The pieces sold on high streets around the world for practically pennies are mass-produced by machines using the least expensive materials possible, so that the "gold" or "silver" chip easily and the stones fall out.
The expensive fakes are made with high-quality materials by hand. They are not only more durable, but they show better as well.
Hand-setting a stone, even if it's not real, can make all the difference in how it sparkles. If it's set too low, not enough light hits it to dazzle the eye; too high, and it's in danger of popping out.
Nathalie Colin, Swarovski's creative director, said, "Once you know all the steps and the craftsmanship behind it, you'll see that it deserves the price." Swarovski makes costume jewelry featuring its crystal, with prices that start below $100 but easily rise above that. It's an extensive international operation, with its original crystal factory in Wattens, Austria; a factory in Thailand where much of the handwork is done; and offices in Paris, where designs are developed.
Each piece starts with a concept triggered by the firm's trend forecasters. What they saw for the coming spring and summer went in "two directions, as they often are," Colin said. "On the one hand, there's a trend toward the very colourful and happy. On the other side, there's the opposite: more sleek, minimal and modern with a touch of sparkle. And with any colour coming from the metal, with yellow gold coming back and a lot of rose gold." A team of 35 designers come up with 1,500 sketches each season, from which 400 are chosen, Colin said.
Up to three samples are made of each piece; they are assessed for wearability, among other factors. Then the piece is put into production, "like fine jewelry, all done by hand, with the cutting of the stones, the polishing of the metal, the setting of the stones, all manual," Colin said.
One necklace from the spring/summer 2015 collection, the Celeste choker, was born "20 months ago when we started thinking about gardens and the need to reconnect with nature," she said.
The finished necklace contains 2,000 hand-cut crystals, each hand-applied on a Plexiglas disc to form a backdrop with 220 stones coloured amethyst, turquoise, blue opal and emerald set in resin to give the form of abstract flowers. The price: $799.
By contrast, Andrew Prince is a one-person operation, and his costume jewelry can cost thousands of dollars. Whether creating the faux jewelry for "Downton Abbey" or for his eponymous collection, Prince designs every piece himself and makes it by hand in his atelier in the East End of London.
He is an expert on jewelry history, and has lectured at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He scours antique shops and old factories for old stones, cut with fewer facets so they sparkled less but were more glowing with colour.
He says he enjoys working in costume jewelry because it gives him freedom that handling real gems would not. For instance, he created a strap for an evening gown with a train of "diamonds" trailing down the back, something totally impractical with real stones.
Costume jewellers aren't confined to crystal or glass cut to mimic gems, and this has grown with the popularity of concept jewelry, sometimes made from unexpected or recycled materials.
"The jewelry world really opened up in the 1970s," said Josephine Chanter, head of communications for the Design Museum in London. "Jewelry designers started using nonprecious materials. Jewelry became not about the value of the materials, but the value of the design." Leafing through a catalogue of the museum's 2012 exhibition, "Unexpected Pleasures: The Art and Design of Contemporary Jewelry," she points out that just about everything was considered fair game: felt, acrylic, nails, bone, wood, leather and so on.
Costume jewelry can give the wearer more freedom, too.
Judieanne Colusso, a real estate agent with Colours of Tuscany in Florence, Italy, has a collection of real jewelry (and a daughter trained in gemology in London). Yet "I love costume jewelry, especially earrings as they can be larger than life," she wrote in an email. "They're not always lots of money but give a great lift to an outfit and your face." Her favourites, she said, are silver hoops "with lots of small pieces with tiny peace and good-karma messages engraved on them, and some small dark blue stones." Another fan of faux is Milan-based Stefania Fabbro, who is about to introduce a jewelry collection, Mediterranea, combining fabric and gemstones.
"I love costume jewelry because it allows me to wear extravagant pieces that look luxe without the price of fine jewelry," she wrote in an email. "My family travels quite often, so I love that these pieces can endure wear and tear of being packed and unpacked." Even though paste (a form of leaded glass that could be polished to sparkle like diamonds) was used in jewelry as far back as the 1720s, it was another 200 years before Coco Chanel made fakes truly fashionable.
She was the first couturier to sell costume jewelry, in her boutique on the Rue Cambon in Paris. In her spare time, she said, she liked to sit with wax and create jewelry templates, which later were made up in gold-coloured metal and molten glass beads to look like precious gems or ropes of pearls, her signature. When she piled it all on, her clients did the same.
If today "fashion" jewelry is another synonym for "costume," and if every designer has his or her own collection, it started, as did so many trends, with Chanel.
New York Times News Service