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The gilded age of costume jewelry

High-end baubles from the '20s to the '70s are finding new fans. Mom wore them, and now daughter does too.

May 03, 2009|Susan Carpenter

The unadorned room that serves as the entrance to V Vintage is the ultimate fake-out. Take a few steps into this second-floor office-turned-boutique, hang a right through a white door -- and prepare to put on your sunglasses.

The jewelry is almost blinding.

Ringing the pale pink walls of this little jewel box of a shop are shelves full of thick gold chains that are, by turns, knotted, braided and linked. Bejeweled with overgrown teardrops and hearts sized almost to scale, they're examples of the outrageous, over-the-top adornment that represents the best of the best in costume jewelry, from Lanvin and Mimi di N to Panetta, Chanel and Dior.

On a recent weekday, Jill Garland was sampling some of her own merchandise. A large golden necklace festooned with geometric plates collared her slim neck. An ornate hinged bangle from Kenneth Jay Lane clasped her left wrist. A living model for some of the 300 pieces she sells from her discreet Beverly Hills shop, Garland is the co-founder of V Vintage -- a boutique that's been selling bedazzled baubles of the faux, but first, order for about a year.

Though business isn't exactly booming, Garland says it's remained fairly steady despite the country's economic free fall. Costume jewelry, it seems, is dovetailing with larger societal trends -- to spend less money, but spend it on items that are high-quality, long-lasting, nostalgic, unique and green -- as in recycled. It's also the natural consequence of diminishing first-run clothing sales.

"People are not spending a lot of money on clothes. Everything looks the same anyway. The designs you have in Saks are at H&M a week later and at Forever 21 a week after that, so when you're accessorizing with something unique like vintage jewelry, you complete your look but you don't feel generic," said Garland, who sells mostly signed pieces (with a stamp on the back) in the $200 to $2,000 price range.

For those prices, all that glitters in Garland's shop clearly is not gold. What appears to be the $900-per-ounce precious metal is mostly gilded silver. The sparkly "diamonds?" Rhinestones. The "turquoise"? Baked enamel. "Costume" jewelry is just a polite way of saying "fake." It's jewelry that does not contain precious metals or stones, though much of it is, nevertheless, dazzling. It's also a lot less expensive than buying fine (read: real) jewelry at retail prices.

Costume jewelry is still manufactured today, mostly in China, but it's the pieces of a certain vintage that have value -- specifically the necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings and brooches created from the 1920s to 1970s, when many European craftsmen came to the United States to ply their trade. ("Antique" is a term that is sometimes used to describe the baubles of bygone eras made from real precious metals and stones.) Assembled by hand and made with non-precious materials, the pieces of earlier eras were often more experimental because their makers could afford to be. That craftsmanship and unique sense of style has made such designer names as Miriam Haskell, Trifari and Schiaparelli hot and collectible commodities from the runway down to the dressing room -- Haskell for the tapestry beading, Trifari for the elegance, Schiaparelli for the colorful sophistication.

But buyer beware.

"Almost every maker had many different levels," said Julia C. Carroll, an avid collector who has written three books, "Collecting Costume Jewelry 101," "202" and the soon-to-be-released "303." "Only the pieces in good condition that were originally very high end and expensive at the time will get good money today."

What kind of good money? Thousands, though most collectors say fun and quality pieces can be had for as little as $25.

According to Joyce Jonas, a New York-based appraiser and jewelry expert, vintage jewelers' tiers go something like this: There's the top-of-the-line items that "were extraordinarily designed, beautifully crafted, beautifully made. They had wonderful color and were full of life," said Jonas. The second tier was "moderately priced and not as intriguingly designed." The third tier: "throwaway."

So, just because a piece has a name like Haskell or Trifari doesn't meant it's worth a whole lot. The things to look for: a signature, or stamp, on the back and a piece that's in good condition.

At least those are the things to look for if you care about vintage jewelry as an investment.

Increasingly, a lot of people do. High-quality vintage jewelry has shown consistent 10% to 15% annual gains in value, though many in the field are leery of the perception that it's a safer haven for money than the stock market.

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