How is High-End Jewellery Defined?

The terms for defining different types of jewellery has always been somewhat ambiguous. What determines if a piece of jewellery fits under the header of costume/fashion jewellery or fine/high-end jewellery? 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 jewellery making, which has added a level of subjectivity to the categorisation of jewellery.

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

The History of Costume Jewellery

While costume jewellery 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 coloured 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 jewellery would help them survive the afterlife.

In the 1700’s during the Georgian era, paste and glass jewellery was made, mostly for the wealthy who took an interest in the less-expensive versions of their fine jewellery. Following that era and under the rule of Queen Victoria, jewellery 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 jewellery 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 jewellery 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, jewellery had historically always been made to last, to be passed on to future generations as a keepsake.

Industrialisation Pushes Fashion Forward

And then the 1920’s things changed. With industrialisation 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 jewellery 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 jewellery came with a high price tag. Since the quality of this mass-produced jewellery, didn’t matter as much, this type of jewellery could easily be replaced with others as fashion trends came in and out of style, much like the fashion jewellery we see today.

Two Ways to Define High-End Jewellery

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

  • Diamond
  • Ruby
  • Sapphire
  • Emerald

To others, fine jewellery is considered precious metal and stone jewellery 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 jewellery houses in many remarkable pieces of high-end jewellery. They are:

  • Aquamarine
  • Pearls
  • Tanzanite
  • Jade

Singular Categorisation for Diamonds

Today, as a rule in the industry, all natural diamonds are considered to be high-end jewellery, 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 jewellery, especially when they are set in base metal (which would likely classify them as fashion jewellery). These stones include:

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

One could argue, then, that lab created diamonds are also not fine jewellery 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 jewellery history where prominent high-end jewellery designers challenged the norms of traditional fine jewellery 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 jewellers to experiment with alternative materials in jewellery.

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 Jewellers Explore Unexpected Materials

Today, we see jewellers 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 jewellery.

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

Even designers under the costume/fashion jewellery 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 jewellery designers that fit into this category are:

  • Trifari
  • Mazer
  • Boucher
  • DuJay

Boundaries Blurring Between Fashion and High-End Jewellery

So as designers continue to innovate and experiment with new materials, the boundaries seems to be becoming increasingly blurred between fashion and high-end jewellery. 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 jewellery. And while price tags and defining trade labels like ‘fine’ ‘luxury’ ‘costume’ and ‘fashion’ still have merit amongst jewellery enthusiasts, to a new generation of consumers they certainly don’t matter as much.

Related Blogs:
Authenticating Jewellery
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS – A RETROSPECTIVE
Mauboussin: Defining Art Deco Jewellery

About the Author:

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