An expert’s guide to vintage costume  fashion  couture jewellery

An expert’s guide to vintage costume / fashion / couture jewellery

Costume jewellery historian Harrice Simons Miller explains to Christie’s specialist Claibourne Poindexter why bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces by Chanel — offered in Christie’s What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction, 18 September — are so highly prized

Harrice Simons Miller is a Manhattan-based costume — or fashion — jewellery historian, dealer and author. She is the author of five jewellery books, including Kenneth Jay Lane: Faking It, and Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger. In 2011, Miller appraised and catalogued Elizabeth Taylor’s extensive costume jewellery collection ahead of Christie’s landmark auction.

‘The most important attributes of high-end costume jewellery are the design and craftsmanship,’ the expert explains. Here, she offers further insights into the category, in conversation with Christie’s jewellery specialist Claibourne Poindexter. 


Claibourne Poindexter: What was the status of European costume jewellery before it was popularised by Chanel in the 1920s?

Harrice Miller: ‘Prior to and including the 1920s, costume jewellery was most often created to mimic fine jewellery — marcasites for diamonds, jade for emeralds, and so on. The 1900 World’s Fair in Paris inspired a huge interest in jewellery, and gave birth to a new generation of creative artisans who designed “imitation” jewellery, offering to the masses baubles that were previously available only to the elite.

A set of two turquoise glass-and-gold jewels, Chanel, early 1980s. Estimate $1,000-1,500. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A set of two turquoise glass-and-gold jewels, Chanel, early 1980s. Estimate: $1,000-1,500. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘In the 1920s, couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret began to accessorise their dresses with jewellery made of crystals and non-precious metals. They were followed by Chanel, Lanvin and Patou, and the concept of costume jewellery was revolutionised.’

CP: What are some of the most important names associated with costume jewellery, and who has made a lasting impact in the field?

HM: ‘Coco Chanel is the first name that comes to mind for many costume jewellery collectors, due to her innovative and enduring designs that have been popular for nearly a century.

Schiaparelli’s early jewellery, with its often whimsical, surreal aspects, is treasured, as are Miriam Haskell's intricately made necklaces of coloured glass stones and simulated pearls.

Chanel purple poured glass and multi-chain pendant necklace. Sold for $1,375 on 14 Jun 2018, Online

Chanel purple poured glass and multi-chain pendant necklace. Sold for $1,375 on 14 Jun 2018, Online

Yves Saint Laurent’s bold costume jewellery is remarkable for the use of materials such as wood, feathers, cork, leather, shells and glass, underlining the freedom that designers felt when creating costume jewellery.

‘Other outstanding costume jewellery designers include Kenneth Jay Lane, who like Chanel, made it chic for socialites and royals. Balenciaga, Cardin, Christian Dior, Schreiner, Trifari, Marcel Boucher, Countess Cis Zoltowska, Coppola e Toppo, and the contemporary artist Iradj Moini, are among many others who have made a lasting impact in this field.’

A set of four gold and multicolour Gripoix jewels, Chanel, FallWinter 1995, 1980s. Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A set of four gold and multicolour Gripoix jewels, Chanel, Fall/Winter 1995, 1980s. Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

CP: Can you elaborate on techniques or materials that are important to costume jewellery in general?

HM: ‘From the innovative pâte de verre — or ‘poured glass’ — used by Maison Gripoix in Chanel costume jewellery, to the unusual way that the Schreiner company set rhinestones upside down into its settings, and Countess Zoltowska’s experimental method of heating stones until they cracked, it is the uncommon use of common elements that really elevates costume jewellery.’

A gold chain and multicolour jewelled belt, Chanel, SpringSummer 1993. 70 cm. Estimate $1,000-1,500. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A gold chain and multicolour jewelled belt, Chanel, Spring/Summer 1993. 70 cm. Estimate: $1,000-1,500. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

CP: What impact did Chanel have on fashion jewellery?

HM: ‘In the same way that Coco Chanel changed the field of fashion through her use of trousers for women, jersey fabric, the LBD, and her iconic suits based on menswear, she also pioneered mixing costume and fine jewellery when she wore simulated pearl necklaces mixed in with gemstones. She brought “imitation” jewellery into the mainstream of fashion, making the look she wore available to everyone.’

A métiers dart  Paris-Dallas set, Chanel, FallWinter 2014. Estimate $1,500-2,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A métiers d'art  Paris-Dallas set, Chanel, Fall/Winter 2014. Estimate: $1,500-2,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

CP: What can you tell us about the partnership between Coco Chanel and Robert Goossens?

HM:Robert Goossens worked with Coco Chanel from 1954 until her death in 1971. In the catalogue for the 2000 sale of his couture jewels at Christie’s, he recalled that she was “amused by the melange of a mixture of styles”, and how it had been difficult for him to “work within the framework of her kind of thinking”, simply because he didn’t dare. 

‘She was sensitive to the composition, the shape and the application without regard for the intrinsic value. From 1955 a collection of jewellery was created that blended various motifs using gemstones, molten glass, simulated pearls, rhinestones and diamonds. 

‘Monsieur Goossens told me about the many times they would go to the Louvre together and Chanel would point out jewellery from Byzantine, Scythian, Etruscan or other civilisations, and ask him to recreate pieces for her in his artisanal style under her creative direction. The pieces of jewellery he created are as fresh and wearable today as they were 50 years ago.’

A crystal and patent leather jewellery set, Chanel, SpringSummer 1995. Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A crystal and patent leather jewellery set, Chanel, Spring/Summer 1995. Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in the What Goes Around Comes Around 25th Anniversary Auction on 18 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

CP: What makes Chanel’s costume jewellery so special?

HM: ‘Great costume jewellery pieces are often described by collectors as miniature works of art. Unlike furniture or paintings, it is something that can be used to express one’s personality while being worn. Fine jewellery often lives in the vault — costume jewellery is out in the world as personal adornment.’