When you think of costumes do you envision someone in a fluffy red wig, red nose and shoes the size of a Lincoln Continental? Odds are your mind doesn’t immediately drift to costume jewelry. You would if you’ve been watching the market. Say “costume” and my mind conjures up images with a bit more sparkle in the form of rhinestones and pot metal: “costume jewelry” signed by the likes of Trifari, Coro and Napier.
Costume jewelry played the role of the lesser stepchild for those who could not afford “real” jewelry way back when. Somewhere along the line, the concept of costume jewelry changed and respect continues to grow for it as a collectible in its own right. While “real” jewelry may have more intrinsic value, and hold its value, because of the stones involved, costume jewelry has become valuable for its unique nature, trendy style and nostalgic feel.
A funny thing happened along the way: this knock off jewelry became respected. Just as worn-out jeans from the ’70s became coveted items in many parts of Europe, American dealers are finding collectors, particularly those abroad, are willing to pay above-average prices for what we once considered look-alike or trendy jewelry.
So how does the average person know what is collectible? The most obvious sign is a signature on the back of the piece by the designer. Typically names you’ll spot include Schiaparelli, Napier, Marvella, Chanel, Trifari. Most of it falls into the “pretty trinket” or “hideously gaudy category”, but I recently found a Trifari pin listed in a price guide for over $2,000.
In addition to the signature, you can sometimes tell by the light tone of the piece. Some were more formal, but designers took chances with costume pieces. You’ll find a lot of Bakelite, animal figures and baskets in rhinestones of various colors. In some ways, costume jewelry is just as the name implies – -whimsical. Floral arrangements, wild, plumed birds – -everything was fair game. The design itself is another clue. So much from the ’60s and 70s is easy to identify just by the shape and contour of the metal.
This surge in popularity caught even experts by surprise. When Harris Simons Miller, author and authority on the subject of costume jewelry, went to Europe one year, she had already written an identification and price guide on costume jewelry. She took her wares with her, thinking she’d sell the pieces, but not knowing she’d actually be sought after for her items. She came back to the United States knowing Europeans are hungry for many of the costume jewelry piece we Americans still consider “cute” but not necessarily worth spending your butter money on. She has since put out an updated guide, along with her findings on the increased popularity of the jewelry.
So, those lucky enough to have fallen in love with Donna Karen’s dramatic body jewelry of the ’70s, and smart enough to hang onto that jewelry, now have a decent collectible on their hands, figuratively and literally. And here’s where the increased value comes into play. Most who bought signed pieces of costume jewelry and the trendy designer pieces of the ’60s or ’70s, either discarded it as the trends changed, traded up to “real jewelry” or passed the pieces on to other relatives. So, the law of supply and demand has taken over. We’ve added value to the collectible just by virtue of scarcity of certain designs.
Despite the surge in prices worldwide, you can find great values at flea markets and auctions where jewelry is often lumped together in lots. I’ve gotten some of my best buys at a local auction. At yard sales, the early bird gets the bargain, but with auctions, it’s usually the person with the stamina to wait it out who walks away with the best stuff.
At one jewelry auction, a group of about a dozen gathers around three jewelry cases. Most of the items are on Styrofoam trays, and are sold by the tray. As with every auction, I’ve had some days where I’ve literally walked away with two or three grocery bags full of jewelry for $1 a tray. In those lots I’ve found Masonic pins, war medals, rhinestone necklaces, class rings, and scores of clip on earrings, many signed by famous designers. The lots have the look of “clean outs” where a wholesaler has come in gathered up whatever the family threw together or was forced to sell to split up an estate, and then put it up for auction. So these are not leftovers necessarily. Most people attend the auctions to buy a specific piece, not for resale. Most don’t want the ornate clip on earrings with odd strands of beading – -signed or not. That leaves about a handful of people who recognize the growing nature of the market, and who buy not necessarily because it is something they will wear, but because it has a name they know they can sell.
Every auction house handles this differently, so you need to investigate before you bid. Another auction house I like has been a very bad place for me to buy jewelry. The auctioneer has a simultaneous auction of jewelry and goods. He keeps the pieces in locked cases and sells things one at a time. Then at the end, he lumps things into piles. He breaks up the earring sets so the buyer has to buy two lots instead of one. If you’re buying to resell, you can get stuck with many things you don’t want.
At yet another auction house (all are weekly, by the way), I’ve bought bags of jewelry, sight unseen, for about $5 a bag. If you have grandchildren, that in and of itself can be an adventure. Take the bag home, empty it out and let them sort things. Most of the stuff has been sitting in someone’s jewelry box for a decade, so it’s pretty dirty. Let the grandchildren wash the plain chains or cheap beaded materials in warm, soapy water. Give them the truly worthless beads to restring and make treasures for themselves.
Beyond the adventure end of all of this, is the possibility of it turning into a collectible. If you have an affinity for jewelry, and have concentrated on the best pieces of gold, silver and precious stones because you believe it will hold its value better, rethink the plan. All that glitters may not make the traditional jeweler raise an eyebrow, but with costume jewelry, glitter can cause a spark for the buyer.