Costume Jewelers: The Golden Age of Design

by Joanne Dubbs Ball

A Schiffer Book for Collectors, 
Reviewed by Gail Sandonato

The book cover of "Costume Jewelers: The Golden Age of Design"

Located in Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing has approximately 3,100 titles available dealing with Art, History, and the Military. Of particular interest to jewelry lovers is this series of books aimed at collectors. More than a mere price guide, the publishers have worked with Joanne Dubbs Ball to put together a concise history of the costume jewelry industry, dating from the late 1890's through the 1970's.

Prior to the twentieth century, fashion accessorizing was something available only to the very rich. In fact, many of the early costume jewelry designers learned their trade working with gold, platinum, and precious gems. Others came from the world of haute couture. Designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christian Dior could see how much better their designs looked with the appropriate accessories, but needed to find a way of producing jewelry that the average woman could afford. Finding no available outlets, they began designing their own accessories, first as adjuncts to their clothing, and eventually as separate arms of their businesses.

Other designers turned to costume jewelry during the years of World War I and World War II, when most metals were needed for war production and only silver or other white metals were available to them. Quite a few of the earliest designers were recent immigrants from Central Europe. They were familiar with fine crystals such as Swarovski and introduced them to this country.

Although, this book deals primarily with costume jewelry production in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Southern Massachusetts, who could ignore the affect of Hollywood in the 1930's on fashion? One of the stories I found particularly interesting dealt with Eugene Joseff. Joseff of Hollywood came to the costume jewelry industry due to something he saw wrong in a movie he watched. Constance Bennett appeared in "The Affairs of Cellini" beautifully garbed in 1790's period costume with a modern necklace around her lovely throat. This drove Joseff mad. It took almost a year and a half to convince the motion picture industry that jewelry was as important to the depiction of a character as costume. In that time, he had to develop his own tools in order to prove that his designs could be produced cheaply. Eventually, most of the major motion pictures of the thirties including films like "Gone with the Wind" , "The Prisoner of Zenda," and "Forever Amber," were filled with his designs. Demand in the private sector took off and he became very successful. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Joseff died in 1948 in a plane crash, but his wife Joan Castle Joseff kept most of his designs. The company had a policy of only renting out the jewelry for films and has the complete collection of his work still intact.

Through the forties and fifties, the industry continued successfully. First generation designers passed their skills to sons or daughters who carried on the tradition of quality production using faux materials.

In the sixties, the market began to change but companies that could adjust changed the focus of their designs to the younger, hipper market. But it wasn't enough, for in the seventies, the price of gold began to rise. Women began to believe that a bit of real gold was far more affluent looking than any of the high quality costume jewelry offered. Soon after, with burgeoning production costs and the changes going on within their city environments, most of the small production companies were forced to leave the business.

Much of the work sold in the past as costume jewelry is today eminently collectible. "Costume Jewelers: the Golden Age of Design" is a good primer for the modern collector and an interesting and lovely book. Discussing most of the major designers and showing examples of their work, Ms. Ball explains the differences between designs and techniques.

Ms. Ball, a former native of Lancaster, now residing in Connecticut, is a dealer and collector of vintage antique jewelry. Her love of writing and collecting has meshed in a career producing articles on collectibles. This book is a tribute to her knowledge and ability. Personally, I found that I felt as excited reading it as a young girl going through her mother's jewelry box and discovering treasure after treasure.



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