Radical Innovation: Chanel Costume Jewelry
While mixing high end items with lower priced brands is common practice today, when Coco Chanel first introduced costume jewelry it was considered both radical and innovative. “Costume jewellery isn’t made to provoke desire, just astonishment at most. It must remain an ornament and an amusement,” remarked Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Flashing back to the 1920s, Gabrielle Chanel first collaborated with expert costume jewelers to bring her unconventional design ideas to life. Until Coco Chanel leaned into the untapped potential of costume jewelry, costume accessories were considered a faux pas, perceived as being only for women who couldn’t afford the real thing. Unfazed by the status quo, Coco Chanel embraced her radical design ideas, discovering a provocative delight in mixing precious materials with faux ones. A departure from the understated elegance of Chanel ready-to-wear, Coco Chanel championed unabashed opulence with her costume jewelry designs. From piling on necklaces and sautoirs made of faux pearls to layering an unprecedented number of brooches and cuff bracelets, Coco Chanel awed the fashion world with her expressive and playful design combinations. Emphasizing the ‘costume’ in costume jewelry, each piece Coco designed was the signature finishing touch, or perfect complement, to an already glamorous outfit.
Master Collaboration and the Maltese Cross
Despite her iconically individual spirit, Coco Chanel was an avid collaborator, constantly seeking inspiration from the world around her. Coco’s jewelry designs were directly influenced by her circle of chic, bohemian friends, eager to sport a profusion of stones, faux pearls and precious metals all at once. Beyond using friends as her muses, Coco Chanel sought out unique collaborators to maximize the impact and allure of her jewelry creations. From 1933 onwards, Chanel had a close yet largely undocumented friendship with Duke Fulco di Verdura. A Sicilian aristocrat and jet-setting playboy, Verdura was an unlikely partner for self-made businesswoman, Coco Chanel. On a personal level, Verdura helped Coco shape her own abundant collection of jewels. Much of Coco’s collection was the accumulation of gifts from her various lovers, including Russian Grand Duke Dimitri and the Duke of Westminster. According to fashion lore, the Duke of Westminster would gift a jewel and bouquet of flowers to Coco Chanel each week. Evidently, out of the unexpected came revolution, as Verdura would help shape the future of Chanel jewelry. With a shared passion for Baroque and organic, unbridled shapes, Verdura and Chanel disregarded the classic criteria of sophisticated taste. The most distinctive design to emerge from this collaboration was the iconic Maltese cross, a motif largely influenced by Verdura’s Mediterranean culture. Immediately purchased by fashion icon and editor Diana Vreeland, the Chanel Maltese cross brooches would remain among the most sought-after jewelry designs ever crafted. Soon after, French jewelry designer Suzanne Gripoix created an irregular glass pearl for the House of Chanel, dubbed Gripoix Glass. In her designs, Gripoix captured the imperfect spirituality of Coco’s childhood in the convent, notably arranging the Maltese cross like a church’s stained-glass windows. In 1954, goldsmith Robert Goossens would further reinterpret Chanel’s signature crosses as the chief designer of Chanel jewelry, emulating the designs in rock crystals. By combining her philosophy of Modernism with symbols of antiquity, Coco Chanel embraced the best of both worlds in her timeless jewelry designs and inspired collaborations.
From tweed camellias and enamel CCs to the signature Maltese Cross, the brooch – in all its variations – is a bonafide icon of Chanel jewelry. Whether pinned to the lapel of a tweed jacket or on your 2.55 Flap Bag, the Chanel brooch is an accessory essential, tastefully elevating a fashionable ensemble. Cleverly designed by Coco herself, a perfectly placed Chanel brooch can alter the silhouette and contours of any dress. Historically speaking, the most iconic sautoirs, earrings and camellia brooches first emerged in 1954, when Coco Chanel returned to Paris and opened a store on Rue Cambon. While this location was best known for showcasing haute couture collections, each garment featured costume bijouterie. Nearly eight decades later, the Chanel brooch remains a timeless piece that belongs in every woman’s jewelry collection.
As touched on above, Fulco di Verdura's impact on Chanel jewelry design was incredibly unique. Most notable, it was Verdura who designed the first silver cuff bracelet for Chanel, decorated with a Maltese cross made of multi-colored, semi-precious stones, and mounted on white enamel. A thoughtful reimagination of classic garments, this Chanel bracelet was designed to replace a traditional shirt cuff. Rich in history and aesthetically captivating, the Chanel Maltese Cross cuffs are among the most sought after pieces on the resale market. Coco Chanel personally adored these bracelets and would wear them constantly, notably stacking multiple mismatched cuffs on her wrists. Of all the Chanel bracelets ever crafted, the cuff is an undeniable icon that continues to be modernized and reinterpreted.
“Go and fetch my pearls. I will not go up to the atelier until I have my pearls,” declared the impassioned Coco Chanel. There is no piece of jewelry more directly tied to the image of Coco Chanel than the opulent layering of pearl ropes. The perfect accent to her minimalist style, Coco always sported pearls, even for the most casual of occasions. Indeed, it was the idea to design faux pearls that first inspired the launch of a Chanel costume jewelry line. As time revealed, the pearl Chanel necklace would prove to be as iconic as the little black dress. Yet, it was master craftsman Robert Goossens who truly diversified the design of the Chanel necklace. By the 1960s, Goossens and Chanel were designing necklaces with beads, pearls and flowers. Highly sought after by the modern day it-girls, a Chanel necklace has limitless styling possibilities.
From Baroque inspired nest clip-ons to the Pearl CC Drop design, Chanel earrings are coveted by the most dedicated vintage hunters. Often accompanied by a matching ring or cuff bracelet, Chanel earrings are the ideal finishing touch to any outfit. Though earrings started to become more of a focus of Chanel costume jewelry collections in the 1990s, interestingly, it wasn’t until the 2000s that the brand introduced pierced earring designs. As such, most vintage Chanel earrings are a variation of the clip-on. Regardless of era, Chanel costume jewelry, including iconic oversized statement earrings, is recognized for the visual interest created by their contrast and excess.