Exploring the world of designer costume jewellery
- Credit: VANITAS LIFE
Jennifer Gibson from Wilmslow owns one of the world’s best collections of costume jewellery – here she explains the value and beauty of this wearable art
There's zero intrinsic value to them,' admits Jennifer Gibson from Wilmslow. 'The majority of it is metal and glass.'
It doesn't seem the savviest line for an antique jewellery dealer whose pieces sell for up to £2000. But then, if you were to break most art down into its constituent parts you'd be left with little more than canvas and paint - or metal and glass.
Jennifer Gibson deals in - indeed buys, sells, collects, curates and exhibits - costume jewellery. Only this happens to be some of the most exquisite costume jewellery ever created - by world renowned names including Dior and Chanel. Her pieces have been worn by fashion models and Hollywood actresses as well as being exhibited in some of the UK's most renowned museums.
'I can see why people can pick up a piece and think it's gold and diamonds and then wonder why it costs so much when they realise it's not.' (It's worth pointing out that designer pieces from the likes of Chanel can reach up to £10,000.) 'But what's exceptional about the pieces is their rarity and the craftsmanship that went into them,' she points out.
'They're wearable art,' Jennifer continues. 'For me the pivot point between fine jewellery and costume jewellery is all about the makers.' Many of the craftsmen came from fine jewellery houses like Cartier and Van Cleef and applied that level of precision to costume jewellery.
'But because they weren't working with expensive materials they were so more willing to take risks, explore new techniques and innovate. They didn't really have boundaries.'
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Indeed this new way of working created pieces that have earned their place in history. Just as the clothes of Chanel and Dior tell a social story far bigger than the inner workings of a Parisian atelier, so does this jewellery.
'From the 1920s Coco Chanel not only changed the way women dressed she also took 'faux' jewellery from seemingly vulgar to playful, sought-after and de rigeur. But the real revolution happened a couple of decades later from the 1940s onwards. It was the first time that costume jewellery had really become available to the masses; that all women could have access to it irrespective of class or standing,' explains Jennifer. 'Christian Dior's glamorous offering of couture costume jewellery, an integral part of his collections, was ground breaking in taking fashion forward from the austere war years into a new, more affluent, optimistic age.'
Indeed such is its significance that for much of this year pieces from her personal collection have been on display at London's Victoria & Albert Museum as part of its the acclaimed Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition.
'When I heard that the Dior exhibition was coming to London, I found the curator's name, wrote to the V&A and it all went from there,' she says. The exhibition traced the history and impact of Dior throughout the 20th century and explored the couturier's relationship with Britain. From Jennifer's personal collection, a 1950s Christian Dior by Mitchel Maer Bal de Oiseaux necklace and earrings were chosen to be on display in the Dior in Britain section of the exhibition. 'It's a magical piece to me,' she smiles. 'With the glinting crystals bringing life to the branches upon which the delicate bronzed birds sing.'
The pieces sat alongside the gown Princess Margaret wore for her 21st birthday celebrations. 'To walk in on preview night and see your piece in an iconic exhibition involving Dior, the V&A, London and Princess Margaret, well, if I could have told my 10-year-old self,' laughs Jennifer. 'It's what dreams are made of.'
Because for Jennifer these are dreams that have been in the making since childhood. 'I grew up amongst the antiques world as my mother worked in it, so from the age of 10, I was learning the trade,' says Jennifer. 'I was gripped and fascinated by the jewellery. The costume jewellery of bygone eras really won my heart from an early age. It's clearly in my blood.'
She'd spend all of her spare time immersing herself in antiques, although chose a career in pharmaceuticals, relegating her passion to hobby status. And then, three years ago, when she and her family relocated back to Cheshire with work she decided to upgrade it.
'I'd been building my personal collection for years and being in and around the antiques world all my life, I already had a number of contacts so it was a case of tapping into that network and building on it,' she explains.
She is fastidious about the pieces that make it into her collection, trawling the country in person and the world via the internet for the most beautiful pieces she can find. 'I think I have a good sense of style and what will appeal,' says Jennifer. 'But the most important thing is condition. It kills me when I have to put a beautiful piece of jewellery back because it's just in too poor of a state. But if I can't salvage it, I can't sell it.'
You can buy her pieces online at jennifergibsonjewellery.com, at Black White Denim boutique in Wilmslow and, from earlier this year, Fenwick in London, York and Newcastle.
You'd be in good company. Her pieces have been featured in fashion bibles Love and Elle and this year, she was on her way to Spain when she opened a copy of society magazine, Tatler, at Manchester airport - to see actress Anne Hathaway wearing a pair of her earrings.
'I opened it in WH Smith and Anne Hathaway was standing there on this full page spread with these fabulous 1950s crystal shoulder duster earrings from our collection hanging from her ears,' Jennifer exclaims.
But what about Jennifer? What are her favourite pieces? 'My favourites are tied to elements of my life, like a piece I got when I was around 18. It was an expensive purchase for my age but it's a beautiful, solid silver, crystal bow from the mid-1940s by an American jewellery house called Eisenberg. It was the most beautiful thing I think I'd ever seen and I knew I had to have it,' she smiles.
'I'll never part with it, it still speaks to me and I think that's the ethos of everything I do. When you find a piece that is so steeped in history, workmanship and beauty and it makes you smile, that's what it's all about.'