Recognizing Quality in Vintage Costume Jewelry
Costume jewelry is a very democratic medium. Whether you were a housewife, shop girl, or a wealthy woman – if you shopped at Woolworth or Saks Fifth Avenue – there was something for you in the costume jewelry world of yesteryear at every price point ranging from finely crafted copies of fine jewelry down to copies of those copies, and they were all made during the same timeframe.
When a woman looked at the photo of a socialite in Vogue (the “supermodels” of their day) or up on the silver screen to the movie stars they idolized to see their exquisite clothes and jewels they wore (many times the jewelry was made of precious metals and gemstones and belonged to the stars themselves, but then there was Joseff of Hollywood who created some of the most wonderful jewelry for films, and in turn, designed lines that were sold in department stores) they wanted to own those pieces and fulfill their fantasies.
Costume jewelry is made of non-precious materials. No gold, platinum, diamonds or other precious gemstones are used. It is made out of base metal (or sterling silver) with glass or other artificial stones (and occasionally semi-precious stones). Many wealthy women wore costume jewelry, and not because she couldn’t afford the real thing. She wore is as an extension of her wardrobe.
But if the materials used are all the same, what is the difference between a high end or low-end piece? And why this need to copy these well known, expensive and famous designs?
Brands Meant Something, and So Did Design and Quality
In the golden age of costume jewelry, a brand name stood for something just as it still does today. Ladies would remark, “Oh, is that the latest Trifari brooch you’re wearing that I saw advertised in Harper’s Bazaar?” The high-end companies invested in the designers they hired along with many freelancers. Many of their names are lost to posterity, but they came from the fine jewelry world such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and other jewelry houses. There were no “superstar” designers as there are today. No names other than the company were plastered on the jewelry. And frankly, the companies didn’t want to advertise their best designers to their competitors for fear of having them stolen away. These companies made the best of the best in our collectible jewelry world.
The big costume jewelers had state of the art factories in Providence, R.I. Smaller high end firms such as Boucher, DuJay, Pennino, Mazer and DeRosa were located in New York City. They used the best materials. The highest quality stones were used, the plating was as thick as possible, and this is why so much of it has held up so beautifully decades later even though that was never the intention.
The executives and designers traveled to Europe to see the latest fine jewelry styles just like designers today “shop Europe.” They ate in the best restaurants to see the jewelry the socialites were wearing to lunch. Jewelry does not exist in a vacuum. It goes hand and hand with the current fashions of the day. All of those popular fine jewelry styles were copied and translated into costume jewelry, including the most famous item ever produced by Coro, the “DUETTE.”
Copies of Fine Jewelry: Duettes, Clip-Mates, Mazer’s Double-Clips
Duette was Coro’s trademark for double-clip brooches that break apart into separate clips with a mechanism designed and patented by a French fine jeweler named Gaston Candas of Paris in 1931 and bought by Coro. It is so famous that the term “duette” has made its way into our lexicon and used generically to describe any double clip brooch, the way we use “Kleenex” instead of tissue.
Trifari’s first version of the double clip brooch was designed by Gustavo Trifari himself in 1932 (patent number 1,878,028), but Alfred Philippe’s version (patent number 2,050,804) was designed and patented in April 1936 and trademarked “CLIP-MATE.” It was the second version of this clip brooch that really took off. In November of 1936 the patent was approved for the complimentary bangle bracelet allowing any set of clips from coordinating brooches to be used interchangeably in the bracelets. The bangles are usually finely crafted black enamel, but very high quality gold and rhodium plated versions were made as well. The bracelets were copies of Cartier designs from 1935.
Mazer also made a version using Marcel Boucher’s patented double clip mechanism developed while he was working with this company. These are probably the rarest and many are unsigned. The only way to know they are Mazer is by recognizing the specific mechanism distinctive to these pieces, as shown in the patent illustration. The same protrusions on the mechanism are also on each side of the bracelet for the clips to slide onto, and the Mazer version is interchangeable with brooch clips like those made by Trifari. Although many costume jewelry companies (and fine jewelers) patented and made double-clip brooches, each mechanism was different for each brand. Coro made a bracelet as well, but it was never as popular since it was not interchangeable. “DUETTE” frames are made to fit each particular brooch design, and only certain clips can fit on the bracelet limiting its versatility.
Recognizing Other Top of the Line Jewelry
There is a very well known Dutch boy and girl pin-clip set with a rhinestone or cabochonfor the face and either a moonstone or cabochon for the body with little triangle or squareshaped dangles for pails, and always made of pot metal or else very cheaply and lightly plated with rhodium or some other metal. These Dutch twins are almost always sold as “unsigned DuJay” but they are not of that quality. They do not match the patent exactly the DuJay twins hold actual pails that are heavily pavéd, rhodium plated and beautifully made – they are also very rare. ONLY a pearl is used for the face on the authentic examples. In all of my years of collecting I have never seen them in person, only in an advertisement. If you search the internet for DuJay “milkmaid” or “dutchboy and girl”, every single one that comes up is a copy.
I collect DuJay so I know their construction, and if I have never seen the real ones, chances are neither have you. I have memorized every patent of theirs (only 28 patents were issued to Dujay between 1938-1940) and as of 2014, I have only seen 16 of the actual pieces in person or in photographs. I’ve looked at almost every auction for costume jewelry including the most famous auction ever held, at Doyles in 2000-2001 in New York, thousands of pictures and every website where those pieces purported to be DuJay have been sold. Their pieces are works of art. If you held another famous design of theirs in one hand, the Dujay rickshaw and had one of the period copies less finely made in the other, it would stick out like a sore thumb. Sadly, because so many people have never seen DuJay in person or are not that knowledgeable about jewelry, they think they are buying (or selling) the real thing.
DuJay is one of those companies that is truly rare. Their early jewelry (pre-WWII) was some of the most exquisite costume jewelry ever made and it is rarely signed. Their enameled pieces are breathtaking and their tiny pavé set stones a laborious and expensive process. They only started signing their jewelry intermittently c.1939 when they were fighting Déja for trademark infringement and in 1940 won a Supreme Court injunction against them causing them to change their name to Réja due to the similarity of their names. While the patented pieces from this time frame are either unsigned, marked PAT PEND or signed Dujay in script, there are also some pieces marked PAT PEND that for some reason were never actually patented. After World War II their style of jewelry changed dramatically, and most of it copies of fine jewelry done with faux jade or emeralds and spinels. The marking changed to DU-JAY (in caps with the dash) and all of it was either gold filled or sterling.
DuJay didn’t do a lot of advertising, but from what little I’ve found the jewelry was VERY expensive when it was first sold. Since their jewelry was not made in large numbers, and rarely signed, it is one of the most misattributed companies out there. Trust me, if you see a low-end pot metal piece with cold painted enamel and a cheap one-piece pin back being sold as DuJay, run the other way. This is where “Knowledge is Power” and if you don’t know the difference you can really get hurt where it matters…in your wallet.
Many other companies made finely crafted jewelry. But like Coro and Trifari, they made a wide variety of styles and jewelry of varied quality levels and price points over time. The best of the best will stand out when you examine each piece closely.
So now we know the top of the line pieces we collect from the 1930s and back will have:
These are the qualities that make costume jewelry perfection. The exquisite enamel pieces that we love were each hand done as well, especially the magnificent metallic enamels of DuJay, Boucher, and DeRosa. Trifari and high end Coro also had gorgeous enamel.
There are slight differences to each and every one because they were all hand decorated. These companies prided themselves on producing a beautiful product, nothing was spared, and they were some of the greatest imitations of fine jewelry ever made … even if it was “junk jewelry” as a 1938 Life magazine article called it.
These were types of pieces the “style pirates” of the day copied feverishly over and over again in every price point possible. Most copies were unmarked and are widely misattributed as “unsigned this or that” (insert your favorite high end manufacturer) today.
Robin Deutsch has been a jewelry historian and collector since the 1990s. She specializes in American and European costume jewelry, anything from Edwardian to made yesterday. She is a member of many fine and costume jewelry organizations, and she also has her own website on the German jewelry company Knoll & Pregizer which she published in 2009, bringing to the forefront the name and history of this company that was lost to posterity. She was also a lender to the museum exhibit “Finer Things” at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron, Ohio, April-October 2012.