An expert guide to vintage costume jewellery

In conversation with Christie’s specialist Claibourne Poindexter, Harrice Simons Miller explains why bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces by Chanel are particularly highly prized 


Harrice Simons Miller is a Manhattan-based jewellery historian, dealer and author, specialising in costume — or fashion — jewellery. 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,’ she 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 Paris Exposition 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.

‘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.

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.’

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, 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.’

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.’

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.’

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, they are 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.’

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