Once a royal faux, now costume jewelry is its own design SPARKLE PLENTY

February 10, 1994|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

There's a lot more to costume jewelry than your mother's old Monet circle pin. "Jewels of Fantasy: Costume Jewelry of the 20th Century," which opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday, is an eye-opening example of the extraordinary creativity craftsmen can bring to objects whose only function is to decorate and sparkle prettily.

Costume jewelry is new to fashion history, only coming into its own in this century. The earliest pieces started as pretenders to royal jewels and heirlooms and were copies made to foil thieves. Even fine jewelers, such as the firm of Cartier, routinely turned their designs into copies which made the social rounds while the originals stayed safely in the safe.

At the turn of the century, the development of more efficient manufacturing techniques and refinements in stone-cutting made it possible to mass-produce the brooches and chokers of the very rich very inexpensively.

World War I saw social and stylistic changes, and ostentation gave way to art. Early 20th-century designs were marked by nature-based lines of art nouveau and the geometrics of art deco.

It was the Thoroughly Modern Coco, however, who made costume jewelry chic. Chanel called for clips and pearls which were bold and obviously fake. Since then, costume jewelry has followed fashion's social and seasonal fluctuations.

"Jewels of Fantasy" is a walk through those exuberant social occasions among cases alight with jewelry that was meant to be noticed. No discreet little bits here.

There are fantasy creatures in sparkling stones, gold plated bibs fit for an Amazon, hot-white Hollywood rhinestones and plastics for the modern primitive -- the fancies of craftsmen freed from the constraints of working with precious materials. It's a sparkling occasion sponsored by Swarovsky, the company which was built on crystal and glitter.

These old designs are a new way of seeing jewelry, and many a woman will go home with renewed respect for a neglected old bauble.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the BMA gift shop is bringing in nearly 300 vintage pieces to spark up the regular inventory. "They will be similar to those seen in the exhibit," says Mary Sheehan, gift and jewelry buyer for the museum, "and the names -- Trifari, Boucher, Miriam Haskell -- were selected to appeal to shoppers and collectors alike."

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