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Vintage Costume Jewelry Glitzy, Ritzy Fashion
By Terry McCormick

"Costume jewelry can play various roles. It can be a joke, a talking point, a note of identity, a classic touch or an exercise in sheer drama. But while no one worries any longer about wearing 'imitation,' some women have now become so preoccupied with the value of 'antique' costume jewelry that they do not wear it with the necessary light touch. They miss the point, that it is, by its very nature, ephemeral. They would do better to take Simon Wilson's sound advice: 'Stuff signatures, just enjoy wearing it.'" These words of wisdom, which should be engraved on the hearts of everyone who buys, sells, and wears vintage costume jewelry, are from the wonderful book, Costume Jewelry in Vogue, by Jane Mulvagh, Conde' Nash, 1988, $19.95 paperback.

Costume Jewelry in Vogue does an outstanding job of providing information about costume jewelry; and is a beautiful book to boot. Who designed what for which companies, individual designers worth looking for and appreciating, and what styles tended to be popular in what eras are covered well. One half of the book covers 1946 to the present, with 1909-1918 taking less than 25%, and 1919-1945 just about 25%. The photographs are from Vogue Magazine, so the actual pieces pictured are more likely to be those dabbled with by the Rockefellers, as opposed to what Aunt Minnie wore to her bridge club. Realistically, the majority of the vintage jewelry we encounter is of the "Aunt Minnie" variety. However, expensive costume jewelry was copied extensively by mass market manufac-tuers, so it's possible to get an idea of period from the pictures. There's also the hope that beats in the heart of all lovers of keen old stuff; that the bauble found at the bottom of a box will be a designer piece.

In current fashion, from coutourier to street styles, accessories of all kinds are important. But costume jewelry is king. Sources from all over the country tell me that, whatever else may or may not be selling in vintage clothing, vintage jewelry of most eras is doing well. A notable exception is rhinestone jewelry; although pieces that are primarily made of another substance, with rhinestones as accents, are desireable. Some of the most unique "new" costume jewelry is being made by combining bits and pieces of old jewelry with new materials. These one-of-a-kind pieces sell not only in vintage shops, but boutiques and department stores. People are having fun with jewelry, and not incidentally, being able to stretch their wardrobes a bit farther. Shades of the 1930's depression!

It occurred to me as I looked through Costume Jewelry in Vogue, that it would be a good idea to have around a shop that sells vintage jewelry. While some folks don'tneed any more brilliant ideas about how to spend their hard-earned money; others might find some inspiration in the pictures.

Another book that is probably a "must have" for those who buy and sell vintage jewelry is The Bakelite Jewelry Book, by Corirme Davidov and Ginny Dawes, Abbeville Press, 1988. I must admit that I was prejudiced against this book before I got it. The reason? Rumors had reached me that it was being sold ("like hotcakes") at a jewelry show. People were going from the book booth to vintage jewelry booths and spending outrageous amounts of money for damaged and just plain dull bakelite pieces. "Oh, great," I thought. "Just what we need. Another book that gives unrealistic prices and turns something fun and enjoyable into a numbers game!" I was pleasantly surprised that the authors did no such thing. In fact, Bhc Bakelite Jewelry book is extremely informative and practical. Including on the subject of prices. (They also admit that they do some of their own buying at flea markets and garage sales, and expect to pay lower prices at these events.)

The confusion arises because many of the pictured pieces are rare and valuable. It's not unrealistic that a bracelet designed for Coco Chanel would sell at an antique auction house for $1,800.00. Nor that a massive carved piece owned by Andy Warhol should be picked up for a trifling $1,000.00. Unfortunately, some folks must have stopped there, and not turned to the price guide in the back of the book. The guide gives a range starting with "Good" (not icky or damaged) and going through "Better" to "Best." A footnote says,"

'Good, Better, Best' applies to design, condition, color, craftsmanship, and rarity." The pictures in the book are also at at fault. They arc so gorgeous, that a person (naming no names) gets an almost uncontrollable urge to race out and buy Bakelite; any kind of Bakelite, in any condition. This urge might best be controlled.

Based on the pattern of other items that have been wildly popular for a time (rhinestones and Edwardian whites for example), it's likely that the following will happen. All Bakelite pieces, regardless of quality or condition, will have a dramatic rise in price. As the fever subsides, the prices on the fair to medium pieces will drop and stabilize at a higher price than pre-Bakelite book; but lower than the peak. Unique, high quality (but findable) pieces will not drop substantially from the peak prices; and the rare and unusual will continue to go up in value, but at a slower rate. The poor quality items will drop in value to about what they were before. As people begin to understand the differences in quality, they will be less willing to buy anything but the better items. But for the next year or so it's probably more realistic to be selling Bakelite than buying it. Unless, of course, one encounters something divine at a low price. Or has no self control.

In addition to having a profound effect on the vintage jewelry market, The Bakelite Jewelry Book contains some excellent information. The authors suggest that, before making a substantial purchase you become knowledgeable yourself, or buy from some-one who is. (Valuable advice for any purchase in the vintage clothing or antique world.) They recommend that you make an opportunity to hold a Bakelite piece, and notice that it is heavier than most plastics; that you feel the surface and become familiar with the slightly "soapy" texture; and that you learn to notice that raised patterns are carved, rather than molded. For some time to come, every piece of plastic jewelry will be called Bakelite, and priced accordingly, by the overeager and under-informed. This does not include those who know their jewelry, and of those there are plenty; but harsh reality and brutal experience tells us that being armed with our own knowledge is always safest. It's also fun to read about how the jewelry was made, some of the designers, and the specific time period.

At $35.00 in hardcover, The Bakelite Jewelry Book, represents a substantial investment. The bad news is that Abbeville seldom issues a paperback edition of a successful hardcover. It's not impossible, but unlikely. Still, this is a worthwhile resource book, and a pivotal one.

Facing facts, when you're wearing costume jewelry no one else can tell whether it's Eisenberg or Corocraft, Woolworths or Tiffany; even whether it's really gold or just gold plated. It either looks good or it doesn't. But with vintage jewelry there is a tendency to mix the world of antiques, where signatures matter, with fashionable appearance. There's also a human tendency to be curious about old things. To wonder what period that bracelet might be from, whether the name on the back (if there is one) is a significant designer or an especially elite company. Books that give good information can be valuable resources, and both books mentioned qualify.

I can't thank Jacquie Greenwood or Doris Raymond enough for raving about Costume Jewelry in Vogue so much that I made a point of getting it. Another general book on costume jewelry, large and beautifully illustrated, comes highly recommended by Joanne Boardman. All That Glitters, by Jodie Shields, Rizzoli, $24.95 paperback. The three books mentioned here are currently available from your local bookstore, or can be ordered through it.

Copyright 1989 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter