This month’s column is about the materials vintage costume jewelry is made from.
You may have inherited a piece of jewelry from your grandma or you might have bought a piece of old jewelry at a flea market that intrigued you, and now you are wondering what it’s made of. One thing is certain: if it’s costume jewelry it will not be made of precious metal such as gold or platinum and it will not be set with fine gemstones.
So what materials are commonly used to produce costume jewelry?
Costume jewelry can be made of a great many materials but such materials are generally the more inexpensive materials. Let’s start at the turn of the century. Faceted black glass beads had replaced the jet beads Queen Victoria wore for many years. Besides these black glass beads, many unusual art glass beads were being created in Italy and Czechoslovakia. Glass was used to make cabochons, which imitated lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, and many other stones. Glass also was used to make rhinestones in many colors. Glass therefore was a common material for use in costume jewelry.
Another material which was used in Victorian costume jewelry was hair. Human hair as well as horse hair were braided and woven into incredible works of art. Horse hair, generally white, was used in the construction of seed pearl jewelry mostly before 1900.
Plastics became popular for use in making costume jewelry in the 1920s. Celluloid, a fairly new plastic, was first to be used to make jewelry. Celluloid was made into beads, brooches and earrings as well as cabochons and other components of jewelry. Celluloid was lighter than glass and could be carved, molded and colored in many ways. The bangles and brooches molded with flowers and sometimes tinted in pastels are some of the prettiest jewelry to be made from this first plastic. If you have beads from the 20’s and they are lighter than glass, they may be celluloid.
In the 1930s, another plastic was introduced, bakelite. Bakelite, like celluloid, was an inexpensive material and was very popular for use in costume jewelry. It could be colored in rich hues and made into dramatic and fun jewelry. Beads, brooches, earrings and bangle bracelets were some of the forms for which bakelite worked so well.
By the 1940s Lucite had been introduced. It was used for most of the same types of jewelry as bakelite. Spun lucite has a pearly sheen and was popular through the 1960s.
The metals used in the making of costume jewelry were sterling silver, aluminum, copper, rolled gold, gold-fill, gold and silver plated metal, brass, pewter and pot metal. Pot metal, or white metal, is a combination of various metals that work well in casting jewelry. They were sometimes plated with gold or silver or were enameled. Most of these metals are easy to identify. Sterling silver or lesser grades of silver jewelry are generally marked as such. Rolled gold and gold-fill are also generally marked on the back of the jewelry.
There are so many other materials used to add color, texture and design interest to costume jewelry. Some of the more commonly seen materials are seashells, pearls, glass and plastic pearls, amber, ivory, wood, mother-of-pearl, bone, coral and non-precious stones. Most costume jewelry makers used stones made of glass and plastic. However in the 1950s and 60s, a company named Swoboda used tumbled stones such as lapis, jade, coral and other semi-precious stones in their jewelry.
Besides the materials already mentioned there was the occasional use of various textiles such as ribbon, cording and fabric in costume jewelry. In the 50s there was briefly the use of straw or wicker type materials made into beads. They were fragile and easily smashed, so few have survived. Leather has been used predominately from the 60s on. Even paper has been used to make costume jewelry. Rolled paper beads as well as composition beads made of paper maché have all been used to add interest to costume jewelry.
If you are interested in identifying what your piece of jewelry is made of please come by the shop. I am always happy to take a look at your treasures!
Debra Lowenstein is the proprietor of Mrs. Beadsley Vintage Jewelry. The shop is at 2101 Trinity Dr. Suite G. Mrs. Beadsley is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Contact her at 505.795.6395.