A young woman in blue jeans stands before the jewelry counter gazing at a ruby ring she has slipped on her pinkie.
"I'm in love," she says. The source of her infatuation is not just the sparkler, but its price: $32.
Patrons of Impostors in Brea Mall can afford to flaunt gem-studded necklaces, bracelets and baubles because these hot rocks are fake. Imitation Tiffany, Cartier and Gucci jewelry that would cost thousands if genuine go for about $20 to $500 here.
Faux jewelry, once dismissed as gauche, has taken on a new luster.
Those who used to only dream of owning such trinkets are strutting around in opulent replicas befitting royalty. Others who can afford genuine gems are wearing fakes and keeping their real stuff socked away in safes.
Orange County socialites are heading out to holiday formals looking like characters out of "Dynasty" or "Dallas," their necks glittering with lavish necklaces, their earlobes weighed down with dazzling chandelier earrings. Whether the gems are real, only their jewelers know for sure.
A sure sign that costume jewelry has lost its stigma is the growth of Impostors, which has gone from three stores in 1987 to an anticipated 90 by the end of this year. In November, the chain opened a new store in MainPlace Mall, Santa Ana.
"It's a growing industry. I see this as becoming huge," says Bill Nandor, president of Impostors in San Francisco. "This lets women have the jewelry they've always wanted. It's like turning them loose in a candy store without calories."
Our Secret Creations in Beverly Hills, which once supplied fake jewels exclusively to movies and television, now also does a brisk business selling to the public.
"The business is literally exploding. Last year we did $7 million in sales, and we'll probably do $20 million next year," says Brian Reichenberg, general manager of Our Secret Creations.
The company has made pieces for numerous Hollywood productions, including "Dallas;" a TV movie, "The Queen of Mean," starring Suzanne Pleshette as Leona Helmsley; "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "Steel Magnolias."
"You try getting Joan Collins to wear a piece of jewelry she doesn't like," Reichenberg says. "Stars love this because it looks like the real McCoy."
Those who remember faux jewelry as plastic-looking stones glued onto cheap settings have not seen the latest copycats.
Better dealers carry synthetic stones set by hand in 14-karat gold or gold-plated settings that are often identical to the designs found in real jewelry stores.
"They won't turn your hand green," says Carol Perrilli, regional sales manager for Impostors.
Most fakes have cubic zirconia or Austrian crystals that are hand-cut just like diamonds.
"Unless you tell your friends, no one will know," Nandor says. "Even jewelers have a tough time."
Some people claim they can tell the difference between a genuine diamond and a cubic zirconia. Mary Ann Apodaca, manager of Impostors in the Brea Mall, often wears a diamond stud earring with a cubic zirconia, then asks the skeptics to choose the real one.
"Customers swear they can tell which is which, and they can't," she says. "They look exactly the same."
Among the hot faux styles are Art Deco repros, cubic zirconia tennis bracelets, any jewelry set in multicolored gems, elaborate brooches and animal bracelets.
Young couples on tight budgets are even buying cubic zirconia engagement rings.
"Rather than getting a diamond they can barely see, they can get something real nice," Perrilli says. Later they can replace the fake stone with a real one.
Most pieces sell at Impostors for $25 to $75. Replicas of Princess Diana's sapphire and diamond wedding ring are under $50. Re-creations of David Webb's animal bracelets sell for $200 to $400, instead of the $20,000 range. Imitation Cartier cats, another big seller, go for $90. Impostors sets the pins with tiny Austrian crystals in 18-karat gold plate over bronze.
For under $100, Impostors' Rolex replicas sell as fast as they come into the store.
Retailers must take care not to pass their merchandise off as the real thing. To stay within the law, they make slight changes in the designs and leave off names and logos.
"We always do things a little differently," says Monique Morel, manager for Kenneth Jay Lane in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.
Her store carries an array of look-alikes, including a pretender to a Chanel watch that sells for $85. Across the way, the real watch sells at the Chanel boutique for $1,250. Close scrutiny reveals a few differences between the two watches: The look-alike is plated with 14-karat gold instead of 18- karat gold, and it's missing a small sapphire crystal as well as the Chanel emblem.
"If you want the look, we have it for you, but we can't pretend we have the Chanel quality," Morel says. "If you go to the Chanel boutique and look at their leather chain belt, then come back here and compare it with ours, there may be just a little difference, but theirs might be $350 where ours is $65."