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Antique Spotlight - American Costume Jewelry

By the middle of the 19th century, American industry was booming and the jewelry trade was rapidly expanding. But the finest pieces were still imported from England and France, and most American jewelers were trained in the European tradition.

By 1860, the process of goldplating had been invented, opening up a greater market for mass-produced jewelry at a reasonable price. And the growing middle class had more money to spend than ever before.

Buttons “assumed jewel status” on fashionable dresses. Some were carved jet, turquoise, or coral. Buttons were also beaded or covered with fabric and embroidery. Often these buttons were so exquisite, they were cannibalized to adorn another dress.

Most of the pieces for sale in antique shops today are costume jewelry, dotted with semi-precious stones. These pieces are highly collectable, because heirloom jewelry with “high-end” stones was often altered to make new pieces according to the style of the time. Costume jewelry was often left intact, because the stones on their own are not worth resetting.

In the 1920s, the Art Deco movement influenced jewelry designs with bold, geometric motifs, inspired by the Egyptians, Aztecs, and other early civilizations. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 highly influenced fashion.

Long beaded necklaces were popular in the 1920s – some as long as 30 inches! Amber beads caught the light as the flappers danced the Charleston. Ivory necklaces were also popular, with beads ranging in size from 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch. Some were carved to resemble stylized roses or other flowers.

Every element of fashion became more restrained after the stock market crashed in 1929. The war years were also a period of patriotic sacrifice, and the average woman made do with what she had rather than staying current with new fashion.

In the postwar years, Christian Dior’s “New Look” launched a new level of opulence in fashion. After so many years of austerity, it was time to spend, spend, spend!

The Fifties have been called the "Golden Age" of costume jewelry as women purchased more and more pieces to coordinate with their outfits. Though costume jewelry had been around since the Victorian Age, it really came into its own in the 1950s. Women went crazy trying to emulate Marilyn Monroe's "diamond look" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Today, many of the costume jewelry pieces for sale in department stores echo the styles of the past. Because, after all, fashion is cyclical, and eventually everything old is new again!

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