Most Valuable Costume Jewelry: The Ultimate Collector‘s Guide

When it comes to jewelry, most people immediately think of precious metals and gems – the classic fine jewelry made to last lifetimes. But for collectors and fashion lovers who like a bit more flash for their cash, costume jewelry has a special allure all its own. Costume pieces let us indulge in of-the-moment trends or add a signature pop to any outfit without breaking the bank.

However, just because costume jewelry features faux gems and plated metals doesn‘t mean it can‘t be incredibly valuable. In fact, the market for rare and vintage costume pieces has exploded in recent decades, with the most sought-after designs selling for thousands at auction. Whether you‘re a seasoned collector or are looking to start treasure hunting, we‘ve put together the ultimate guide to the most valuable costume jewelry out there.

The Origins of Costume Jewelry

The term "costume jewelry" arose in the 1920s, but the concept of jewels and trinkets made from non-precious materials is nearly as old as humanity. Ancient Egyptians made beaded necklaces from colored glass and Greeks wove wreaths with gold-plated leaves. In the 18th century, paste or hand-cut glass stones set in brass became popular stand-ins for diamonds among the European upper class.

But costume jewelry as we know it today really came into its own in the 1920s and 30s. This period saw a perfect storm of social trends that made these affordable accessories a must-have:

  • The rise of the middle class with more disposable income
  • The flapper style favoring long strings of pearls and glitzy bracelets
  • Hollywood glamour and the desire to emulate movie star looks
  • The scarcity of precious gems and metals during wartime

Visionary designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miriam Haskell elevated costume jewelry to an art form, proving that style wasn‘t dependent on the price tag. Suddenly, any woman could jazz up a simple dress with a pair of stunning earrings or a cocktail ring and feel like a million bucks.

The Most Sought-After Costume Jewelry Brands

When it comes to the secondary market, not all costume jewelry is created equal. Collectors are willing to shell out serious cash for pieces from certain designers, especially those from the early-to-mid 20th century. Let‘s take a look at some of the most valuable names in vintage costume jewelry:

Miriam Haskell (1920s-present)

Known for her intricately hand-wired beads and floral motifs, Haskell is considered the grande dame of costume jewelry. Her pieces were a favorite of Hollywood icons like Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball. Today, a rare Miriam Haskell necklace can easily sell for over $1,000.

Trifari (1910s-1990s)

This Italian company patented a process for electroplating precious metals onto base metals, allowing them to produce high-quality yet affordable pieces. Trifari‘s "jelly belly" animal pins with Lucite bodies are especially popular with collectors. A sterling "Alfred Philippe" crown pin from the 1940s sold for nearly $900 in 2019.

Coro (1900s-1970s)

At its height, Coro was the largest costume jewelry manufacturer in the world. Their Corocraft and Vendome lines are particularly prized for their Duette and Tremblers designs featuring two clips that could be worn separately or together as a brooch. A rare Coro Duette can command up to $500 today.

Chanel (1920s-present)

Coco Chanel was one of the first designers to make costume jewelry truly fashionable, incorporating long strands of faux pearls and chunky gilt chains into her famed collections. Chanel pieces from the 1930s are exceptionally rare, with a Maltese Cross cuff selling for over $6,000 in 2017.

Schiaparelli (1920s-1950s)

An Italian designer known for her surrealist style, Elsa Schiaparelli created whimsical pieces often in collaboration with artists like Salvador Dalí. Her chunky bib necklaces and Shocking Pink designs are especially collectible. A pair of 1950s Schiaparelli earrings shaped like grapes sold for $2,500 in 2019.

Other notable names to look for include Weiss, Eisenberg, Boucher, Hobé, and Kenneth Jay Lane. The table below breaks down some of the key traits and innovations of the most significant costume jewelry design eras:

[Table: Costume Jewelry Design Eras] Era | Dates | Signature Styles & Motifs | Notable Designers
— | —– | ———————— | —————–
Victorian | 1830s-1900 | Romanticism, mourning jewelry, cameos, garnets | Carlo Giuliano
Art Nouveau | 1890-1910 | Nature-inspired fluid lines, ethereal women, opalescent glass | René Lalique
Art Deco | 1920s-30s | Geometric shapes, egyptian motifs, baguettes & prong settings | Jacob Bengel
Retro Modern | 1940s | Bold oversized gold, floral motifs, figural brooches | Trifari, Boucher
Mid-Century | 1950s-60s | Abstract atomic & space age designs, textured metals, poured glass | Schreiner, Hollycraft

Tips for Identifying Valuable Costume Jewelry

With so many different styles and designers out there, how do you know if you‘ve got a gem on your hands? While nothing beats experience, there are a few key things to look for when hunting for valuable costume pieces:

Check for Maker‘s Marks

The first step is to examine the back of the piece for any stamped signatures, logos, or numbers. Most of the major designers marked their work in some way, though some are very small and hard to read without a loupe. Online encyclopedias like IllusionJewels.com can help you identify unfamiliar marks.

Look at the Materials

High-end costume pieces will use better quality base metals that don‘t tarnish or corrode easily. Early plastics like Bakelite and Galalith or unusual colored metals like copper and aluminum can also indicate a valuable piece. And of course, the more intricate the rhinestone or glass stone settings, the better.

Consider the Craftsmanship

Renowned costume jewelry makers hired skilled artisans to craft each piece by hand, so look for signs of careful construction like prong-set stones, smooth soldering, and safety clasps on pins. Avoid pieces with glue residue or that feel lightweight or flimsy.

Note the Design

Collectors favor designs that exemplify a particular era or designer‘s signature style. Figurals, especially patriotic or holiday themes, are always popular, as are striking bib necklaces and cocktail rings. Bold Art Deco geometrics and atomic age abstracts also tend to be winners.

Once you suspect you‘ve got a valuable piece, hit the books and web to research it. Price guides like Warman‘s Costume Jewelry or Miller‘s Costume Jewelry can give you an idea of what comparable pieces have sold for. Online marketplaces like eBay and 1stDibs also make it easy to see the going rate for specific designers or eras. And when in doubt, consult an expert – many auction houses like Christie‘s offer free online appraisals for costume jewelry.

Caring for Your Costume Jewelry

Of course, the value of your costume jewelry is dependent on its condition, so proper storage and care is essential. Here are some tips to keep your treasures in market-ready shape:

  • Store pieces individually in airtight boxes or anti-tarnish bags to prevent scratching and oxidization.
  • Keep jewelry away from moisture, heat, perfumes and other chemicals that can cause damage.
  • Wipe pieces with a soft cloth before putting them away to remove skin oils and residue.
  • If needed, clean gently with mild dish soap and a soft toothbrush, then air dry completely.
  • Avoid wearing costume jewelry in water, especially in a pool or the ocean.
  • Have any broken pieces repaired by a professional jeweler to maintain value.

With a little TLC, your costume pieces can retain their beauty and value for decades to come. In fact, many collectors insure their most prized pieces like fine jewelry!

The Future of Costume Jewelry Collecting

So is collecting costume jewelry a wise investment? That depends on your goals. Unlike fine jewelry which has intrinsic value based on precious metals and gemstones, costume jewelry‘s worth is more subjective and dependent on that ephemeral "it factor."

Prices for a particular designer or era can skyrocket based on a celebrity sighting or a big museum exhibition. For instance, prices for 1980s Chanel pieces jumped in 2017 after Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian were spotted sporting vintage looks. The key is to buy what you love and feel has lasting appeal.

That said, costume jewelry collecting can offer impressive returns for those who choose carefully. A Sotheby‘s specialist noted a 65-70% increase in the value of 1960s Chanel pieces in just 5 years. And the market shows no signs of cooling off. A 2020 report from Absolute Reports predicts the global costume jewelry market will hit $59.7 billion by 2026.

As the world‘s wealth grows, Gen Z and Millennials fuel the vintage trend, and social media amps up the desire for Instagrammable accessories, costume jewelry is becoming an even hotter commodity. Whether you‘re looking to turn a profit or simply amass the ultimate sparkly collection, there‘s never been a better time to treasure hunt for these trinkets.

Happy hunting, collectors!

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