Many people believe that costume jewelry has no value when compared to fine jewelry, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. On the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast, costume jewelry expert Barbara Schwartz, founder of TruFaux Jewels, explained why costume jewelry is worth collecting. She spoke to host Sharon Berman about the history of costume jewelry, choosing quality vintage pieces and her favorite makers. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Barbara Schwartz, founder of TruFaux Jewels, a website specializing in collectible vintage costume jewelry. Through extensive study, meticulous research and lifelong experience as a jewelry collector, Barbara has developed an eye for authentic, beautiful and unique creations from Europe and North America. Although her focus is the period between the two wars, Barbara built the TruFaux collection to encompass the 1920s through the ‘50s. Barbara thanks so much for being here.
Barbara: Sharon, thank you for having me.
Sharon: Great to have you. You have such an intriguing background. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey and how you became an expert in costume jewelry?
Barbara: I started off as a jewelry lover as a child through the influence of my wonderful and loving great-aunt and continued to collect jewelry from then on. I went to graduate school and became a librarian long before the internet, so I really had to know how to do research. I was also a self-employed fee-based researcher, a textbook editor and finally a records management consultant, and when I decided to retire from consulting after more than 16 years, I wanted to focus on my lifelong passion for vintage costume jewelry. It was at that time that I expanded my focus from the ‘20s and ‘30s through the 1950s, so that I would have a reasonable collection.
Sharon: For your site?
Barbara: For my site. I have to admit that my own collection is predominantly from the ‘20s and ‘30s, but as I’ve become more experienced and have been engaged in this work longer, I’ve really become more interested in the ‘40s.
Sharon: Some great costume jewelry from that time. It just was fabulous stuff.
Barbara: Absolutely, some very distinctive-looking jewelry indeed.
Sharon: You told me a little about how you became an expert. You’ve been looking at this jewelry throughout your whole life, but you were really studying it. What was your methodology for that?
Barbara: Before I retired, I became more interested in jewelry in terms of studying it. I was able to take some jewelry history courses at a museum, and those are really hard to find and hardly ever offered anywhere, unfortunately. I became somewhat friendly with the instructor and she recommended a reading list, so I amassed an extensive library. I have actually included a recommended bibliography on my website to help people who want to learn about vintage costume jewelry. It was pretty much a journey of independent study, reading a lot, researching, going to conferences which, again, aren’t very plentiful, but when I’m able to go, I do. Also, over the years, my husband and I went to a number of antique shows and I had a lot of hands-on experience. I became friendly with a dealer who’s local, and for several years I spent a lot of time with him handling things and learning from him. Then when I retired, I started spending hours a day looking online. Because my innate skills and talents lend themselves well to this, I kind of went full circle. My research, as well as my analytical and writing skills that I’ve developed through my professional career, have stood me in good stead right now. When I built the TruFaux Jewels Collection for the online boutique, I had to research and write about each piece. I created the website both for the collection and to share a lot of background information on makers and patents and styles, and I continued to write blog posts monthly. I also research and write articles for other publications and I speak at conferences.
Sharon: You’ve really become the expert, the kind of person that you sought out before. Now you’re being sought out, I would presume.
Barbara: I guess so. I mean, within my narrow scope, yes.
Sharon: You also mentioned Chanel and—I never know how to say it—
Barbara: Elsa Schiaparelli—she was Italian.
Sharon: Schiaparelli and Chanel led the way toward the acceptance of costume jewelry.” How and why did they do this?
Barbara: Well, they liked to wear it. Chanel, in particular, liked to wear yards and yards of necklaces wound around. They both viewed it as an integral accessory to their collections, so they began to add jewelry to each season’s fashion line. They worked with leading ateliers, artists and jewelry designers: Chanel most notably with Maison Cartier, and Schiaparelli with surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and jewelry designers such as Jean Schlumberger and Jean Clement. The pieces, although they were costume, were certainly expensive for the average person, but their clients weren’t average. Through Chanel and Schiaparelli, and then other couturiers, women learned that wearing the right jewelry enhances an outfit, and in many cases, something that was designed especially for a particular outfit was more important than wearing jewelry to display wealth or status.
All of this was happening in the ‘20s, and at the same time, fashion had evolved quite a bit and the long, lean silhouette that we associate with the niche bunnies (some call it the flapper silhouette) demanded new styles of jewelry, so women were wearing long strands of pearls, crystals and glass beads. They wore sleeveless evening dresses so their arms were bare, so they wore many, many slender bracelets. They wore cloche hats, turbans and small berets with pins or later with clips, and so jewels became important accessories to be worn with everything.
Sharon: Was this a democratization of jewelry, in addition to the fact that jewelry was being made out of base metals in Newark, New Jersey, but was this contributing to the fact that everybody could have jewels?
Barbara: Yes, but of course as with anything else, there were ranges in quality. I like to say that there was five cent costume jewelry that one bought at the five and dime—those were probably even ten cent I don’t know—but there was also $25 costume jewelry, and this was at a time when people were earning less than $50 a week, so that kind of puts it in perspective. So yes, it became not only acceptable, but also desirable for women to wear costume jewelry, but there were greater and lesser qualities.
Sharon: Why is vintage costume jewelry experiencing a resurgence today?
Barbara: I think that it’s always been collectible. A lot of people who have been heavily into collecting are aging, but I think also a lot of young women are taking up an interest in vintage clothing and vintage costume jewelry, first of all because it doesn’t harm the environment; it already exists, so it’s very green, so to speak. I also think the more people learn about it, the more they can accept it.
One big misconception is that costume jewelry has little or no intrinsic value, unlike fine jewelry, where one can get gemstones graded, precious metals can be weighed, GI experts can appraise it, and so the components themselves can be monetized; they can be assigned a value, but that doesn’t mean that costume jewelry isn’t worthy of collecting. I think the higher-priced pieces by the better makers had superior design and construction, and people might not realize that the makers on this side of the Atlantic were importing the best rhinestones and imitation colored stones from Bohemia, the former Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Daniel Swarovski was from Austria and he was the first to make these stones by machine. Sterling silver was used by a lot of makers from the beginning, even from the beginning of their operations, even though it wasn’t actually required until the years 1942 to 1947, when the base metals were pushed over to the making of ammunition and weapons, and that sort of thing.
Another thing that many people don’t know is that during the Depression, many skilled workers in the fine jewelry side switched to costume jewelry, and also the political situation in Europe during the activities that preceded World War II forced many to immigrate to the United States. So, we’re left with a lot of really wonderful pieces that have lasted and still look great. I was sitting in a movie theater last year watching Kenneth Branagh’s production of “Murder on the Orient Express,” which was set in the early 1930s, and in an early scene, I recognized a necklace worn by one of the characters as a piece that I had on my website. It was pretty exciting.
Sharon: That would be exciting, oh my gosh!
Barbara: Next year is the centennial of the beginning of the roaring ‘20s, the years of the last seasons of Downton Abbey, for example, and the art deco jewelry in my collection will officially become antiques, because an antique has to be 100 years old. A vintage piece has to be more than 20 years old. These pieces still look fabulous and they certainly cost a lot less than their fine jewelry counterparts.
Sharon: That’s definitely true. When we’re evaluating a piece of vintage costume jewelry, it sounds like it’s very similar to any kind of jewelry. Whether it’s art jewelry made of wood or plastic or fine jewelry, you’re looking at the artistry and the design. Are there certain details in the construction that we should look for, or certain brands?
Barbara: First of all, I really urge people to buy what they like, because jewelry’s an expression of their personality. At the same time, they should only buy high-quality pieces that are in excellent, vintage condition from reputable sellers. You want to make sure that the working parts we call the findings, which are things like the clasps, are working properly. Most pieces have been plated either with rhodium plating to give base metal shine, or later rhodium plating was applied to sterling silver so it wouldn’t tarnish, or gold plating was added to base metals and sterling so that the piece would be yellow, pink or green gold. You don’t want the plating to be visibly worn. If it has enamel, the enamel should be solid, not chipped or scratched. Stones should be reasonably sparkly and not chipped. You also want to look for poorly-done repairs. For example, if stones have been replaced, sometimes people who don’t know any better will not replace them with the properly-matched stones, or if solder has been applied, some people are kind of sloppy,so you can see evidence of soldering. I don’t particularly like overly-polished sterling silver. Sterling silver in a vintage piece shouldn’t look like it just came out of the factory, because the patina is a good sign of age. Also, I suggest that people look for pieces with substantial weight, because the 25 cent variety was not as substantial as the $25 variety.
I wouldn’t be put off by unsigned pieces, because before the late 1940s, a lot of costume jewelry was not signed, and if it was, it wasn’t signed directly on the piece. A lot of makers used what we call paper hang tags, so once you bought it and you wanted to put on the piece, of course you couldn’t wear the tag anymore. There are many high-quality makers, each with particular styles, so the choice depends on what you like. Some of the high-quality American makers would be Eisenberg, Miriam Haskell, Elsa Schiaparelli, Hattie Carnegie, two women who designed clothing and other accessories as well, Marcel Gauchet and Wachenheimer Bros., who are probably known better for their Diamonbar trademark. One of my favorites is Hobé, whose sterling silver pieces were always handmade.
Sharon: That’s a lot to choose from there.
Barbara: Also, some makers such as the Coro Company, which was a very large company in the United States, had different metals and different lines, and some were higher quality than others. Coro Craft, for example, was their top line. Among the Europeans, I recommend Theodor Fahrner and Louis Rousselet.
Sharon: Interesting, I wouldn’t think of Fahrner as costume jewelry.
Barbara: Oh, yes, the company did some absolutely fabulous pieces. The aesthetic in Europe was quite different from that in the United States, so that’s why buying what you like is really important. Looking for what you like is important.
Sharon: Absolutely in any kind of jewelry, it has to talk to you.
Sharon: Well Barbara, thank you so much. This is very interesting and I know I learned something. I’ll be looking at costume jewelry more closely and I greatly appreciate it. We’ll have your contact information and website in our show notes. For everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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