from Christian Dior. These stones are widely used for some awesome results.
In 1954 - the copyright law for/applying to costume jewelry designs was passed. This was a major event in that it gave not only certain rights to the jewelry companies but also lent a certain validation to their products and efforts. No longer was costume jewelry an also ran but a thriving industry with all the rights and recognition of any industry. Costume jewelry has officially arrived!
The birth of your vintage jewelry - What had to happen for this lovely piece of art you now have in your possession to arrive? Here is one example - of course it might vary according to the article, style and time frame. Many years ago a designer came up with the idea. He painstakingly drew it out and then decided what stones and color he thought best. After many hours of checking and comparing - he would finish his final drawing. Then the drawing and specifications would go to the craftsmen that would seek to make it happen. They would spend hours on end crafting this original mold or model. Then, after they and the designer was satisfied - the mold was poured with a base metal. Then the molded piece was removed and trimmed of any excess metal and hand polished and buffed to a shiny creation. Once this step was satisfactorily completed - then the piece was ready for it’s plating or finish. Usually, a good copper plating was applied for a sealant and bonding agent. Next, nickel plating was done for that smooth, shiny surface. Finally, after all this - we must begin the electroplating process where the final coating of gold, silver or rhodium was delivered.
Electroplating is the process of putting a metallic coating on a metal or other conducting surface by using an electric current. It is intended to improve the appearance of materials and for protection against corrosion. The item to be plated is thoroughly cleaned by dipping it in acid and alkaline cleaning solutions. Then put in a solution of the metal with which you desire to coat or plate the item. The metal in solution exists in the form of positive ions which are atoms that have lost one or more electrons. The item is then connected to the cathode or negative end of a source of the electric current. The anode or positive electric terminal or end is then connected to another conductor which is also placed in the solution.
The current flowing through acts on the metallic ions in the solution. The ions are attracted to the cathode side, and the coating is deposited on the item’s metallic surface. Of course, after each process the item must be cleaned and polished. At last, the piece is sent to the stone setter where he would hand set the stones. Of course, this would vary in difficulty depending on whether the stones were prong set, glued, dogtooth set, bezel set or even caged. Often, a piece might have several types of settings. Quite a trip for what quite often is still called fake jewelry!
We hope you enjoyed this article and will soon be publishing more on our passion - vintage costume jewelry. We invite you to visit our website for more information on how to find these wonderful pieces of art at yard sales, donation centers and elsewhere - how to care for and properly store - how to date your treasures and much more. Come visit us and share our passion at: http://www.the-vintage-jewelry-advisor.com
Kathryn and Richard Baird - passionate collectors of vintage costume jewelry. Help us save and preserve these treasures. Come and join us in one of the most highly collectable and still readily available fields today.