Check out any of Orange County's black-tie dinners and balls, and you'll see women wearing eye-popping emeralds and dazzling diamonds. But unless you bring a jeweler's loop and peer closely at your fellow guests' glittering rings and pendants, you'll never know which jewelry is fake.
"There's a lot of cut glass in Orange County," says the manager of an upscale jewelry store. Her tone suggests women might as well go to a ball wearing plastic rings from a gum-ball machine.
Jewelers have reason to be a little miffed. Look-alikes of fine jewelry have become so realistic, even people who can afford the genuine goods are sporting faux.
There is a big difference between look-alikes and knockoffs: Manufacturing or selling knockoffs is illegal because they try to pass for costlier, brand-name items, such as Chanel earrings or Gucci watches.
Legal look-alikes imitate a style but don't sport another label's name. Those who covet the look of a Tiffany, Cartier or Bulgari piece can have a great pretender without the brand logo and save thousands of dollars.
Put a high-quality cubic zirconia into a 14-karat gold setting, and it can be impossible to tell it from a diamond ring.
Joyce King, owner of Fabulous Faux Jewelry in Newport Beach, has a client list of 6,000 people in Southern California, most of them from Orange County, who regularly buy her imitation jewelry. They all want to fool their friends with the fakes, and King protects their identities the way a jeweler protects his diamonds.
"People who wear [fakes] already have the real thing, but they leave it in the bank. They're afraid to lose it," King says.
They can easily pass off the fakes as real because their friends know they own fine jewelry.
"People can never tell when I'm wearing my real jewelry and when I'm wearing my fakes because I mix them," King says.
No one dares ask which of the sparkling baubles on her neck, fingers and wrists are real. On this day, she wears a large diamond pendant at her throat, bejeweled gold bracelets and diamond-encrusted rings. Which are the fakes?
"They all are," she says.
King and other faux-jewelry dealers are careful to call their pieces look-alikes.
"We don't use the word 'copy,' " King says. Often there are subtle differences in the design of the pieces, but to an untrained eye they can look identical to the originals.
King's 14-karat gold Cartier-inspired bracelet with channel-set cubic zirconias in place of diamonds is $700. That's not cheap, but it would sell for more than $10,000 if those rocks were real.
To look authentic, the fakes have to be high quality. Most of King's pieces are made of 14-karat gold or gold layered over sterling. They are set with cubic zirconias hand-cut just like diamonds out of high-grade material.
"The cheaper ones cloud up," King says. "Ours never change color."
People can spend hundreds on a well-made fake, or they can buy a fun piece for under $20.
"You get what you pay for," says Lloyd Baron, owner of Lloyd Baron Jewelry and Accessories in Huntington Beach.
Baron sells her wares at charity events throughout Orange County, including the Orange County Philharmonic House of Design and the upcoming Oaks Classic at the Oaks in San Juan Capistrano.
The inexpensive fakes have thin gold plating that will eventually wear off. They're not designed for everyday use, but they're perfect for wowing the crowd at parties.
"People ask me how long a piece will last and I'll say, 'Well, it's a $15 gold pin,' " Baron says.
Among her lower-priced look-alikes: a cross-shaped, gold-plated pendant inspired by the Paloma Picasso jewelry collection at Tiffany ($20), a pave crystal heart ($25) and a Cartier "gold" panther ($18).
There are even look-alikes of pricey costume jewelry.
Baron has a rhinestone-studded frog pin ($30), inspired by a Carolee design, a Swarovski-like dog pin ($45) and Christian Dior-style crystal pave earrings ($36). The real ones cost two to three times her price. Pieces made of more fine materials are more, such as the tennis bracelet made of gold layered over sterling and set with cubic zirconias ($120).
"At no time do I tell people these are the same at the originals. There are some differences," Baron says.
To pass off fakes as real, Jana Walker--manager of Impostors, a faux jewelry store in MainPlace/Santa Ana--says: "Stay with what's believable."
Don't wear something that looks like it belongs with the crown jewels if the rest of your jewelry has microscopic gems.
Impostors sells imitation Cartier, Tiffany, Bulgari and other fakes, all in either 18-karat gold overlay or 14-karat gold. A Cartier-style black panther necklace sells for $95.
"Sometimes I'll tell a customer, 'Don't get a big four-carat ring if you're 25 and you live in an apartment. No one will believe you can afford it,' " Walker says. "But I did have one lady buy a four-carat ring, and she could pull it off because she already had nice jewelry."
Some couples are buying engagement rings with cubic zirconias in a 14-karat gold setting. That way, they can spend $250 to $300 for a ring and later pop in a diamond when they have the money.
"They'd rather have a one-carat CZ [cubic zirconia] than a real diamond so small you need a loop to see it," Walker says. "They don't care if it's real. They just want it big."