Looking for Costume Jewelry Designers that use Real Gold? Learn about the types of gold used in costume jewelry and who used them.
All That Glitters Is Not (Pure) Gold.
Gold Fill, Gold Plate, and Vermeil Glitter Beautifully
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century resulted in machines becoming part of the jewelry making process, and those machines allowed for innovative techniques, particularly in the use of gold. Electroplating fused thin layers of gold onto a metal base, resulting in gold-filled, gold-plated and vermeil jewelry that was beautifully designed while being more affordable than solid gold pieces. Those costume jewelry brands that used real gold became immensely popular with the average woman, as well as with the rich and famous.
Here we have a “crash course” in the types of gold and the jewelry designers who use gold in their costume jewelry.
Types of Gold used in Costume Jewelry
Gold in its purest form is 24 karats. It is a rich yellow color, but is so pliable that you can bend it with your fingers and scratch it with your nails. It would never hold up used in a ring, bracelet or necklace. In jewelry, it is used for surface applications of plating or thin gold foil sheets (gold leaf). Otherwise, 24K gold is used in electronics and medical devices.
Since 24K gold cannot be used in jewelry, it is alloyed with other metals to give it strength and durability—usually with nickel, copper or zinc. An 18K solid gold item is 18 parts gold, 6 parts alloy; 14K solid gold = 14 parts gold, 10 parts alloy; and 10K solid gold = 10 parts gold, 14 parts alloy. Naturally, the lower the karat, the less expensive the piece.
Gold fill is not filled with gold. On the contrary, the gold is on the outside of the piece of jewelry. Gold (12K or 14K) is mechanically bonded to the top and bottom of a core metal, usually brass or copper. It has the same qualities as solid gold at a fraction of the cost. Due to the bonding process, the gold cannot rub off. Jewelry will last 10, 30 years—maybe forever! Also, it is hypoallergenic.
You are more likely to find vintage gold-filled jewelry than more recent items. Jewelers have replaced the rather expensive cost of manufacturing gold fill with simpler gold plating and vermeil.
There is less gold in gold plate than in gold fill. The gold-plating process involves coating a base metal (e.g., brass, copper, nickel, aluminum) with a very thin layer of gold (at least 10K) via an electroplating solution. The plate will wear over time, but you can have the item re-plated. It is also more prone to tarnishing, especially when exposed to such liquids as sweat, lotions, perfumes or chemicals. Costume jewelry is usually plated with 1 micron or less of gold. Higher-end jewelry may be plated with 2 to 3 microns and, therefore, will last longer. Gold-plated jewelry is a popular choice for limited budgets and when you do not need the item to last forever.
When you see a piece described as “gold tone,” it is gold plated.
Vermeil (pronounced ver-may) has a much thicker layer of gold (a minimum of 2 microns on at least 14K gold) on the core metal of sterling silver. Therefore, vermeil is more durable than gold plate and less durable than gold fill. It’s good quality jewelry at a more affordable price. It does not tarnish and is hypoallergenic and, with frequent care, such as a gentle cloth to remove oils and dirt, the plating will hold up.
A bonus to vermeil is that, since the piece is made up of only precious metals, it retains its value over time.
Costume Jewelry Designers that use Real Gold
When James Napier became president of Whitney and Rice Jewelry Company, he changed the name and made a company that was on the cutting edge of fashion and design. He refused to use the term “costume jewelry”; he preferred “fashion jewelry.” His designers learned from the masters in Europe, and Napier jewelry, primarily gold-plated, was worn by the rich and famous of the day. In the 1950s and 1960s, Napier produced a few pieces in solid gold, but they are few and far between today. If you find a piece stamped “14K,” you may have hit the vintage jewelry jackpot!
Gold Plated Formal Statement Collar Necklace
1960s. The graduated leaf-like, domed pieces are hinged for comfortable wear. Each leaf has a stippling design and an edge of smooth gold. Wear on the collarbone, peeking out of crisp white shirt, or with a black turtleneck.
Trifari Jewelry was originally established by Gustavo Trifari in 1925 to create jewelry for actors in Hollywood. It became even more popular during the Depression when there was an increased interest in costume jewelry. When acclaimed French jewelry designer, Alfred Philippe, joined the firm, he took it to another level. He inspired the invention of “trifarium,” Trifari’s own special (and more expensive) gold-plating solution that was applied much thicker than ordinary gold plating.
Gold Plate and Red Enamel Leaf Bib Style Necklace
1960s. The flat, double herringbone chain is attached to three beautifully designed leaves, rendered half gold plate, half red enamel. Length is 16.5 inches.
Coco Chanel may have been the first person to “knock off” her own jewelry. She made costume copies of her fine jewelry by substituting the solid gold with gold plate. Chanel's earliest costume jewelry could be lyrical and fanciful—brooches in the shape of green tree frogs, their bodies colored with enamel, their webbed feet packed with paste, or airy pins supporting sprays of pâte de verre (literally “paste of glass”) flowers.
Gold Plated CC Logo Charm Vintage Chain Bracelet
Estate jewelry. Made in France in gold plate with an 8-inch snake chain.
Brothers Michael and Jay Chernow established Monocraft Products Company, which manufactured high-quality gold- and silver-plated monogram plaques for women’s handbags.
In 1937, they changed the name to Monet and began producing high-end costume jewelry (triple plated) that looked like the real thing and lasted for decades without any wear on the finish. When Edmond Granville, formerly with Cartier, joined the first, Monet became a leading fashion brand.
In 1977, Monet launched Ciani, which included two lines, one fine jewelry in 14-carat gold , the other in vermeil, specially packaged in velvet or suede pouches to differentiate them from traditional Monet lines.
Gold Plated Flower Design Link Bracelet
1970s. This bracelet has nine sections of beautifully detailed flowers: roses, lilies and daisies. The “Monet” signature is on the back of the first rose.
Vermeil Bumble Bee Brooch
1970s. Gold vermeil Bumble Bee brooch is accented with detailed etching and wings resembling a set of musical harps. Measurement: 1 ½ inches by 1 ½ inches by 3/8 inch.
Harry Iskin immigrated to the US in early 1900s and went to work for a jeweler when he was a young man. He established Iskin Manufacturing Company and made jewelry from 1930 to 1953.
Most of his jewelry is gold filled or vermeil. Many of his pieces have a floral design embellished with pleats, curlicues, ribbons, or leaves.
Gold Filled Blue Stone Floral Pin
1040s. An Art Nouveau design in gold fill with blue rhinestone accents. Measurements: 2 3/8 inches by 1 5/8 Inches.
Gold Vermeil Flowers and Faux Pearl Brooch
1940s. Flowers in gold vermeil over sterling silver with imitation pearls. Measurements: 2 ½ inches by 2 inches.
Frank Tortolani came to the US from Italy in 1923 and founded a dynasty of jewelers. The exciting designs made his costume jewelry extremely popular in the 1950s and in demand now as vintage collectibles.
Gold Plate Bonsai Tree Brooch
1960s. Beautifully designed estate piece in gold plate.
J.M.F. & Co.
J.M.F.& Co. was founded by John Melatiah Fisher and Charles R Harris in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1879.
Art Deco Flower Repousse Locket, Gold Filled
There is a beautiful array of the vintage costume jewelry brands that used real gold on Etsy, a certified B Corp marketplace that works with small brands and artisans around the globe. The helpful filters allow you to narrow down your search by designer.
Another site on which to find countless gold costume jewelry brands is eBay, a consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer website, as well as an online auction and shopping website. Jewelry items can be filtered by era and designer.