Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vintage Rhinestone Jewelry: How It Originated with Links For Further Research

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.

Czechoslovakian or Bohemian Glass

Created as early as the 13th century in Bohemia and the Czech Republic, originally rhinestones where referred to as Czechoslovakian or Bohemian glass. Both countries have a history of outstanding hand blown glass, as well as molded and cut glass. Rhinestones are manmade from highly refined glass. Various metals were used to color the glass to a desired shade. The glass was then pressed into molds before being ground and polished into a brilliant “stone”. Eventually the stones were foiled on the back to increase their brilliance. 

In 1891 Daniel Swarovski created a new glass-cutting machine, literally revolutionizing jewelry making. The machine cut faceted glass, producing a finished product in a short time. Swarovski’s background in glass making, combined with his glass cutting machine, allowed him to produce rhinestones with a lead content of over 30%. The brilliance of these rhinestones was superior to anything previously created. Swarovski then created vacuum plating to foil the backs of the stones with silver and gold reducing the need for hand labor, once again transforming the jewelry industry. Over 80% of rhinestone jewelry currently manufactured in America uses Swarovski rhinestones.

The 1890s was a time for extravagant jewelry heavily adorned with rhinestones.  Eventually jewelry designs became simpler, and figural shapes, smaller and more elegant, made a fashion statement with their rhinestone accents. Around 1918 Czechoslovakian glass began to make its appearance as jewelry. This strain of Czech glass became known as rhinestones. Since that time rhinestones have played an important role in fashion. During the Victorian period common motifs for jewelry included snakes, flowers, and hands, often adorned with rhinestones. During the Edwardian period extravagance made a comeback with diamonds and pearls being the focal point, and although they never completely disappeared it was a while until rhinestones once again became popular.

During the 1920s fashions changed quickly. Dresses became looser and less restraining. Two distinct styles occurred during this era – the feminine style and the androgynous style. American jewelry from the 1920s obviously drew on the Art Deco period. Up until this time the majority of rhinestone jewelry had been made with clear rhinestones; as the 1920s progressed jewelry again became more dramatic in color and style.

During the 1930s the Depression changed everything.  Inexpensive rhinestone jewelry could be used to revitalize an old outfit and bring a little sparkle to hard times. The industry began to produce bright colored enamel pieces accented with rhinestones. Dogs, birds, and cats with a rhinestone eye were common. The jewelry of the 1940s once again became big and bold and large stones set on bold settings became the norm.

The 1950s could almost be considered the Golden Age of rhinestone jewelry.  During this era rhinestone jewelry makers were able to copy write their designs, solidifying the art of jewelry making as an "art form". There were two distinct styles – elegant and sophisticated for the more mature woman, casual and fun for the younger woman.  Rhinestone parures again became popular. In 1953 the aurora borealis rhinestone was introduced to the market and was an immediate sensation.

In the early 1960s women were still wearing functional clothing, but the late 1960s gave rise to hippie fashions with their roots tied to Mother Nature. Tie-dyed shirts, long flowing skirts, and frayed jeans were everywhere. Bohemian comes to mind, but this generation had little interest in rhinestone jewelry. In the late '70s the punk look was born and the rhinestone was once again revitalized. Since then rhinestones have remained mainstream in the jewelry world.

Czech Machine Cut Rhinestones

As previously mentioned, a majority of rhinestone jewelry manufactured in America makes use of Swarovski rhinestones. There are a number of collectors who prefer Czech machine cut rhinestones. These lead crystal rhinestones generally have 8 facets. At distances, these stones flash brighter than do Swarovski, and because of great presence and lower cost, are favorites of many costumers.  Czech rhinestones are known to have a quality quite comparable to Swarovski and are often preferred because they are less expensive without a noticeable quality difference.

Collecting Vintage Jewelry

You don't have to be an antique dealer or a fashionista to collect vintage jewelry. Good advice for any type of collector is: if you like it, buy it. Vintage pieces can be found at tag sales, estate auctions, on E-bay, or from other collectors. Vintage jewelry has become quite popular and the Internet is an invaluable resource for finding pieces as well as educating yourself about styles and collectiblity.

Amazing Adornments (www.amazingadornments.com/Collecting.htm) is a good place to start. This website offers solid advice on collecting and identifying vintage pieces.  They also offer items for sale that run the gamut of designers, from older collectibles like Trifari or Weiss to modern designers such as Vera Wang or Oscar de la Renta.

Another wonderfully informative website focused on collecting vintage jewelry is Illusion Jewels (www.illusionjewels.com). Most artisans marked their jewelry in some fashion, and it was not uncommon for designers to have more than one "mark".  Illusion Jewels is a thoroughly researched, comprehensive website for jewelry history, jewelry marks, and signatures.

One of the largest current sellers of costume jewelry in the United Sates is arguably Avon. The company began as the California Perfume Company (CPC). Started by David H. McConnell in 1886, within a year there were twelve saleswomen selling perfume and toiletries door to door.  The company quickly grew and in January of 1929 the Avon Company was born with the introduction of the Avon line.

"Avon Calling" became the firms slogan and their products were sold directly to homes by Avon representatives. Visit Avon Collectable Jewelry for comprehensive introduction to Avon's vintage jewelry (http://antiques.lovetoknow.com/Avon_Collectable_Jewelry)

Finally, a quick guide to dating vintage and antique jewelry can be found at the popular blogspot, Collecting Vintage Jewelry (http://collectingvintagejewelry.blogspot.com/2008/12/quick-guide-to-dating-vintage-and.html).

As with any personal interest, the more we know about what we collect, the more we can enjoy it. Whether you find your vintage jewelry on E-Bay, at an estate sale, or in your grandmother's jewelry box, or perhaps decide to start with more modern pieces, making a personal statement with a unique piece of jewelry is always in style.


Glam For Less, http://www.glamforless.com/History.htm
Amazing Adornments, www.amazingadornments.com/Collecting.htm
Illusion Jewels, www.illusionjewels.com/costumejewelrymarkscoro.html

Photo Credits:
Amazing Adornments, Illusion Jewels