Vintage Jewellery 101: How to Start Your Costume Collection

We got the scoop on vintage finds and what you should look for when starting a collection of your own!

1960s jaguar necklace

1960s jaguar panel necklace; image courtesy of Magwood

“I only like fake jewellery,” Coco Chanel famously declared. She was onto something when she claimed cheap as chic and started introducing couture clientele to costume jewellery; her faux jewels have remained a timeless trend and some of the most coveted vintage finds amongst big name brands such as Schiaparelli, Trifari, and Schreiner. These statement pieces, made from inexpensive material such as metal, plastic and glass, were not intended to last more than a season or two, yet they have continued to make their way into the jewellery boxes of collectors and fashion denizens who acknowledge their surprising quality and alluring sparkle. From the glitzy Gatsby gems of the 1920s to the colourful and chunky beads of the 1980s, costume jewellery has not only allowed for guilt-free glamour over the years but has become as sought-after as its real counterparts.

So, how do you know which of your grandmother’s trinkets are treasures, or what to look for on your jaunts to the local thrift store? Eve Townsend, a graduate student (MA, Fashion) at Toronto’s Ryerson University and a former employee of the famed Canadian costume jeweller, Carole Tanenbaum (whose vast collection of vintage costume jewellery consists of 20,000+ pieces and is carried by Holt Renfrew), shared with FLARE some hints to help those on the hunt.

Eve Townsend will be at vintage boutique Magwood (886 Queen Street West) in Toronto this Thursday, November 28th from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. where you can have your costume jewellery assessed by Eve herself.

FLARE: When did costume jewellery start becoming popular?

ET: Coco Chanel sort-of coined the term ‘costume jewellery,’ but when I discuss the history of costume jewellery, I like to start at the Victorian era because Queen Victoria wore fashionable pieces as well as fine jewellery. She wore a lot of things that were not precious or made from precious material, but were personal mementos that she cherished. In terms of when vintage costume jewellery became a collectable, that really began in the 1980s when there was a renewed interest in costume jewellery and its origins.

Rhinestone and crystal bracelets from the 1920s to the 1980s; image courtesy of Magwood

Rhinestone and crystal bracelets from the 1920s to the 1980s;
image courtesy of Magwood

FLARE: What are some of the popular name brands and how do you identify them?

ET: There are many big names from different eras, they include: Schiaparelli, Trifari, Miriam Haskell, or the Schreiner Jewellery Company, which is one of my favourites. Chanel really retains its value, but there are many makers that are valuable.  I think a really good tip, as any seasoned costume jewellery collector will tell you, is that the back of a piece of costume jewellery can tell you as much as the front—perhaps even more. The back of the piece is going to tell you how the piece is constructed, how it’s being held together and it is also where you will find any indications of a makers mark. In terms of characteristics, pieces that are not signed but are instantly recognizable are pieces from the art deco era. These pieces are really timeless and remain popular today because their geometric forms are classic. They tend to be mostly unsigned; they might have a country stamped on them but jewellery really didn’t start to be signed until after World War II.

FLARE: What trends do you see in jewellery nowadays that reflects past designs?

ET: We have been seeing a lot of ’80s in the past several collections and I think that’s what we’ll be seeing more of in costume jewellery now.

Assorted mid-century rings, including a 10k gold Birks cameo ring; image courtesy of Magwood

Assorted mid-century rings, including a 10k gold Birks cameo ring;
image courtesy of Magwood

FLARE: What are the benefits of choosing vintage costume jewellery over modern costume jewellery?

ET: I think that there is a difference in how pieces were made back then. Costume jewellery has historically been very democratic and available to the masses but many of the names I have listed were crafted by hand and hand-set—you don’t see that in affordable costume jewellery today. You might see some of those handcrafted techniques in contemporary couture costume pieces, but a lot of it is mass-produced and really doesn’t have that personal touch; I think when you’re buying vintage, you are buying quality.

FLARE: Tips for evaluating your vintage costume jewellery finds?

ET: Condition, quality of design and construction is very important. You really base a piece on what the cut glass or crystal is like; you want to have them very clear and not foggy and minimal wear is always a factor. Reproductions are hard to distinguish; that’s really about how the piece feels in your hand as well about putting in the time to look over and study pieces. I think if you are really interested in collecting, there are wonderful books out there that are an incredible resource for training your eye. They will give you tips of what to look for, so that if you do happen to luckily run into one of those pieces, you’ll know what it is and have a better sense of what you should be paying for. I think at the beginning we all get sort of wowed by the sparkle and don’t really know what its worth and while you might luck out, you also might end up paying more than you should.

1980s sculptural earrings that were purchased by Marina Abramović; image courtesy of Magwood

1980s sculptural earrings that were purchased by Marina Abramović;
image courtesy of Magwood

FLARE: Books to recommend?

ET: Costume Jewellery (Judith Miller), The Official Price Guide to Costume Jewelry (Harice Simmons Miller), Jewels of Fantasy (Deanna Farneti Cera), and Carole Tanenbaum’s Fabulous Fakes shows an incredible selection of her jewellery and has exquisite examples of the best of the best.

FLARE: What are good pieces to start collecting?

ET: People should buy what they love. When you’re looking through jewellery, look for pieces that fit into your wardrobe and your own personal style. I think the interesting thing about costume jewellery is that you are buying a piece that you’re not going to see on everybody else and it’s nice to have a hint of history in your wardrobe.