Forget the dress. It is the woman’s necklace that commands the attention of the room. A gargantuan garland of golden waterlilies is draped around her neck, like something King Midas has plucked from the water. If it were made of solid gold it would be too heavy to wear and too pricey to buy. But this fantastical creation, handcrafted in brass and then bathed in 24-karat gold, is costume jewellery – or what Goossens, the firm that made it, prefers to call haute-couture jewellery. Liberated from the cost and scarcity of precious metals and gemstones, this art form gives free rein to the designer’s imagination.
Goossens is one of 26 specialist workshops owned by Chanel. It has worked with the fashion house since 1953 when Gabrielle Chanel asked its founder Robert Goossens to create some Byzantine-style jewels. She wanted extravagant, beautiful accessories for her fashion collections that were focused on great design rather than precious materials. She dismissed the traditional role of jewellery as a signifier of the wearer’s wealth: “they might as well wear a cheque around their neck,” Patrick Goossens, son of Robert and now the company’s artistic director, recalls her saying. Costume jewellery used to be described as merely an imitation of “the real thing”. Through her collaboration with Goossens and other artists, Chanel helped such jewellery become an art form in its own right.
Robert Goossens trained as a goldsmith and worked with some of the most prestigious fine-jewellery houses in Paris. But he made the switch after meeting Chanel, and went on to create costume jewellery for the likes of Cristóbal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. Today the company continues to work with fashion houses around the world, as well as creating its own collections.
Costume jewellery is an increasingly important product for high-end retailers. For Chanel, as with other brands, couture may sell the dream, but it is accessories, beauty and fragrance that support the bottom line. In the first quarter of 2019 growth in sales of accessories and jewellery outperformed that of both beauty and clothing across the global luxury market, according to Bain & Company, a consulting firm. Costume jewellery particularly appeals to younger consumers who want “strong creativity at an affordable price”, says Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner at Bain. Chanel’s couture jewellery creations combine elements that the brand is known for, such as long chains of pearls and the double CC logo, with bold designs that appeal to younger buyers as well as existing clients. Since items are mainly made from glass and base metals, they are also highly profitable, and take up minimal space on the shop floor.
In the 1950s and 1960s Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior were inspired by Chanel’s fashion jewellery to create their own collections. Now other fashion houses are joining in. Gucci’s giant golden ears that cover the wearer’s actual ear may not be for everyone, but they are undoubtedly Gucci. Independent brands, such as Alexis Bittar in New York, Monies in Denmark, and Butler & Wilson in London are also creating strong collections.
Costume jewellery, which in its finest form combines fantasy with exquisite craftsmanship, is emerging as a collector’s item in its own right. Susan Hoimes, who deals in costume jewellery in California, says that Chanel’s Chicklet, a long crystal necklace created in 1981, originally sold in stores for $275. Now the design is so sought after that it commands anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 at auction. “You’re better off buying a good piece of vintage costume than a piece of junky fine,” says Hoimes. In 2017 Sotheby’s sold Shaun Leane’s catwalk creation for Alexander McQueen, a single silver earring featuring a taxidermy pheasant claw for $2,500. “It was totally wearable but it was also part of fashion history,” says Harrice Miller, a costume-jewellery dealer who bought it on behalf of a client.
For Patrick Goossens, the mark of couture jewellery’s success is that fine jewellery is now imitating costume jewellery, rather than the other way round. Victoire de Castellane has worked as a jewellery designer at Dior for 20 years. Now artistic director, she has developed a reputation for fantastical, exuberant high-jewellery creations that break away from the staid diamonds and styles that formerly dominated the category. She embraces experimentation in form and colour. It should come as no surprise that she began her career designing costume jewellery.•