Vintage costume jewelry has a fascinating history behind it - from the popular usage of rose gold and gild silver to the elegance and glamor of Hollywood-style design. During World War II, while Europe languished, America was enjoying an economic recovery. Patriotism, wealth and sophistication were reflected in larger, bolder and more contrasted jewelry pieces created by both American and immigrant European jewellers.
Vintage costume jewelry is still worn as a fashion item today - many people use this style of jewelry to dress up an outfit and add Hollywood-style glamor. Knowledge of the history of the retro vintage jewelry period is fascinating to share (especially if you know the history of your particular antique jewelry item) and makes a great conversational topic!
Did you know?
In France during the 1940s, over 27 shades of gold were used by goldsmiths in the production of retro jewellry.
History of Vintage Costume Jewelry
The retro vintage jewelry period occurred from 1935 to 1950, during wartime in Europe and America. Women joined the workforce to lend support to the war effort and dressed in tight fitting jackets and skirts. At first, jewelry was designed to be feminine and curvy to complement a severe dressing style, but as different materials became unavailable, new materials and designs were developed into the sophisticated and sassy retro vintage jewelry style.
Since platinum and white metal supplies to jewelers dwindled due to being melted down for war funds, coloured gold became popular and new designs combining yellow gold with rose gold and green gold in striking combinations led to bigger and bolder designs. As the retro period progressed, large, brightly coloured gemstones (many in over 100 carats) such as aquamarines, citrine, topaz, synthetic cabochon cut rubies and sapphires, golden beryl, peridots and tourmaline were used. Many gemstones were fashioned into rectangular cuts and women’s jewelry came to represent Hollywood glitz, glamor and elegance. Hollywood stars became trendsetters and it was patriotic to wear a ruby, sapphire and diamond adorned piece (the American flag colours).
The war in Europe shut down many jewelry firms and several European designers immigrated to the United States, adding an American look to their jewellery. Three dimensional sculptural ribbons, bows, sunbursts, flowers and folds of metal abounded, many copied from previous periods, but with a Hollywood flair. Popular trends during the retro vintage period included cocktail rings, tank bracelets (based on tank catapillars), bold watches, three dimensional ribbon brooches and large rings. 1940’s jewelry became increasingly characterised by its chunkiness and use of contrast. Machinery and fabric simulation featured in retro jewelry designs.
Postwar Vintage Jewelry & Mass Production
As Britain and the rest of Europe struggled with shortages of manpower and materials, America financed some of the reconstruction and many advances in technology and science made during the war were adapted for peacetime use. In an increasingly commercial world, rapid industrial growth brought new design practices and debates of mass production to the fore. New materials emerged, including PVC (vinyl), melamine, polyethylene, polystyrene and nylon. The development of metal alloys, injection-molded plastics and numerous acrylic plastics increased the variety of plastics on the market.
As mass production techniques gained popularity, jewelers were able to respond more quickly to changing fashions, merging natural materials with plastics. Bakelite and other plastic jewelry was produced. Costume jewelers experimented with base metals, silver gilt and paste and the artist-jeweler came back into prominence. Since many people still had limited financial resources, small quantities of gold were wrought into designs to create an impression of things being bigger than they really were. Small-cut rubies were placed in invisible settings and unusual motifs such as clowns, horses, ballerinas, military figures and cats became popular.
As platinum came back into use after the war, rose gold used in jewelry creation diminished. The chunky, bold styles of the retro period went out of fashion and were replaced with the more tailored, traditional and understated designs of the 1950s and 1960s.
Where To Buy Vintage Costume Jewelry
There is a large variety of vintage costume jewelry for sale online, including genuine “fine” retro vintage jewelry and mass produced costume vintage jewelry. Determining how genuine an article is can be a little difficult without visiting a gemologist or jeweler, however European hallmarks engraved into the jewelry can assist with identifying the location and time period of origination (USA jewelers didn’t use hallmarks much during the retro period).
If you are looking for more affordable vintage costume jewelry, there are literally thousands of replicas of popular retro pieces on Ebay, interspersed with genuine retro vintage jewelry - you just have to figure out which is which and be prepared to get what you pay for!
Thanks For Reading
Thankyou for reading my article about vintage costume jewelry. I hope you enjoyed reading about the history of the retro jewelry style as much as I enjoyed writing about it! Retro jewelry is great to wear with an evening gown or dress jacket and the bigger and more bold the piece is, the more it will stand out, enhancing your Hollywood-style sophistication and worldly allure.
© 2013 Suzanne Day
Susan from India on February 26, 2014:
Interesting share. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and interesting.