When you think of costumes do you envision someone in a fluffy red wig, red nose and shoes the size of a Lincoln Continental? Odds are your mind doesn’t immediately drift to costume jewelry. You would if you’ve been watching the market. Say “costume” and my mind conjures up images with a bit more sparkle in the form of rhinestones and pot metal: “costume jewelry” signed by the likes of Trifari, Coro and Napier.
Costume jewelry was relegated to the lowly role of poor stepchild for those who could not afford “real” jewelry way back when.
Then a funny thing happened. Along came funky, along came eclectic, and all of a sudden the poor stepchild started looking different to those who had once scoffed at her. Yes, somewhere along the line, the concept of costume jewelry changed, and today it continues to grow and be a sought-after collectible in its own right. While “real” jewelry may have more intrinsic value, and hold its value, because of the stones and jewels involved, costume jewelry has become valuable for its unique nature, trendy style and nostalgic feel.
So what happened to make it so sought after? It’s difficult to tell when or how, but what happened was that this knock- off jewelry became respected. Just as worn-out jeans from the ‘70s became coveted items in many parts of Europe in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and again by American high schoolers a decade later, American dealers are finding that collectors, particularly those abroad, are willing to pay above-average prices for what we once considered look-alike or trendy jewelry. The stuff parents once gave their children to play dress-up with while they, the parent, slipped on the real thing to go with the haute couture of the evening, designed for a special night out.
While costume jewelry is a collectible in its own right nowadays, the fact that jewelry is a knock off, does not, in and of itself, make it a collectible. So, how does the average person know what is collectible? As with any collectible, what one person deems special may not be special to another person. Jane Smith may collect the chunky, primary colored beaded bracelets of the ‘70s, while Sandy Brown has drawers full of rhinestones. It’s a personal choice thing.
In terms of overall value, there are general trends, however. The most obvious sign is a signature on the back of the piece by the designer. Typically names you’ll spot include Schiaparelli, Napier, Marvella, Chane. I recently found a Trifari pin listed in a price guide for over $2,000.
In addition to the signature, you can sometimes tell by the light “tone” of the piece. Some costume jewelry stayed true to form as a knock off, following the pattern of the original in all points but the actual jewels involved. More often, designers departed from the standards with costume jewelry; they took chances with their creations and let their emotional and creative sides run wild. You’ll find a lot of Bakelite, animal figures and baskets in rhinestones of various colors. In some ways, costume jewelry is just as the name implies—whimsical. Floral arrangements, wild, plumed birds—everything was fair game.
The design itself is another clue. So much from the ‘60s and 70s is easy to identify just by the shape and contour of the metal. The best way to get to know the difference is to put the pieces side by side and make your own observations. As with any collectible, the eye becomes more trained the more you flex the muscle.
This surge in the popularity of costume jewelry caught even the experts by surprise. When Harris Simons Miller, author and authority on the subject of costume jewelry, went to Europe one year, she had already written an identification and price guide on costume jewelry. She took her wares with her, thinking she’d sell the pieces, but not knowing she’d actually be sought after for her items. She came back to the United States knowing Europeans had grown hungry for many of the costume jewelry piece we Americans still consider “cute” but not necessarily worth spending your butter money on. She has since put out an updated guide, along with her findings on the increased popularity of this jewelry collectible.
So, those lucky enough to have fallen in love with Donna Karen’s dramatic body jewelry of the ‘70s, and smart enough to have held onto that jewelry, now have a decent collectible on their hands, figuratively and literally. And here’s where the increased value comes into play. Most who bought signed pieces of costume jewelry and the trendy designer pieces of the ‘60s or ‘70s, either discarded it as trends changed, traded up to “real jewelry” or passed the pieces on to other relatives. So, the law of supply and demand has taken over. Value has been added to the collectible just by virtue of scarcity of certain designs.
Despite the surge in prices worldwide, a collector can find great values at flea markets and auctions where jewelry is often lumped together in lots. I’ve gotten some of my best buys at a local auction. At yard sales, the early bird gets the bargain, but with auctions, it’s usually the person with the stamina to wait it out who walks away with the best stuff.
At one jewelry auction, held every Monday at an old barn, a group of about a dozen regulars gathers around three jewelry cases. Most of the items are on Styrofoam trays, and are sold by the tray. As with every auction, I’ve had some days where I’ve literally walked away with two or three grocery bags full of jewelry for $1 a tray. In those lots I’ve found Masonic pins, war medals, rhinestone necklaces, class rings, and scores of clip on earrings, many signed by famous designers. The lots have the look of “clean outs” where a wholesaler has come in gathered up whatever the family threw together or was forced to sell to split up an estate, and then put it up for auction. So these are not leftovers necessarily.
Most don’t want the ornate clip on earrings with odd strands of beading—signed or not. That leaves about a handful of people who recognize the growing nature of the market, and who buy not necessarily because it is something they will wear, but because it has a name they know they can sell.
Every auction house handles this differently, so you need to investigate before you bid. One auction house I haunted was great for general items, but terrible for buying jewelry.
The auctioneer has a simultaneous auction of jewelry and goods. He keeps the pieces in locked cases and sells things one at a time. Then at the end, he lumps things into piles. He breaks up the earring sets, putting one earring in each lot so that the buyer has to buy two lots instead of one. If you’re buying to resell, you can get stuck with many things you don’t want.
At yet another auction house (all are weekly, by the way), I’ve bought bags of jewelry, sight unseen, for about $5 a bag. If you have children or grandchildren, digging through bags and jewelry and sorting the objects can be an adventure in and of itself. Take the bag home, empty it out and let them sort things. Most of the stuff has been sitting in someone’s jewelry box for a decade, so it’s pretty dirty. Let the kids wash the plain chains or cheap, beaded materials in warm, soapy water. Give them the truly worthless beads to restring and make treasures for themselves.
Beyond the adventure end of all of this, is the possibility of it turning into a collectible. If you have an affinity for jewelry, and have concentrated on the best pieces of gold, silver and precious stones because you believe it will hold its value better, rethink the plan. All that glitters may not make the traditional jeweler raise an eyebrow, but with costume jewelry, glitter can cause a spark for the buyer.