Costume Jewelry and Other Imitations, Where Did it all Begin?

Costume Jewelry

So where did costume jewelry get its start? And how did it get so big? After all imitation jewels or fakes have been around since the 18th century. But where did the term “Costume” come from? I’ve heard a couple different stories and both sound as if they could be true. But who knows? I certainly don’t have a clue to which one is true. Or maybe there are even more theories.

So let me tell you the ones I’ve heard and let you decide for yourself. Or drop me a comment if you have heard a different tale.

Costume Jewelry
The first theory I heard a few years ago has to do with William Hobè. The son of Jacques Hobé a French goldsmith and jeweler who founded Hobé Cie in 1887. In the story, William immigrated to New York in the early 1920’s. Hoping to begin his career out from underneath his father’s reputation. Wanting to make a name for himself much as his father had in France.

One of the first jobs the young man acquired after arriving in the states led to designing costumes. While working for Charles LeMaire, Hobè’s jewelry designs were used in Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. The story goes that during one of the productions Florenz Ziegfeld called out in a rush for Hobè’s creations. Referring to them as “Hobè’s costume jewelry” and supposedly the name stuck.

While Coco Chanel gets credit for coining the phrase in the other story. As she is said to have introduced her lines of “Costume Jewelry to Complete the Costume”. Or outfits of her fashion designs, which she often referred to as costumes.

While both of these claims ring with an air of truth. Which do you believe or do you have another theory to add?

The Imitation Jewels Which Came Before Costume Jewelry

Costume Jewelry
Even before 1724 jewelers were experimenting with imitations meant to fool the layman’s eye and produce the sparkle of a true gem. As nobles often requested copies of their prized jewels for fear of robbery by highwaymen who laid in wait.

By 1724 a French jeweler, Georges Frédéric Strass, stumbled on to a mixture of silica and metal salts. A wet mixture giving the cut glass jewels the name “Paste”. Once hardened and cut these Paste resemble fine jewels. Then polished to make the glass imitations refract light much in the same manner as rubies or emeralds. A feat that would earn the jeweler a handsome fortune in the Royal Courts of France.

During this same time period an English watchmaker, Christopher Pinchbeck, developed an alloy of metals to resemble gold. Although other attempts came before, others quickly lost their glean or tarnished. Yet Pinchbeck’s formula of copper and zinc succeeded where others had failed.

Pinchbeck’s discovery was a pivotal moment in imitation jewelry since gold less than 18 karats was strictly outlawed in the 18th century. Making even the less expensive jewelry of the day only available to someone of wealth.

As the 18 century progressed these two inventions allowed jewelers to at last create convincing imitation jewelry of color. Yet a convincing imitation diamond evaded Strass until the mid-1700’s. While both Strass and the Pinchbeck family openly admitted their creations were not genuine. By the turn of the century, public opinion turned against the inventions due to the actions of other unscrupulous scoundrels.

Around 1840 the ban on gold of lesser purities was lifted and the practice of rolling gold came to light. Permanently erasing Pinchbeck to all but the history books. Yet Paste and Rhinestones continued to evolve.

The Evolution of Swarovski Crystal in Costume Jewelry

Costume Jewelry
Starting out as an apprentice glass cutter in his fathers business, Daniel Swarovski would soon become the most successful producer of Rhinestones in the world.

In 1892 the young Swarovski invented and patented the electrical cutting machine for glass which revolutionized the industry. Then after securing financial backing. By impressing upon investors his vision of creating  “a diamond for everyone” by making crystal affordable. “A. Kosmann, D. Swarovski & Co” was formed in 1895.

Costume JewelryThrough innovation and expanding abilities, Swarovski managed to continue business through World War I. With only a short stoppage between 1914 and 1915. Then in 1918 as the war winded down Daniel looked to expand into the US.

Calling on a family friend Ernest Lowenstein to manage the US distribution. Swarovski’s crystals hit the market just as the American costume jewelry industry began to come into vogue. With names such as Trifari, Hobè, Corocraft, and Miriam Haskell being some of the top brands during the 1920’s.

The first half of the 20th century were uncertain times of feast to famine. And the 1930’s were incredibly hard. During the height of the Great Depression between 1932 and 1934 Swarovski was forced to close operations several times for short periods. But Daniel never gave up.

Then again in 1939 when World War II broke out. Luckily though, leading up to the conflict Swarovski’s US Distributor Ernest Lowenstein started stockpiling supplies. Thanks to this forethought the company was able to provide some symbolism of an ongoing business through the dark days of the war.

Costume Jewelry Comes of Age

Costume Jewelry
With the end of World War II and the start of the 1950’s Costume Jewelry comes into its own. After centuries of evolution and change the work of inventors such as Pinchbeck, Strass, and Swarovski has come full circle, While designers such as Coco Chanel, Alfred Philippe, and William Hobè have changed public perception.

No longer is costume jewelry looked down upon as fakes and cheap imitations. But rather it now fills every ladies jewel box and is worn by Starlets on the Red Carpet. While fashion designers drape their models in rhinestones as they walk the runways of Paris.

At the age of 93, Daniel Swarovski passes away in 1956. The same year Swarovski introduces the Aurora Borealis. While Rhode Island becomes the capital of the American Costume Jewelry industry.

So many factors had come together at this one specific time in history to create an empire from what was once thought of as cheap fakes peddled by crooks and scoundrels.

Events such as the Depression which forced many high-end jewelry designers to switch the materials of their trade. Just to survive due to the hardships of the economy. As well as the great war itself when master jewelers fled Europe to escape the Nazi regime.

So we may not know just who coined the phrase “Costume Jewelry for sure, but we do know it has had a long and wondrous history.

Bruce Barnwell
Owner of Estates in Time on Etsy

12 thoughts on “Costume Jewelry and Other Imitations, Where Did it all Begin?

  1. Darlene says:

    Whoever coined the phrase (I have always heard it was CoCo Chanel).…glad the jewelry designers around the mid-century seized the opportunity and ‘costume jewelry’ grew in popularity, giving us a chance today to own some of the finest examples of vintage costume jewelry!

    • Bruce Barnwell says:

      It very well could have been Coco, she was definitely responsible for the growth of its popularity. I don’t know but I have always liked the story about Hobè. LOL, I could just see a director running around backstage calling out for costumes to be worn in the next act LOL.

    • Bruce Barnwell says:

      Your very welcome Greg. But it’s just my take on the subject, I’m always interested in hearing what others have to say.

    • Bruce Barnwell says:

      Thanks, Carol-Ann I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. So what is your take? Who do you think coined the phrase “Costume Jewelry”?

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