Tuesday, November 17, 2009



By Polly Guerin, The Fashion Historian

Fashion has had an awakening and the search is on for vintage jewelry pieces, imitators of fine jewelry, that covet high prices at retail counters and at antique dealers. After all the blitz and glitz on the runways costume jewelry has come full circle with the luster of pearls, the gleam of crystals, diamond-like rhinestones and brilliant colored stones.
One of the most alluring aspects of collecting vintage costume jewelry is the thrill of acquiring pieces of incredible beauty and unprecedented workmanship. Early pieces from the 1930s to the 1950’s were made by craftsmen, high- end jewelers from the fine jewelry trade who applied their handicraft to costume jewelry. Imitating fine jewelry, the handcrafted prong-set designs used faux pearls, colored enamels, simulated precious gemstones and Swarovski crystals in necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets that defied anyone calling them “fake.” So painstaking to detail was the work of the artists that the incised name of a designer or a manufacturer’s mark makes a significant difference in value. Signed pieces by Boucher, Ciner, Miriam Haskell, Panetta and Eisenberg command steep prices, as are pieces incised with a manufacturer’s marks such as Coro, Monet, Napier, Trifari and Vendome.
It is curious that along this glittering path was Chanel, who invented ‘costume jewelry.’ She turned the jewelry rules upside down in the 1920s, making fabulous faux jewels a high fashion essential. Other couture houses followed her example including Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior and Yes Saint Laurent. These high-end showstopper, costume jewelry pieces were designed to complement the designer’s haute couture and prĂȘt a porter (ready-to-wear) runway fashion collections. However, many of the extravagant costume jewelry pieces attributed to haute couture designers actually were designed by legendary French fine jewelry designers including Gripoix, Robert Goossens and Roger Jean-Pierre. The distinctive quality of vintage costume jewelry pieces from the 1930s also focuses on the work of Parisian designer, Marcel Boucher. He came to New York and worked for Cartier, but left in the 30s to set up his own firm, explains jewelry historian Joyce Jonas. “His first collection of three-dimensional pins was made with colored rhinestones and unusual translucent enamels. Nothing like it had ever been done before. Each piece was beautifully crafted and prong-set. Originally priced from $40 to $60, in today’s market these same pins go for $800 and better, and at the high-end sell for $1,500 to $l, 600.”
“Chanel was a visionary and the high quality of her costume jewelry was made and prong-set like fine jewelry,” says Pauline Ginnane-Gasbarro, a New York dealer who specializes in Chanel pieces that sell from $4000 and up. Chanel gave master jeweler Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, his start as a costume jewelry designer and he later created the house of VERDURA. He first introduced the combination of multi-colored stones and pearls in necklaces, cuff bracelets and brooches. Chanel was often photographed wearing her favorite Maltese cross cuff bracelets and other signature pieces by Verdura. Today Verdura has transformed itself into a high-end fine jewelry house using real precious stones in just the same Maltese cuff. For costume jewelry buffs look for Kenneth Jay Lane’s version. He revived this design in the 60s.
New plastic materials originating at the turn of the 20th century introduced Bakelite, a plastic material that was worked in vivid, bold colors and often incised with hand-carved geometric or floral motifs. Bakelite was also fashioned into a type of whimsical costume jewelry that became popular in the 30s. Today Bakelite is having a renaissance and most fashionable is the staking of bangle bracelets in multi colors, or wearing whimsical figurative brooches—bunnies, dogs, and clowns, some with moveable parts. Carmen Miranda’s Bakelite fruity jewelry was also popular. Bakelite pieces that may have sold for $50 in the 1930’s today might sell in the hundreds and thousands depending upon the rarity of the piece. “A French Bakelite design, signed by Auguste Bonaz would bring much more money than unsigned pieces,” says Ginny Redington Dawes, co-author with Corinne Davidov of the ‘Bakelite Jewelry Book.’ One world of caution, I’ve heard that some fakes have penetrated the seller’s market, so be sure you know what you are purchasing when it comes to Bakelite.
What to purchase can be perplexing. “Costume jewelry is getting hot,” says Harrice Simons Miller, a New York dealer and author of ‘The Official Price Guide to Costume Jewelry.’ Now is a great time to collect Eisenberg enamels, Trifari, Panetta, Ciner, Chanel, Dior and YSL pieces.” Knowledge of buying and selling trends can best be acquired by keeping close tabs on vintage costume jewelry auctions and estate sales held at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Doyle in New York and Skinner’s in Boston. A mint condition Chanel sautoir and oblong pendant, circa 1935, in silver-plated metal set with rhinestones and imitation emeralds was auctioned at $1,500 at Doyle. In the 30’s the same sautoir may have sold for just two hundred dollars. Miller says, “As for the future of collectibles you should consider purchasing contemporary jewelry by top designers now and put it away for 20 years to age its intrinsic value.” It is interesting to note that Providence, Rhode Island from the 1920s to the ‘50’s was the center of the American manufacturing of the handcrafted and prong-set costume jewelry and much of the costume jewelry is still manufactured there, albeit mass produced and not with the same vintage characteristics. Costume jewelry reproductions are filtering the market from China so it is best to take a magnifying glass with you and examine the incised maker before making a purchase. Today some of the most collectible costume jewelry includes Kenneth Jay Lane’s oversized earrings, large necklaces, animal bracelets and bold pins. In 2005 a KJL tiger bracelet sold for $540. Today the price would be considerably higher.
Recently I attended the Antiques Show at the Pier and the vendors of jewelry, both real and imitators, was quite overwhelming. However, I found an adorable artistic bracelet watch under $50, so there are still ‘finds’ out there, but you have to look very carefully to authenticate a piece’s origin by examining the incised signature.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Since Coco Chanel introduced the “Little Black Dress” in 1926, it has become the epitome of chic and the one classic that every woman covets for her wardrobe. Intended by Chanel to be a long-lasting, versatile, affordable and accessible to the widest market possible the “Little Black Dress, which many refer to by the abbreviation LBD, has outlasted fashion frivolity as the essential wardrobe basic. Be it for daytime wear or cocktail occasions the simple but elegant black dress can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion: for example, worn with a jacket and Chanel pumps for daytime business attire, the LBD can reappear for evening without the jacket and accessorized with jewelry and stilettos, perhaps adding a little Minaudiere purse. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford,” and like the Model T, the little black dress would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.”
Birth of the Little Black Dress As early as 1915, Coco Chanel envisioned the LBD as the new uniform for women for afternoon and evening wear. However, one may also surmise that Chanel’s early life educated by the nuns in a convent orphanage may well have influenced her affinity for the black uniform (the nun’s habit influence). She rejected the accusation that she was trying to impose the style of the working girl on haute couture by creating the “deluxe poor look.” Chanel’s silhouette, staying close to the uncorseted figure, began to make the skirts of Lanvin’s hobbled-skirt look old-fashioned and Poiret’s Orientalism too theatrical. Sadly, Poiret spent his final years in decline and debt. Chanel and Poiret had a chance encounter on a Paris street in 1928. Noticing that Chanel was wearing all black, Poiret inquired, “For whom, Madame, do you mourn?” To which Chanel replied, “For you, Monsieur.”
Black, The Essential Color of Fashion Black as we know has traditionally been associated with mourning but it has also had a sinister relationship with magic, wizardry, Halloween and a dark, moody scenarios. However, painting played a major role in the rediscovery of black as an essential color of fashion. In the 1881 the American painter, John Singer Sargent met Madame Gautreau in Paris society. She agreed to sit for a portrait, which he titled “Madame X.” To his shock and consternation, the painting became an instant scandal, viewed as salacious because of the sexual suggestiveness of her pose and revealing nature of the black gown. Likewise theLBD also partakes of a chameleon character changing as it does from day to night depending how it is accessorized and who wears it.
Black, The Color of Stability While Coco Chanel’s “Little Black Dress,” became the archetype of black as the color of high fashion, we must give black much of the credit for the timeless quality of the LBD. Black has a certain dignity about it. It can be called aristocratic, sophisticated or chic. Its economy and elegance has brought it forward into the Twentieth Century unscathed and always a reliable staple to pull us through any occasion. Many women aspire to own a simple, sleeveless black sheath similar to the one designed by Hubert de Givenchy and worn by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but sadly vintage styles like this are difficult to find and when you do it is at an auction house. The LBD Audrey wore in the film was sold at auction for over $800,000. Other celebs include the “little black sparrow,” Edith Piaf, the French folk icon, who performed in a black sheath dress throughout her career.
Alas when all else fails and we have a wardrobe dilemma, the Little Black Dress can always pull us through most any occasion.
Bio: Polly Guerin is still searching for the ideal Little Black Dress. As a fashion historian and former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology she produced the video “The Story of Color,” delving into the psychology of color, its influence on fashion, home furnishings, products and advertising. Her book, “The Message is in the Rainbow,” is being peddled around to publishers by an agent.