A Guide to Vintage Costume Jewelry by the Decade

Vintage costume jewelry is a collectible item that also holds novelty and sentimental value for many people. This style of jewelry is categorized separately from fine jewelry, as it is made of inexpensive materials and imitation gems. Though often sold at a more accessible price point, some rare, high quality pieces can sell for thousands of dollars.

Costume jewelry has been around for almost 300 years, as jewelers began experimenting with inexpensive types of glass as early as the 19th century. Through the decades, costume jewelry styles have evolved due to changing social and political trends, typically mirroring the larger trends of the fine jewelry world.

By understanding the styles, pieces, and designers that each decade is known for, you’ll be able to enjoy wearing different vintage pieces and be better equipped to assess the potential value and historical significance of different types of costume jewelry.  

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1920s

Art Deco Costume Jewelry, c. 1920. Sold for $475 via Doyle New York (April 2006).

1920s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: long earrings, long and short necklaces, narrow bracelets, brooches
  • Materials: white metals, clear and colored glass stones and beads, faux pearls, and marcasites
  • Popular designers: Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli

The Roaring Twenties were an era of dramatic political and social change that brought a new fascination with costume jewelry. During this decade, the nation’s wealth more than doubled and there was a greater emphasis on consumerism than ever before. These shifts impacted the ways that women of this time looked and behaved, and affected their fashion choices.

During the 1920s, women began wearing their hair bobbed, creating the perfect opportunity to show off statement earrings. Long, dangling necklaces that enhanced the wearer’s neck and moved while they danced were popular. Pearls also came into fashion during this time period.

Much of the costume jewelry created during the 1920s was made with the intention of resembling precious jewels as closely as possible, which led to the use of materials like white metals, richly-colored stones, and faux pearls. The Art Deco movement also influenced the design of costume jewelry during this time, leading to pieces with strong color contrasts, geometric shapes, stylized motifs, and clean lines. Towards the end of the decade Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli popularized costume jewelry by creating in-demand pieces, elevating imitation accessories for decades to come.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1930s

Eisenberg Brooch with Rhinestones, Vintage, c. 1930. €750 – €975 via Auctionata Paddle8 (August 2015).

1930s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: double clips, double-clip brooches, pendant earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches
  • Materials: molded glass, Bakelite, inexpensive plastics
  • Popular designers: Ciner, Trifari, Eisenberg, Coro, Boucher

During the 1930s, costume jewelry became a necessity due to the impact of the Great Depression on consumers’ disposable incomes. Most women could no longer afford to buy new clothes regularly and began to rely on accessories to help change up their aesthetic. An increased focus on accessorizing prompted jewelry makers to begin experimenting with new types of pieces. This led to the creation of the dress clip, which quickly became the quintessential jewelry piece of the decade.

The double clip brooch was invented in France as a piece of fine jewelry and was patented in the US. In 1933, Coro bought the rights to the patent and created their first Duettes in 1935. These pieces were often worn in pairs along the neckline or were added to hats, purses, and belts individually.

During this time period, Cartier and other fine jewelers produced pieces with baskets of fruit and flowers, known as “fruit salads” or “tutti frutti.” This prompted companies like Coro, Trifari, and Boucher to create lines inspired by these pieces using molded glass that mirrored the rubies, emeralds, and sapphires used in fine jewelry.

As this decade progressed, the Art Deco style evolved, leading to the Art Moderne or Streamline Modern styles. Many of the costume jewelry pieces of this decade are known for being whimsical and imaginative due to the influence of Surrealism on designers and the increased use of colorful, inexpensive plastics that became popular during this period.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1940s

Trifari Brooch and Earrings, c. 1940. Sold for €140 via Le Brech & Associés (July 2015).

1940s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: brooches, bracelets, ear clips, necklaces, and double-clip brooches
  • Materials: sterling silver, wood, leather, Bakelite, Lucite, natural shells, plaster, and ceramic
  • Popular designers: Trifari, Weiss, Eisenberg, Hobe, Coro, Juliana, Ciner

When World War II began, the conflict had a big impact on both fashion and jewelry styles. Most notably, clothing styles became more masculine and sensible, while jewelry became a subtle, feminine addition to a look.

During this time period, women donned wide, three-dimensional bracelets and large brooches along the shoulders of their attire. Double-brooch clips remained popular, but evolved from geometric, symmetric sets to asymmetrical, three-dimensional pieces.

One of the biggest changes to costume jewelry during this time period was that sterling silver replaced base metals due to wartime restrictions. Seed pearls and imitation turquoise, coral, and jade were also used due to shortages during the war. Other notable materials during this time included wood, leather, Bakelite, Lucite, and plaster.

Despite the challenges of the war era, the costume jewelry industry continued to blossom during this time period. Sales reached an all time high and the number of design patents issued soared. The quality of pieces also improved greatly during this decade, as many jewelers switched away from creating fine jewelry during the Depression and many skilled workers fled Europe during the war.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1950s

1950s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: cluster earrings, pendant earrings, bib necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and jewelry sets
  • Materials: decorative beads, art glass, textured metals
  • Popular designers: Christian Dior, Weiss, Hobes, Juliana, Ciner

During the 1950s, it became fashionable for women to perfectly match every accessory of their outfit, and this preference for matching sets extended to costume jewelry. Additionally, the influence of Hollywood movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made women desire costume jewelry that imitated these types of precious statement pieces.

The most sought-after item of this decade was the “simple strand of pearls” that was used to dress up any outfit. Statement pieces like bib necklaces, hair ornaments, and large brooches were also popular.

During this time, gold-toned jewelry eclipsed silver in popularity as there was a desire for extravagant accessories. Faux pearls, speckled beads in a range of colors, and rhinestones were popular materials used in this decade to create the upscale wardrobe women were looking for at more affordable prices.

One of the most prominent characteristics of costume jewelry of this decade was an innovative use of color. Designers like Elsa Schiaparelli were not afraid to play with vibrant hues, incorporating multi-colored stones and several shades into a single piece. At the same time, other designers like Dior and Balenciaga shifted back to using the whites and muted colors of costume jewelry pieces from the 1930s.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1960s

1960s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: large pendants, hoop earrings, ball drop earrings, and multi-strand necklaces
  • Materials: decorative beads, art glass, textured metals, plastics, vinyl, and Perspex
  • Popular Designers: Kenneth Jay Lane

The 1960s were known for progress, free thinking, and “flower power,” and these cultural changes led to new trends for costume jewelry. During this period, costume jewelry designers started to experiment with innovative techniques and materials, and began producing designs made with less expensive components. With the rise of mass production and technology advancements, plastics became more popular in jewelry design and fashion became more accessible for every woman.

Notable styles include oversized accessories, global styles, and bright colors. Floral designs were also popular, and these designs were usually made of plastics. During this period, bangles in all different colors were the ultimate fashion accessory.   

Pop art and Op art both had a big influence on costume jewelry designs of this time. Bold color combinations were seen in jewelry design throughout this decade, and many of the pieces were created with the goal of creating shocking visual impact. One of the key designers during this time period was Kenneth Jay Lane, who was known for making statement pieces from popular plastic materials.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1970s

1970s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: chains, pendants, bangles, dangly earrings
  • Materials: wood, stone, shell, and bone
  • Popular Designers: Coro, Haskell

During the 1970s, multiple costume jewelry styles were popular. Geometric pieces were fashionable during this time, as were bohemian pieces with global influences. The birth of disco also impacted costume jewelry, adding more sparkle and bling to pieces.

Chunky chains and layered necklaces were also in style and many costume jewelry pieces from this period come in unusual colors and shapes. Colors used in jewelry during this time included burnt orange, olive green, brown, yellow, and cream. During this decade, there was an emphasis on using natural materials like wood, stone, shell, and bone.

Vintage Costume Jewelry from the 1980s

1980s costume jewelry at a glance:

  • Typical pieces: big brooches, large hoop earrings, beaded necklaces, jelly bracelets, cocktail rings
  • Materials: imitation pearls, faux gemstones, gold-plate
  • Popular Designers: Vivienne Westwood

In the ‘80s, costume jewelry became a way of making a statement without having to spend a lot of money. The fashions of this time period were bold, and the jewelry matched.

During this decade, necklace styles ranged from beaded to large pendants. Gold was a popular metal, and costume jewelry allowed many women to wear large gold-plated pendants that were much more affordable. During the ‘80s, pearls had a resurgence, and women wore imitation pearls of all colors in bunches and with their ends tied in knots. Bold brooches also came back in to style, as these pieces were seen as another way to make a big fashion statement.

The styles of vintage costume jewelry have shifted through the years, with influences from art, history, and culture impacting jewelry trends. Today costume jewelry are fun collectible pieces, due to both the novelty value and the high quality craftsmanship of many pieces of vintage costume jewelry. Understanding the shifts in jewelry trends is essential for anyone hoping to collect these items, as the style shifts and materials used can impact both the value and longevity of each piece.

Sources: The Spruce | Trufax Jewels | The Spruce | AZ Central | Cause A Frockus | Vintage Costume Jewels | Love to Know | Always Treasured | Love to Know | Vintage Dancer