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Old costume jewelry is making a glittering comeback in auctions


Costume jewelry -- glittering colored glass imitations of Cartier and Van Cleef; whimsical fakes by Miriam Haskell, Trifari, Hobe, Monet and Pennino; and Oriental fantasies by Joseff of Hollywood -- has been rediscovered by a growing number of collectors. Led by the Italians, English, German and French, who have been scooping up these passe novelties for the last decade, Americans now seem bent on regaining a heritage they nearly lost.

Designer costume jewelry, sometimes faithful reproductions and many times aggressive kitsch brilliantly original, has become a thriving business coast to coast. At the Atlantique City Antiques Market in March, 52 of the 1,100 dealers showed costume jewelry.

It has not been showcased by major auction houses, though not totally ignored. Phillips in New York held a costume jewelry auction back in 1985 and Christie's South Kensington in London held a successful sale last December. A few regional auctioneers are now listing costume jewelry in estate sales.

Since 1983, Norman Crider's shop on the top floor of Trump Plaza in New York has been the source for Barbra Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, Raquel Welch and others. It was after Mr. Crider held a Miriam Haskell show in 1984 that the craze for faux jewelry from the '20s through the '60s took off.

"Miriam Haskell produced the greatest variety of any maker and people kill for her pearls," says Mr. Crider.

Today a battalion of dealers stalk garage sales and small auctions and make friends with white-haired widows who might have a jewelry box filled with brooches and clips, bracelets and collars that they will sell for cash.

Some pieces of costume jewelry are simply low-cost baubles of questionable quality, without much charm or technical innovation, but the best is original and inventive. The "duette" brooch, two clips with mobile motifs held together by a metal bridge to form a single brooch, is a design that was patented by Coro when it came out in the 1940s. It was exceedingly popular because the clips could be worn separately or together as a brooch.

"It became a fashion statement when rhinestones came back into fashion about eight years ago," said Merion, Pa., dealer Joan Toborowsky. "When grandmother's rhinestones were found to be much better made than the new ones, this once-ignored jewelry was instantly collectible."

According to Ms. Toborowsky, as contemporary designers look back in history for their inspiration, collectors seek the previous incarnations of the current trend. "For example, last month's Vogue featured new flower pins and now we have lots of calls for '40s, '50s and '60s flower pins," said Elsa Zukin, Ms. Toborowsky's sister and her partner in E. and J. Rothstein, the name they use for their business when they do shows. In their stock is a Hattie Carnegie rose of coral plastic with a rhinestone dewdrop and gold stem and leaves ($200), and a Vendome sprig of white dogwood with a faux pearl center and enamel petals and leaves ($175).

It is now stylish to wear multiple pins. Bugs are worn on shoulders, on sleeves, even crawling up the back of a blouse. A Nettie Rosenstein fly 3 inches long with a green stone body and wings paved with rhinestones, or a Coro "jelly belly" beetle with ,, gold and rhinestone spiny legs and red glass eyes, are very desirable. (Jelly bellies are animal or insect pins with clear Lucite bodies.)

Some collectors have been known to wear their entire collection of jelly bellies on a coat. Made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, jelly bellies can cost from $200 up to $1,800 each. In comparison, a Kenneth Jay Lane 2-inch red, white and blue bumblebee from the 1960s is $175, and an unsigned crystal butterfly with a 2 1/2 -inch wingspan is $250.

For summer wear, '50s copper jewelry is the choice of a small but growing group of collectors. Hobe silver and gold washed xTC jewelry from the 1940s with each leaf wired to a frame by hand is also very popular. Hobe sometimes used real gemstones and at other times Oriental motives cast in gutta-percha, an early plastic. A Hobe silver brooch with a Buddha of gutta-percha costs $600; another brooch with a gutta-percha Buddha riding an elephant topped by a silver bower set with multicolored stones costs $650.

Joseff of Hollywood is a magic name. The firm has recently released some "new" old stock. "When we do an antique show and put out six cases of costume jewelry, and one of Joseff, the new collector will be drawn to Joseff, buy a piece and invariably come back to find another," said Elsa Zukin. Joseff jewelry is dramatic. A chicken claw dripping with chains and stones costs $475; a camel made of a brass alloy, its saddle set with gems, $275; and an elephant-head necklace with earrings and pin to match costs $950.

Whimsical jewelry is selling fast. Instead of shopping for a new dress during this recession, women are shortening their old skirts and buying a showy piece of costume jewelry for a new look.

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