Even if you're not a fashion maven, you're likely to recognize the name Coco Chanel. Coco Before Chanel was a well-received movie released in 2009, once again making Chanel a household word. Born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883, Coco Chanel became and remains an icon of fashion design. Particularly known for her famous Chanel suits, with boxy button up jackets and knee length skirts that are considered stylish to this day, Coco Chanel was also an integral figure in setting the stage for jewelry in the Roaring 20s; she not only made a more relaxed style for women and helped usher in the flapper era, she made rhinestone jewelry fashionable. Coco promoted suites of jewels, what would become known as 'parure grand sets', consisting of 4 to 8 matching pieces. With her influence rhinestone jewelry became an accepted fashion staple throughout the modern world.
More recently, Broadway star, Kristin Chenowith appeared at the show, “Stars Heart the Red Dress.” The opening night of fashion week found the star dressed in red and sporting heart shaped jewelry designed by Daniel Swarovski.
The word "Jewel" is actually a derivative of the French word "Jouel", referring to the royal table dressings favored in ancient France. Kings, Queens, and people of great wealth and political prominence wore fine, lacy jewels throughout the 18th and 19th century that were encrusted with the finest gems when they were in attendance at High Court parties.
In general, members of the royal courts of various countries often traveled long distances by coach; lockboxes of jewels and their valuables would travel with them. Robbery was commonplace, hence the term "highway robbery". Eventually the wealthy wised up and began to commission artisans to create replicas of their original jewelry. They would take these replicas to court. These imitations, specifically the stones, were referred to "paste". Paste was the process of using glass with a very high lead content to reflect and refract light mimicking a precious gem. This light "refraction" look was sought after and achieved when the backs of the stones were "foiled" with a copper or silver underlay. Paste work was as labor intensive and tedious as fine jewelry making, since the entire process was handcrafted. As a result even paste jewels could only be afforded by the wealthy. These imitation pieces can be just as valuable as fine jewelry to collectors.
Even though collecting antique jewelry of this variety is not reasonable for most, collecting vintage rhinestone jewelry can bring a bit of old fashioned glamour into your life. Beautiful brooches and earrings created from 1920s through the 1940s are highly collectible, and popular designers include Chanel, Coro, Trifari, Weiss, and Schiaparelli, as well as the ever-popular Swarovski; but before you start collecting let’s revisit a bit more history of rhinestone jewelry.