When it comes to learning how to date vintage costume jewelry, the best teacher is to wear some examples. When you put a piece of costume jewelry on, especially vintage costume jewelry, you can learn about how it is made. Costume jewelry pieces from the mid 20th Century or vintage fashion jewelry have a heavy feel to them and most sparkle a great deal.
They are not at a loss for bling either as these pieces of faux jewelry or junk jewelry as it has been called over the years are all about making a splash whether with a starfish brooch or a scallop shell bracelet. Despite all of the names that costume jewelry has carried with it over the decades, it remains a stylish, economical, and good-looking option for those who want to wear something shiny without breaking the bank.
If you want to learn how to date a piece of costume jewelry or how to recognize when a certain piece was in fashion, follow these easy steps. There are three ways to date pieces of vintage costume jewelry which will help you know when your piece was made and how long it might have been sitting in a jewelry box. Dating a piece of fashion jewelry is largely about the materials that were used at the time, the popular color choices of a particular era, and the most popular styles of necklaces, brooches, rings, pins, earrings, and bracelets.
Learn the Materials Used
Knowing the type of materials used in costume jewelry design can help you recognize the high-quality pieces and distinguish them from low quality pieces. Materials like gold plating, Austrian crystals, enamel, bakelite, and rhinestones are popular in vintage costume jewelry. Enamel pins in the form of animals, plants, and figures like this HAR leaf pin show the craftsmanship and ability of the designers to work with materials for lovely costume jewelry pieces.
Certain metals are often used in costume jewelry based on cost and properties to sculpt, cast, or construct those metals. Alternative metals were used widely for costume jewelry. World War II had a big impact on mid-century modern costume jewelry design because many of the metals that were typically used for fine jewelry had to be directed to the war effort and as a result, other base metals were used for costume jewelry or fashion jewelry as it was called back then.
Costume jewelry metals which are also known as fashion jewelry metals are known in the industry as base metals. Base metals are brass, copper, zinc, pot metal which has a silvery white color and which also has various metals within it like zinc, tin, copper, bismuth, lead and antimony. Other base metals include nickel silver and aluminum. Many of these base metals are then plated to give them a better, shinier, or more impressive overall look. Base metals in costume jewelry are often gold plated or rhodium plated to give individual pieces—necklaces, earrings, bracelets, scarf pins, brooches, pins, rings, anklets, etc.– a high fashion look.
When plating is not used, enameling over base metals is a common technique for the decoration or design of costume jewelry pieces as seen in this mid-century modern style HAR leaf pin. The back of the pin (see below) shows that the piece has a gold tone metal surface and the front of the pin is enameled to give the pin the colorful details.
In addition to the materials and metals used in costume jewelry, the type of clasps, pinbacks, or security chains on a piece of costume jewelry can help you date a piece. Old style pin backs did not use the double round circular lock mechanism. Hooks to secure a rhinestone necklace were popular in the 1940s-1960s while strong lobster style clasps were introduced onto necklaces and other late 20th Century pieces of the 1960s-1980s.
Use Color to Date Costume Jewelry
Certain colors used in costume jewelry were more popular during particular eras. For instance, browns and greens and other earth tones were used widely in the 1940s, 1950s, and again in the 1970s. Neutrals like black, white, and grey were all the rage in the 1950s when designing with rhinestone, Austrian crystal, and other faux gemstone bracelets and necklaces. Bright bold colors were popular after World War II, dating from circa 1945 to the 1960s. In the mid century decades, faux elements like pearls or gemstones sparkled with color combinations and even aurora borealis stones that were faceted to look like the real thing.
Colorful bakelite, composite materials, lucite, and plastics were used in costume jewelry during the mid 20th Century and were designed, carved, and produced in large numbers in bright bold colors consistent with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s.
Styles of Costume Jewelry in Specific Eras
The style of a piece of costume jewelry, just like anything in the world of fashion, is in vogue and it based on timely trends.
What to look for when it comes to costume jewelry is style, quality materials and good craftsmanship. When it comes to faux set stones in statement pieces, look for a high number of prongs to hold the stones in place. Look for strong and well-made security clasps and settings that ensure a stone will not come loose and be lost or go missing. Clasps can tell you a great deal about time period and style. With earrings, lever back, screw back, and posts (or pierced) are more popular or less so during different time periods. By the 1970s, many people had pierced ears so post earrings grew in popularity. Prior to that, in the 1940s-1960s, fewer women had pierced ears as a cultural custom or popular trend, so more women preferred and more manufacturers produced clip on, lever back, or screw back earrings.
This may help you identify and date your earrings. This gold Bluette earring shows a hinge back style that will clip onto one’s ear and remain secure with the aid of a large hinged plate to hold in place a large, statement style earring. The Bluette mark, like may marks of the mid 1900s era, is located in a place where it can be easily seen every time the wearer opens the hinge to wear the earring. This is also a mid 20th Century trend and is a marketing idea that is by design.
The 1940s and 1950s held bracelets and beads in high esteem. Sweater pins were useful in the age of the poodle skirt and cardigan but such all-purpose pins fell out of favor by the 1960s when big bold brooches came of age. Statement necklaces of large faux stones set in plated base metals were popular in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s, jewelry designers dressing Hollywood starlets for the movies introduced costume jewelry pieces that mimicked the fine jewelry designs of Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Tiffany & Company.
Trend setters like Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn made specific pieces of costume jewelry all the rage like long continuous strands of white pearls or large button gold earrings. Pearls have been a mainstay in the fine and costume jewelry realm for centuries dating back to the royal crown jewels of European monarchs. During the 1960s in the United States of America, a strand of pearls –faux or not—were a must have for any well dressed woman.
As the Pop movement transformed into the Age of Aquarius, costume jewelry trends looked to and ushered in long, large link necklaces of gold plated base metals. Earrings were of the hanging variety with beads, chains, and links. Enamel was in vogue for figural elements on bracelets and necklaces and chunky cuff bracelets of copper were trendy. Indian bead necklaces as they were called in the 1970s were multi strands of tiny multi-colored beads that were wrapped around one’s neck many times. Rings were oversized in various metals with inset stones of great size and naturalistic shape and of course, flowers were in fashion.
Even the style of the label or tags on costume jewelry pieces can help you date the pieces. Hang tags, embossed or engraved maker’s marks, stamps, and attached logo rounds are just some of the ways costume jewelry designers marked their pieces over the years. The Trifari costume jewelry firm used different marks throughout its long history of manufacturing costume jewelry pieces. From using the initials of the founders to the well-known crown Trifari logo, this firm changed its mark many times and these changes helped collectors to identify the time period when their pieces were produced.
If you are looking to start a collection of costume jewelry, be sure to use a loupe to identify and missing or loose faux gemstones before you make a purchase of a vintage piece. Austrian crystals, rhinestones, and art glass all cut to perfection in facets to simulate real gemstones and fake pearls that reveal a realistic cultured lustre are good costume jewelry examples for the seasoned collector. Look for consistent gold or silver tone plating and beautiful period designs that will stand the test of time for your costume jewelry collection.
Watch videos on my YouTube channel where I show you more tricks of the trade about costume jewelry and other art, antiques, and collectibles. I can appraise your costume jewelry from photos or you can show me pieces during a video call.