Get Your Costume Jewelry Fix



So-called couture costume designs are making a bold statement at retail

While many fine jewelers aren’t ready to offer costume pieces alongside their diamonds and pearls, stylish women may not take no for an answer. Fashion designers have long flirted with the world of accessories, going back to the 1920s, when Coco Chanel dared to pair strands of faux pearls with her couture designs. But in the wake of this decade’s financial crisis, the idea of fine costume is becoming more attractive to women of all ­backgrounds who want to affordably, and fashionably, update their jewelry wardrobes

Janet Goldman, founder of New York City–based Fragments, a hip downtown destination for emerging designers, thinks that fashion’s embrace of costume could not have come at a better time. “With the price of gold going sky-high, people are looking to other avenues of creativity and finding it in fashion jewelry,” she says. “There are no rules saying you have to limit what you can wear with what. It’s more interesting to layer fine with fashion ­jewelry, and that has always been the Fragments philosophy. As long as it looks great, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.”

In previous years, Goldman says, jewelry was seen as a status symbol. With the changes in the economy, style became the new status.

Aventurine, mother-of-pearl, chalcedony, and Swarovski crystal earrings with 18k gold-plated rondelle and 14k gold fill; $365; Miguel Ases at Fragments

Fragments stocks fashion brands including Dana Kellin, Miguel Ases, Deanna Hamro, Lena Skadegard, and Coralia Leets alongside venerable fine jewelry names such as Alex Sepkus and Gurhan. The mix-and-match sensibility is enticing to Goldman’s clients, who want to embrace trends but are still seeking quality. “A lot of my friends started saying they felt more comfortable wearing costume jewelry a few years ago when prices of gold took the category out of impulse into special-occasion mode,” she says. “Customers are looking for an under-$350 impulse purchase—pieces they can buy in multiples and layer with the rest of their collection. This is jewelry that is made beautifully and looks just as stylish, but at a more accessible price.”

At New York City’s Greenwich Jewelers, co-owner Jennifer Gandia takes cues from her customers. “Unfortunately for the fine jewelry industry, most of the jewelry our customers are seeing in magazines and online editorials is costume jewelry, so there is a demand for it,” Gandia says. “If we don’t offer it, our clients will buy it from J. Crew or Banana Republic. Why not offer costume that is of a quality level that can add something special to a client’s ­jewelry wardrobe? It’s naive to think your clients are only wearing fine jewelry.”

Necklaces in oxidized silver, Swarovski crystal, and gold vermeil; $500–$780; Deanna Hamro at Fragments 

When choosing fine costume designers for her store, Gandia looks at an overall aesthetic and how the pieces will sit alongside her fine ­jewelry. She tends toward a bigger look—something less achievable in fine—and a great color that’s on trend yet classic enough to stand the test of time. Costume ­jewelry usually stays in tune with mainstream fashion, so this season, she says, is all about neons, brights, and pastels—“a virtual rainbow of color.”

Greenwich’s roster of fabulous faux designers includes Ben-Amun, Alexis Bittar, and Gerard Yosca, a fixture on the costume scene for a quarter-century. Known for reintroducing vibrantly colored enamel to high fashion, Yosca also sat on the board of directors of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for 12 years. He agrees that the lines between precious and fashion have blurred, and applauds the industry’s acceptance of handcrafted costume.

Unsigned vintage gold necklace with moonstone pendant and pearl accents; $1,148; House of Lavande, Palm Beach, Fla.; 561-802-3737; houseoflavande.com

“Initially, I was surprised that traditional fine jewelry stores carried my collection, but it makes more and more sense,” Yosca says. “At the end of the day, a customer wants a good shopping experience at a store with taste they can trust. While fine jewelry value is very tied to the cost of metal and stones, my jewelry is more tied to the value of fashion or the statement it makes.”

Yosca’s line, like most costume brands, changes seasonally but has a definite point of view. As more product fills the marketplace, he says, good design gets more valuable. “The pieces that I make that are more ‘out there’ and tied to my handcrafted concept are always the first to sell. I also think that the current market is tied to the appreciation for vintage fashion.”

House of Lavande, a curator and retailer of vintage couture and costume jewels, was born from this very idea. Established in Palm Beach, Fla., by Tracy Smith, the brand—favored by fashion editors and trend-savvy women alike—has now spawned an in-house–designed line, Lavande Original, debuting in Cruise 2013, no doubt echoing some of the design sensibilities favored by Smith, including ’60s–’70s pieces by YSL, Lanvin, Givenchy, Dior, and more.

Louvre resin cuff in neon yellow; $285; Isharya, San Francisco; 415-462-6294; isharya.com

“In vintage costume, there is a uniqueness about each piece that people are drawn to,” Smith says. “Every piece has a story and a feeling behind it. We’re trying to capture that with Lavande Original, and we’re looking forward to being able to expand to reach new markets.” But even fine retailers far from the fashion-conscious hub of New York City have found success with costume lines. At James & Williams Jewelers in Berwyn, Ill., the category is growing exponentially, driven by self-purchases and gift-giving. According to buyer Kristin Hlavacek, big rings, cuff bracelets, long earrings, stacking pieces, and bright colors are the trends du jour.

“We choose brands like Isharya and Swarovski based on a style we think suits our customer and designers that feature a quality product,” Hlavacek says. “This look favors trend-driven pieces that might be in style for a shorter period of time compared to classic staples. With a price-point sweet spot from $100 to $1,500, a purchase can be spur of the moment or more significant.”

Pastel crystal earrings; $135; Ben-Amun, New York City; 212-944-6480; ben-amun.com

Kara Ross’ diffusion line, Kara by Kara Ross, marries the construction of fine jewelry with the look of fashion accessories. Mostly plated or brass and accented with semiprecious gems and exotic skins, the collection was a revelation for the designer who had always worked in 18k gold or platinum.

“Economically, it’s really the right time for this type of jewelry,” Ross says. “People still want beautiful things to wear, and this category is more in vogue today than ever before. We particularly make sure that the eye for quality goes across all of our lines, from the boutique to the one-of-a-kind.” Perhaps more important, the price point has introduced Ross—and her retailers—to a new client base, allowing the brand to reach customers from age 20 to 70. “If each line is properly displayed and individually marketed,” Ross adds, “retailers can definitely make both worlds work together.”

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