“Costume jewellery is not made to give women an aura of wealth but to make them beautiful,” so said Coco Chanel, queen of simulated pearls and glittering faux gemsetones. It is a sentiment that resonates with Jennifer Gibson, who launched her eponymous vintage costume jewellery brand in 2016 having been an avid collector of eye-catching and rare pieces since she was a teenager.
Gibson, whose mother owned an antique business, was drawn to the workmanship and opulence of these pieces, which she saw as an expression of pure joy steered by a sense unfettered fantasy and adventure. As she learned more about the cultural and social implications of costume jewellery – the way it democratised high glamour and allowed women of all backgrounds to engage more playfully with fashion as a form of self-expression – so her magpie tendencies grew sharper and more discerning.
Today every piece that she selects for her unique business has been carefully considered for its look, feel and backstory – be it a rare Dior treasure from the 1950s to an unsigned choker necklace from the 1990s. Gibson has just created special vintage jewellery edits for Selfridges, curating a trio of collections for its London, Manchester Exchange Square and Birmingham stores, some of which are also available to buy online.
Here the expert collector tells us about her favourite pieces and why vintage costume jewellery still has the power to educate and enlighten.
Why did you choose to specialise in vintage costume jewellery as opposed to antique fine jewellery?
I think it’s down to a fascination with workmanship. The creativity and daring that designers used to apply to these pieces is astonishing. If you think about it, there is no intrinsic value in a piece of metal, glass or enamel, and yet the the attention to detail you find in many vintage costume jewels is often equal to that applied to fine jewellery. In many ways, the innovation knew no bounds too, because designers didn’t have the constraints that exist in fine jewellery. Things like budget or stone size, such as only being able to get an emerald of a certain carat and having to adjust the design accordingly. In costume jewellery, you could go as big as you liked. These more affordable jewels also meant more freedom for women – they were able to buy it for themselves and play with different pieces as they pleased. It was democratic, appealing to all classes of society which resulted in a real boom in production in the 1940s and 1950s. Now we have all this incredible wealth of history with costume jewellery reflecting the evolving creativity in fashion through the decades. I’m always finding things that I’ve never seen before, so I’m always learning.
What treasures have you found recently?
I bought a beautiful Dior brooch for my own collection. Christian Dior is interesting because he worked with so many collaborators. It’s a design I’ve never seen before, it’s very Art Deco in style which was quite unusual for him. Big [couture] houses like Dior and Chanel do have historical records but they don’t have all the information – their approach is very much retrospective archiving. There is no single source to look to really when you are researching. It’s lovely that after all these years, there’s always something that will take me completely by surprise.
Don’t you just end up wanting to keep everything?
It is very hard! I’m like everyone else though, I have a budget. Collecting is also about keeping things safe for the future. I lent a piece of Dior jewellery to London’s Victoria & Albert museum for the exhibition Christian Dior: Designer Of Dreams in 2019. The piece [the bronze, rhodium and glass Bal de Oiseaux parure seen above] is from my personal collection but I’ve actually bequeathed it to the museum. The story is that it was made in London by a maker called Mitchel Maer following Christian Dior’s design. Dior was a real anglophile. He had a huge soft spot for England, so it’s going to its rightful home.
Tell me a little bit more about the collections you have chosen for the Selfridges stores in London, Manchester and Birmingham?
They are small edits but some of them are quite large pieces so they need space. In London, the focus was the glitz and the glamour of the cocktail era of the 1950s with a few touches of 80s drama with big chokers and earrings. In Manchester and Birmingham, the collections are more designer-led, predominately Chanel, Dior and Givenchy. The London edition is now online, but these one-of-a-kind pieces are meant to be seen and felt so we are looking forward to the stores reopening post lockdown.
Some of these jewels must have an interesting backstory…
There are a pair of golden Dior earrings in Selfridges Manchester. The same model was worn by Linda Evangelista on the runway in 1991. [This moment was chosen by formidable French editor Carine de Roitfeld as one of her favourite Linda E catwalk moments]. When you find an image like that, it’s so great. I am forever trawling runway images to see if I can place a piece in a moment in time. Inevitably, while I’m searching, I fall into another five rabbit holes. But finding a time and place really brings things to life. In London, there’s a blue crystal cluster necklace. It’s not a Dior piece but Dior and Swarovski together invented the rainbow crystal better known as the Aurora Borealis crystal. It’s a really dramatic piece that sits just above the collar bone. The colour blue is so difficult to capture with this stone as it’s so transient. I mean it’s 70 years old, just metal and glass, and yet someone has painstakingly set each and everyone of these stones. If you look at the back, the artistry is just as strong, which is a significant feature of vintage costume jewellery. Something to cherish and not so prominent today.
Is there a vintage piece that you are on the hunt for?
There’s a brooch by Dior, a crystal encrusted unicorn from the 1950s. I have a few but they are astronomical because they are so rare. It was made by Mitchel Maer too. The things that he and Dior created together were just magical. They designed a musical box that could be worn as a pin decorated with cherubs and flowers. Just to think of them devising that together: a miniature mechanism made in Switzerland magicked up into something so beautiful to be pinned to your clothes! In modern jewellery, well these stories are almost second or third hand, drawing back from this rich past. Chanel was so ahead of her time too. Her clothes but also her jewellery was so boundary breaking. I could talk about these designers and how they revolutionalised jewellery for hours.
Do you think costume jewellery can take on its own personality given the fact that heritage is such a big draw for the buyer?
Costume jewellery continues to fascinate and the story develops according to your own life and adventures. I remember we sold three spider brooches in one night once. One was to a barrister. She said she was going to an important “do” the following week and wanted a talking point – which I think is really fabulous. So jewellery expresses things without having to say anything, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.