Select Page

History of Costume Jewelry Pearls & How Coco Chanel Made Them Fashionable

Today I am answering the questions: Why pearls? How did costume jewelry pearls come into fashion? Who are some famous fashion muses who we look to for pearl inspiration? What are the top tips in buying vintage costume pearls?

Have you ever thought about what it is about pearls that make them so beautiful and desirable? Pearls have been known as “Queen of Gems” and possess a history and allure that goes back to ancient times. Before Mikimoto patented his technique for cultured pearls. Way back, hundreds of years. Pearls were so rare that to have a necklace with matching pearls in luster and spheres was considered a priceless treasure.  They were the most expensive jewelry in the world and so rare that they were reserved for nobles and the very rich. The interest in pearls reached its peak during the Roman Empire when supposedly an entire military campaign was financed when one of the Generals sold 1 of his mothers pearl earrings.

Below the famous painting called The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Painted in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. (Photo from Flickr by ekenltr)14468492229_85d49613da_b

Below a portrait of Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia wearing an exquisite pearl necklace, brooch and headdress. (Photo from Flickr, by Dennis Jarivs)4089676253_2fc2882891_z

Fast forward to Paris France in the early 1920s. French fashion designer Paul Poiret was the first designer that started using costume jewelry in his collections. Then Coco Chanel was the first designer to introduce large fake pearls with glittering gemstones and this ignited a trend. Her customers loved the idea of combining the real jewelry with the fake and piling it on. Her minimalistic clothing designs were the perfect backdrop for layers of this costume jewelry. Chanel preferred to accessorize with many pieces of costume jewelry rather than be limited to 1 or 2 expensive fine jewelry items. Her customers loved it. Prior to Chanel introducing the concept of wearing piles of costume jewelry, wealthy clients usually preferred not to display expensive items in public, and now could be completely comfortable wearing Chanel costume jewelry.

16311023523_f03a4b495d_zBefore Coco Chanel’s ground breaking approach to mixing costume jewelry with fine, costume jewelry was really only worn by those who could not afford the real thing. And she also felt that with costume jewelry women could afford to properly accessorize their outfits rather than be limited to a few pieces. Chanel brilliantly turned the undesirable costume jewelry into a hot fashion trend especially the idea of piling it on, a look that she consistently sported herself. Chanel had quite a trove of fine jewelry given to her by lovers and suitors. She raided her own jewelry box and partnered with Duke Fulco de Vedura, of Verdura Jewelry and launched a House of Chanel jewelry line. Her famous white enameled cuff bracelets were a result of this partnership and are considered one of the iconic pieces in the Verdura collection today. Coco Chanel stated “It’s disgusing to walk around with millions dollars around the neck because one happens to be rich. I only like fake jewelry….because it’s provocative”. 16925778001_a435bf0568_zSo, we can thank Coco Chanel for helping to bring costume jewelry into fashion and making beautiful pieces within reach as opposed to expensive fine jewelry. And of course I love the concept of piling it on! And she certainly did that with pearls. One of my favorite photographs of Chanel is the one where she has on white, wide legged pants, a long sleeve black tee shirt, her famous Verdura cuffs, loads of pearl necklaces and pearl earrings. Below, a few Verdura booklets that note the collaboration with Chanel.IMG_1286Pearls are popular because:

  1. They look good on everybody
  2. There are many colors, varieties, lengths and jewels to chose from
  3. There are very good quality costume pearls available as well as terrific value in vintage costume pearls
  4. Considered a classic and must have in every womans wardrobe
  5. Costume pearls affords you the ability to own several (or in my case, a lot!) of faux pearl necklaces, bracelets and earrings
  6. They are always in style and seasonless
  7. Easy to wear and dress up any outfit
  8. Layer in really well with other pearls and mix great with other jewelry. See Coco Chanels photos above

Click here to subscribe
What brands are good vintage collectibles for costume pearls?

  • Chanel is highly coveted both new and vintage
  • Carolee makes very good quality costume pearls and you can find awesome vintage pieces from the 1980s and 90s
  • Monet
  • Les Bernard
  • Ciner
  • Erwin Pearl
  • Christian Dior
  • Kenneth Jay Lane
  • Trifari

pearl necklac

What should you look for when buying vintage costume jewelry pearls:

  • A signature or signed piece will give you a good idea of the quality
  • Nice faux pearls will have a good hand or weight about them
  • Knotted – even well made faux pearls will be knotted. Knotting helps pearls hang nicely and is considered a superior design and construction detail. Also, if your strand should break, you won’t lose pearls all over the floor or on the street
  • A nice clasp, that is working properly
  • Check the “skin” of costume pearls to make sure it is free of peeling or chipping
  • Try them on to make sure they hang nicely and to check if they can be doubled or tripled over your head, especially if you are certain you will want to wear them that way
  • Well known brands such as Kenneth Jay Lane dip glass bases or beads into a solution of pearl essence called synthesized nacre. They are then hand polished to create a lustrous finish
  • Sniff test – be sure and give any vintage or second hand pearls a pass under your nose to smell them. Perfume and fragrance seem to really adhere to knotted faux pearls. I once bought a beautiful , opera length strand of costume pearls which had a horrible perfume oder that I could never remove. I ended up donating them.  Trust me, don’t let that happen to you


Famous Pearl Jewelry:

Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany, wearing the famous Givenchy dress with the built in pearl and rhinestone necklace. Check out my tutorial on how replicate that necklace here.finalJackie Kennedy’s 3 stand pearl necklace which is believed to have been inherited from her mother. And it turns out, while I was researching this post, I found out that Chanel was one of Jackie’s favorite designers!IMG_1295

Here’s a photo of me in some of favorite vintage pearls. In case you’re wondering I am wearing 4 vintage costume pearl necklaces. I think Coco Chanel would be proud.shopify orange dress pearlsOkay, I showed you my pearls. Now, show me yours. Post a photo wearing your favorite pearls – it can be any pearls – necklaces, bracelets, earrings, you name it, I want to see it. Post your photos on Instagram and use the hashtag #PearlWeek

Ready to add some costume pearls to your wardrobe? Visit my Vintage Jewelry store here.

Got a question about costume pearls? Leave it in the comments below.

Click here to subscribe