On the swings and roundabouts of fashion trends, fine jewellery and costume jewellery take turns riding high. Sometimes one is in the ascendant, sometimes the other. I love them both, but – full disclosure – I’ve always had a penchant for the fantasy and freedom of costume jewellery, for its make-believe, treasure-like richness and its lack of inhibition. There’ve been times when, choosing between the elegance of the real thing or a mad, mega-statement of faux finery, I’ve opted for the fantasy jewel. Just look at the temptingly powerful presence of costume jewellery (sadly much of it just for show) on this season’s catwalks: Tom Ford’s monumental earrings, Gucci’s cyborg-themed cross-cultural gems or Dolce & Gabbana’s baroque extravaganzas.
But there’s a shift, a new equilibrium, as costume jewellery – or couture jewellery, as the finest examples are also known – begins to share fine jewellery’s artisanship, its connection to the individual craftsperson, its sense of narrative and its appreciation of the power of expression, whatever the material value of its own components. At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who paired her first haute-couture collection for the house with handmade jewels by artist Claude Lalanne, tells me how she values couture jewellery as a vital element of her vision for Dior, one that goes beyond the usual concept of accessories. “Couture jewellery is imbued with an intimate and personal value. It has an extraordinary stage presence; it is the detail that exalts the whole.”
Louis Vuitton is ramping up its costume jewellery, both for the catwalk and its commercial ranges – all designed by the hugely talented accessories creative director Camille Miceli in collaboration with womenswear creative director Nicolas Ghesquière. Across the collections, the detailing, patinated metals and modelling of motifs all point to a new emphasis on craftsmanship and storytelling. Three series of eye-catching crystal and black-enamel jewels dazzled on the autumn/winter catwalk, underlining a theme that brought together both different eras and east and west, while in the retail collections, the crystal-embellished chains of the Louis Vuitton Windsor series (necklace, £2,000; bracelet, £885) exude art deco style and the stylised flowers recall the 1940s heyday of American costume jewellery. And for the Bionic series, wings wrapped around pearls appear on mismatched modern earwear (£255).
Chanel’s costume jewellery, one of Coco’s passions and innovations, is embedded in its soul. Now, under the influence of Lagerfeld’s famous wit, classic Chanel codes – the chain, number 5, threaded ribbons, double Cs, pearls, camellias – are interwoven with Mademoiselle’s favourite Byzantine style, or her layered necklaces, to create young, fresh, contemporary statements with a sense of narrative and history. Signature cuff bangles (£1,325) are modernised – thanks to contrasting blocks of black and beige resin, embedded with a star or a red resin heart – while gilt-metal chain earrings (£445) are threaded with black leather and accented with faux pearls. Pieces are mostly made by specialist artisan-atelier Maison Desrues, which has created buttons and couture jewellery for Chanel since the 1960s and was taken over by the company in 1985.
Brand heritage is also woven into new costume pieces at Dior, where the successful Tribales earrings (£290), featuring a pearl or bead on both front and back, are updated with aged metal effects and constellation motifs, while buzz phrase J’Adior is turned into crystal-encrusted chokers (£280).
This shift towards costume jewellery with character, soul and story is something that was anticipated by Nadja Swarovski over 10 years ago, when she came up with Atelier Swarovski – a collaborative collection of jewellery and accessories conceived with individual designers to push the boundaries of costume jewellery by embracing creativity and craftsmanship. This autumn, Atelier Swarovski, in collaboration with other brands, launches new sculptural, modernist or nostalgic jewels centred around Swarovski crystals. Arbol by Peter Pilotto includes a choker (£349), cuff (£199), sautoir (£399) and rings (from £125) that translate the architecture of nature into playful graphics; Mary Katrantzou’s Nostalgia, including duster earrings (£349), rings (£149) and bracelets (£399), is characteristically vibrant and geometric; and Tabitha Simmons reworks charms and lockets with modern elegance in a statement necklace (£579) and bracelet (£399).
Contemporary costume jewellery that goes even further towards the artisanal, the handmade and a strong individual identity draws upon the trend for “studio” jewellery – those pieces created by studio-based craftspeople. This year has seen a noticeable wave of studio-style crafted jewellery on the catwalks, including pieces from Altuzarra, Dries Van Noten, Proenza Schouler – and, of course, Marni, known for its artisanal eclecticism and quirky fashion jewellery. Designers Molly Molloy and Kristin Forss were in the Marni fold before they decided to launch their own fashion and accessories collection with former Vogue fashion director and stylist Lucinda Chambers, named Colville after the Notting Hill terrace. For the jewellery, they turned to Vicki Sarge, whose handmade costume jewellery is crafted in her Belgravia atelier, to help create a modern expression for design-driven, luxury fashion jewellery aimed at clients who choose jewellery not for intrinsic worth but for artful self-expression.
Colville’s oversized earrings (£685) are arrestingly strong and graphic in shape and form, curling around the ear in gilt metal embellished with crystal in unexpected ways – such as inserted between comb-like tines or at the end of a huge, sweeping hoop. There’s also a fresh take on the classic crystal or diamond drop earring (from £295), a chandelier-shaped crystal drop hanging from a straight line that’s fringed on either side with alternate square-set crystals. Patti Green, jewellery buyer at Matchesfashion.com, exclusive stockist of Colville, confirms the trend towards “great craftsmanship and more artisanal pieces”, adding, “Our customers are buying into jewellery with a unique aesthetic and a point of difference; they often mix costume and fine jewellery, especially earrings. They may wear a statement fashion earring in the first hole, with smaller fine-jewellery styles stacked up the ear.”
Valery Demure scours the world for innovative creators of costume jewellery to add to the stable of international jewellery and accessory designers she represents in her London showroom. She rejects any hint of “opportunistic” artisanal bandwagon jumping, choosing only designers who truly value craftsmanship and have a strong individual creative vision. “Costume jewellery was sleek, perfect, often all crystal,” she explains, backtracking the current trend, “and now we’re returning to craft, to more storytelling – costume jewellery can no longer be soulless.” She favours the work of Annie Costello Brown, a former painter and graphic designer, who handcrafts bold, graphic pieces (from £200) in her Los Angeles studio. Costello Brown likes the idea of transforming humble materials – bronze, brass, glass, shells, and leather for texture – into rich-looking jewellery, and her distinctive, high-energy aesthetic (such as Calder-esque “mobile” earrings – from £150 – with graphic, cut-out shapes) and mix of hippy and mechanistic, futuristic style packs a powerful punch, one that kickstarted a cult look in the US that has spread around the globe. The appeal lies in a certain spontaneous rawness that translates into sophistication, as if a quickly hand-drawn sketch has been hewn in metal or Perspex, exuding the unfettered energy of the artist.
There’s a parallel playfulness in a different style to the jewellery of London-based Parisian designer Laurence Coste, who channels her ideas into feminine, figurative, naturalistic and whimsical styles that are intensely individualistic. Her classic vermeil Ginkgo collar (£1,995) sends leaves tumbling into the décolletage; Poseidon earrings (£365) are topped with faux coral and faux-coral fish and finished with malachite drops; while the tribal Madeira earrings (£145) feature a bold block of ebony and the chunky Beluga earrings (£365) in black glass hang with real brown shells.
The 1960s and 1970s were another great age of costume jewellery, and capturing the essence of that era is Sonia Petroff, a revived couture jewellery brand with collections handmade by artisans in small ateliers in Florence, in very small quantities – just as they were crafted in Rome under the creative direction of Sonia Petroff herself. Born into an aristocratic Bulgarian family, Petroff fled eastern Europe after the second world war, first living in Argentina, where she started designing costume jewellery, and then settling in Rome at the height of la dolce vita. Petroff made a name for herself among the international jet set, both with her own creations and those designed for fashion houses including Balmain, Valentino and Nina Ricci, encompassing glamorous and gregarious gilt and faux-gem-set belts, jewellery and bags. When she died in 2015, her archive passed to her Italian nephew and his wife, Maria Leoni Sceti, who is now bringing Petroff’s couture jewels and story back to life.
Launching the first collection this September, Leoni Sceti explains that she has faithfully replicated the belts (from £765) as the essence of Petroff’s style. Made from wide, handcrafted strips of leather, they have buckles in richly gold-plated copper – in such shapes as a trio of brilliantly hued parrots or a golden lobster, Petroff’s signature – set with cabochons, minerals and crystals. The pieces are inspired by Petroff’s jewellery designs, but are updated and tweaked to give them contemporary edge: graphic, skeletal gilt lobsters dangle as earrings (£395) from aquamarine-coloured crystals; stylised gilt bird earrings (£385) and a dragonfish necklace (£465) are finished with twisted leather chords; there’s an “eye” motif choker (£565) and bangle (£365); and an elongated oval gilt ring (£290) with a red glass stone encircled in chain. They’re all fabulously flamboyant, with a strong 1970s vibe and a vibrant Made in Italy spirit that’s very of the moment.
A veteran of the genre is Simon Harrison. London-based and trained as a silversmith, he was one of the first British designer-jewellers to embrace fashion in the 1980s, and bring fine-jewellery techniques and craftsmanship to costume jewellery. Alongside the many collections he has designed and made for fashion names such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, he dreams up his own designs, which he lavishes with technical finesse and a high level of detail. The crystal-encrusted Snake necklace/bracelet (£1,495) is slinkily articulated and the striking Electra collar (£595) encircles the neck in iridescent, enamelled fish. Modern, advanced methods, he says, enhance design and refine craftsmanship, which are both essential as women look for “emotional content” in their costume jewellery, just as they would in fine jewellery. “Placing narrative at the heart of design prompts an emotional response. It is a powerful trigger.”
Every concept in Harrison’s collection starts with a story. The Coral collection (bracelet, £350; necklace, £550) was inspired by a chain he found in a harbour, encrusted with seaweed; his Bear bracelet (£1,490), a technical tour de force with articulated tufts of gold-plated stainless-steel fur, was inspired by mingled visions of a Turkish rug, a Victorian bearskin and the story of Goldilocks. He is passionate about the model making that brings these stories to life; there are five model makers in his London studio, who, he says, “work with the mind and skill of a sculptor, creating three-dimensional, lyrical content that is key to the narrative”. Each master model is intricately sculpted by hand and hand-finished, engraved, enamelled, articulated and hand-set with crystal stones. He revels in the freedom of expression offered by costume jewellery, which comes when “style is released from material value”. He declares, “Fashion jewellery can add detail and interest to all surfaces. Even if these can only be seen by the wearer. That is part of the joy.”
This freedom of expression is very much a quality that is being channelled into the new artisanal, intensely individual genre of couture jewellery as it cross-fertilises with fine jewellery and an artistic studio aesthetic. And that makes it incredibly powerful to wear. As Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri says, “More than clothing itself, fashion jewellery can be a hallmark – the special something that reveals taste and perhaps a secret anticonformism, a desire to break the rules.”