How is High-End Jewelry Defined?

The terms for defining different types of jewelry has always been somewhat ambiguous. What determines if a piece of jewelry fits under the header of costume/fashion jewelry or fine/high-end jewelry? Even though there are basic industry standards for what differentiates the two, the line that separates them has become increasingly blurred over the years. The 20th century has seen many designers breaking the rules in costume and fine jewelry making, which has added a level of subjectivity to the categorization of jewelry.

High-End Jewelry - Georgian Silver & Paste Brooch (c. 1714-1830)
A Georgian Era Paste Brooch on Silver.

The History of Costume Jewelry

While costume jewelry is generally known to have made its debut during the 1920s, cheaper, less expensive pieces have been being made for centuries, and for different reasons. The ancient Egyptians, for example, were famous for making bracelets and necklaces out of colored gemstones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise. These were often made as symbols of pride for their territories and their gods. They adorned themselves to ward off evil spirits and believed that wearing jewelry would help them survive the afterlife.

In the 1700’s during the Georgian era, paste and glass jewelry was made, mostly for the wealthy who took an interest in the less-expensive versions of their fine jewelry. Following that era and under the rule of Queen Victoria, jewelry in the 1800’s was much more varied than centuries before. Not only was there a demand by the growing middle class for more affordable jewelry using stones such as pearls, amethyst and garnets, but after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria entered what is now known as her ‘mourning’ period, and in jewelry non-precious material such as human hair and black jet were used as symbols of love and mourning to represent her loss. In any case and for whatever the reason, jewelry had historically always been made to last, to be passed on to future generations as a keepsake.

Industrialization Pushes Fashion Forward

And then the 1920’s things changed. With industrialization and the emancipation of women, designers were keen to experiment, and women were open to new forms of expression through fashion and adornment. The evolution of fashion happened ever more rapidly and jewelry was being made with new and inexpensive materials to match the trends of the time. Replacing platinum and gold with alloys of silver, brass, copper and tin (to name a few) and setting stones like cubic zirconia, glass and rhinestone became the fashion.

High-End Jewelry - Art Deco Ruby & Diamond Ring
Art Deco Ruby and Diamond Ring.

After all, big, bold, glitzy looks in fine jewelry came with a high price tag. Since the quality of this mass-produced jewelry, didn’t matter as much, this type of jewelry could easily be replaced with others as fashion trends came in and out of style, much like the fashion jewelry we see today.

Two Ways to Define High-End Jewelry

Contrary to costume or fashion jewelry, fine jewelry is higher-end, and more expensive. As a definition, ‘fine’ means to be of superior or best quality. To many traditional jewelers, fine jewelry is considered exceptionally made gold or platinum jewelry set with precious gemstones:

  • Diamond
  • Ruby
  • Sapphire
  • Emerald

To others, fine jewelry is considered precious metal and stone jewelry that is not mass-produced by a machine, and made with care and extraordinary craftsmanship. Over time, however, additional gemstones became increasingly popular and were being used by high jewelry houses in many remarkable pieces of high-end jewelry. They are:

  • Aquamarine
  • Pearls
  • Tanzanite
  • Jade

Singular Categorization for Diamonds

Today, as a rule in the industry, all natural diamonds are considered to be high-end jewelry, no matter their size. Since they are rare and retain value on both the retail and secondary market levels, they are defined as fine items. Manufactured or synthetic stones are generally not considered high-end jewelry, especially when they are set in base metal (which would likely classify them as fashion jewelry). These stones include:

  • Rhinestone
  • Cubic zirconia
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • YAG (Yttrium aluminum garnet)

One could argue, then, that lab created diamonds are also not fine jewelry because of their non-natural identity.

High-End Jewelry - Chanel Maltese Cuffs

Original Verdura Maltese Cross Cuffs made for Coco Chanel.

There are instances in jewelry history where prominent high-end jewelry designers challenged the norms of traditional fine jewelry by incorporating non-traditional materials into their designs. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the Maltese Cross Cuff designed by Verdura for Coco Chanel in the 1930’s. These cuffs had many different variations, but the early renditions were made with a base silver alloy topped with enamel and set with many different types of gemstones. The popularity of this cuff undoubtedly became an inspiration for other prominent jewelers to experiment with alternative materials in jewelry.

High-End Jewelry - Green Bakelite & Diamond Necklace by Michelle Della Valle
Green Bakelite and Diamond Necklace sold at Sotheby’s for $35,000 in 2010.

High-End Jewelers Explore Unexpected Materials

Today, we see jewelers like Cartier, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels, David Webb and the more recent (established c. 1990’s) Taffin creating pieces with unexpected materials. Cartier, for example, with ceramic as seen in their recent iteration of the Trinity ring, and Taffin going even further with the use of rubber, ceramic and steel to make exceptionally designed and highly sought-after jewelry.

High-End Jewelry - Trifari Bird Brooch
Trifari gold-tone bird brooch with multi-coloured rhinestone and faux pearls.

Even designers under the costume/fashion jewelry category have a reputation for innovative designs and high-quality product and their names bring a premium in the collector’s market. Examples of desirable costume jewelry designers that fit into this category are:

  • Trifari
  • Mazer
  • Boucher
  • DuJay

Boundaries Blurring Between Fashion and High-End Jewelry

So as designers continue to innovate and experiment with new materials, the boundaries seems to be becoming increasingly blurred between fashion and high-end jewelry. With every generation comes new trends and sensibilities and today the focus on sentimentality and individuality seems to be at the forefront of importance with jewelry. And while price tags and defining trade labels like ‘fine’ ‘luxury’ ‘costume’ and ‘fashion’ still have merit amongst jewelry enthusiasts, to a new generation of consumers they certainly don’t matter as much.

Learn more about financing options using high-end jewelry.

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Authenticating Jewellery


Mauboussin: Defining Art Deco Jewellery

About the Author:

Karina is the Director of the Jewelry Department at Borro Private Finance.