What is the difference between costume and fashion jewelry? Is there really a difference or do we use the words interchangeably? Maybe a better question is should we use the words interchangeably? To find an answer, we first need to go back in time a bit and review the history of jewelry.
Although the use of materials, or specifically gold, to adorn the body easily dates back to Egypt in 3000 BC as evidenced by finds in tombs such as Tutankhamen’s, we need to move forward to the 13th Century in Medieval Europe and England when Sumptuary Laws were enacted, to see the beginning of “fake” jewelry. Commoners, or yeomen and artisans, were forbidden from wearing gold, silver, pearls or gemstones. Since precious gemstones and pearls were highly prized, a market developed for good glass imitations. The Italians, especially those from the glass making areas of Venice and Murano, began to make imitation glass gems and pearls that were of very high quality.
By the 17th Century, garments had become very ornamental utilizing jewelry pieces called dress ornaments on the stomacher, or front, sleeves and skirts. It became acceptable to wear fake jewelry by day and fine or real jewelry by evening. Pearls were worn in abundance and during this era, Jaquin of Paris patented a process for making fake pearls. About the same time, a compound of white lead oxide and potash, called paste, was developed and became widely used for making fake gems. These fake gems were pasted onto theatrical costumes, thus becoming known as costume jewelry.
Moving forward to the late 1800’s, jewelry production started to move to America and Australia, and resulted in lower quality standards. Resistance to the lesser quality pieces prompted jewelers such as Tiffany to begin to make very high quality fine jewelry. By the early 1900’s, we began to see recognizable names influencing the mass produced jewelry industry. Designers such as Rene Lalique, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Napier made fake or faux jewelry fun and fashionable. This faux jewelry was more commonly known as cocktail jewelry, or costume jewelry, thus popularizing the term.
The Second World War saw fine jewelry dwindle in production since metals were rationed. Quality costume jewelry flourished, and the post-war 1950’s Art Deco period signaled the acceptance of more extravagant costume jewelry. Some of these quality pieces have attained vintage status making them of interest to collectors. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the influence of TV shows, movies, and celebrity sponsorships, make costume jewelry fashionable. And the term fashion jewelry came in vogue and began to refer to any jewelry that was not considered fine or real jewelry.
The usage of the terms costume and fashion jewelry has become analogous and interchangeable, and is often based on tradition and locality. Anything of lesser value and lesser quality materials than fine gold, silver, or diamond jewelry is now referred to as costume or fashion. In today’s usage, while costume jewelry is generally thought to be less expensive than fashion jewelry, many components are common to both. Costume jewelry will often have gold plating over pewter, nickel or even lead, and may contain beads or gems made of plastic or acrylic. Fashion jewelry usually will be one step higher in quality, utilizing electroplated gold or silver over brass, gold over silver, or even sterling silver as the metal base and may be accented with high-end crystals, simulated gemstones, CZ, semi-precious stones, or other natural materials. Styling in fashion jewelry will often imitate real or fine jewelry designs.
So to answer the original question, what is the difference between costume and fashion jewelry, we must draw a very fine line of distinction. Looking at the quality, materials, design, and price should help clarify which terminology fits the situation. Either is correct; neither is incorrect! But personally, I prefer the term fashion jewelry as I want to be fashionable, not attired in a costume!