How Coco Chanel Changed The Way We Wear Costume Jewellery

In a way, all of us – from the fashion peacock to the intellectual dresser – have Gabrielle Chanel to thank for when it comes to how we accessorise today. For had it not been for her rule-breaking ways, wearing costume jewellery would still be considered a faux pas; they were once deemed as being only for women who couldn’t afford the real thing. Yeap, people were judgey back then. Fast forward to 2020 and the market for bijoux – as costume jewellery is also called – is a voracious one with some designs crossing the four-figure mark. According to a report released by Reportlinker in February this year, the global market for costume jewellery is projected to grow by US$11.3 billion (S$16.0 billion) this year and reach over US$17.9 billion (S$25.3 billion) by 2025.

Portrait of Gabrielle Chanel in her costume jewellery finery. Photo: The Cecil Beaton Studio/Archive at Sotheby's

Chanel upended the conservative approach to how and what jewellery should be worn during her time when she started pairing precious jewellery pieces with the faux stuff. It was her way of confusing others and a gave her a provocative delight in dressing up. By the 1920s, the first Chanel bijoux designs started appearing in stores, marking the time costume jewellery started becoming in vogue. While her brand of ready-to-wear is synonymous with understated elegance, Chanel's personal taste for jewellery could not be more different. She revelled in bijoux that were flashy and multi-faceted with designs that featured a profusion of stones, faux pearls and precious metals such as vermeil and bronze. She drew inspiration from her circle of bohemian friends and developed a taste for opulence by piling on her necklaces and sautoirs and layering her brooches and cuff bracelets – something the street style crowd of today has perfected.

"Costume jewellery isn’t made to provoke desire, just astonishment at most. It must remain an ornament and an amusement." – Gabrielle Chanel

Chanel and Duke Fulco di Vedura – her head of jewellery design – loosely based the house's iconic Maltese cross motif on the star of the Knights of Malta. The motif continues to be reinterpreted until today.

She famously declared: "Costume jewellery isn’t made to provoke desire, just astonishment at most. It must remain an ornament and an amusement." Her pieces highlighted the function of the 'costume' in costume jewellery: bijoux were considered finishing touches for an outfit. For instance, her iconic cuff bracelets were meant to replace the cuff of a shirt, while a jewelled belt served to embellish the waist, and a cleverly placed brooch could alter the way a dress fell.

Gabrielle Chanel's taste for opulence – by piling on her necklaces and sautoirs and layering her brooches and cuff bracelets – is something the street style crowd of today has perfected. Photos: Showbit.com

The imprints left by the various collaborators that Chanel worked with also make the maison's costume jewellery special. The Sicilian nobleman Duke Fulco di Verdura, with whom Chanel had a close friendship with, designed the brand's iconic Maltese cross in 1927 which continues to make its appearance each season. Then there was jewellery designer Suzanne Gripoix who Chanel first approached for reproductions of Byzantine jewellery and maintained a working relationship with for years. For Chanel, Gripoix created a special irregular glass pearl to which she gave a mother-of-pearl sheen. But it was the maison's ties to the goldsmith Robert Goossens, which began in 1954, that has remained as the brand's most high-profile one and has stood the test of time. That partnership saw Chanel expanding her repertoire of costume jewellery to include baroque-leaning designs, including the iconic “nest” earrings which remain a popular item among vintage hunters. Today, Goossens is one of the more than two dozen ateliers that specialise in the various metiers d’art for the house. Now, remind us again who said wearing costume jewellery was a faux pas?

This article is originally published on Female Singapore.

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