How Princess Diana’s Love of Ethical and Costume Jewellery Still Lives on

6 mins

She was famous for that sapphire and diamond engagement ring, tiaras and pearls, but Diana, Princess of Wales, who died 20 years ago on August 31, 1997, in a car crash in Paris, made antique and costume jewellery popular too. By Rae Ritchie

Among the iconic outfits displayed in Kensington Palace’s Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition, there’s a well-known Victor Edelstein evening dress made of black lace with a magenta silk underlay. The accompanying caption notes: ‘While the Princess had a vast collection of formal jewels, she loved to experiment with costume jewellery. She paired this dress with a long string of fake pearls.’

The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, this week has prompted worldwide coverage of her life and legacy, including her influence on fashion – both during her lifetime and today. But her fondness for costume jewellery has been largely overlooked, relegated only to occasional comments.

Yet this aspect of her personal style is as significant as her early penchant for pie-crust collars, huge shoulder pads, over-sized bows or any other of her heavily copied looks. Diana popularised costume jewellery, helping to make paste items as desirable as their precious equivalents.

Diana princess of Wales John Travolta costume jewellery

Diana, Princess of Wales, loved real and fake jewels. Here she dances with actor John Travolta at The White House, 1985. Image: Wkimedia Commons

Along with the pearls mentioned in the exhibition, Diana wore paste brooches with her evening wear, including a diamanté snake pin and a large glittery star. She even went for fake on some state visits.

Diana wore some spectacular fake star-and-moon earrings she bought herself for AED 210 on a royal tour to Saudi Arabia, and all the  press were fooled into assuming that they were a lavish present from her host

Fashion editor and fellow costume jewellery fan Ann Chubb recalled that on one occasion, Diana ‘wore some spectacular star-and-moon earrings from Butler & Wilson on a royal tour to Saudi Arabia, and the entire press corps were fooled into assuming that they were a lavish present from her host’. On the contrary, she bought them herself from the iconic costume jewellers for just £45 (around 210 AED).

Environmentally-friendly jewels

Her love of costume and antique jewellery quickly caught on, and had a dramatic impact on popular fashion and the environment. Mining gems, and precious metals raises ethical and ecological issues and new jewellery can rarely be produced in an environmentally-friendly way. 

Maybe that’s why just two kilometres from Kensington Palace, Butler & Wilson on Fulham Road became a firm favourite of Diana’s. Other fans of the jewellers, owned by Nicky Butler and Simon Wilson,  included Elton John and actress Catherine Deneuve but Diana put their name on the map.  Sales assistant Jane began working there in 1987 and remembers the Princess visiting, with and without security. ‘We got used to it,’ Jane says, ‘but other customers would do a double take!’ She was always down to earth, Jane continues, and particularly fond of the store’s earrings.

Still in the same location, Butler & Wilson continue to sell items that the Princess would have been familiar with and it’s their Diana-era pieces that are the most collectible, reflecting the recent rise in sales of vintage costume jewellery.

As with vintage fashion, interest in older jewellery has become more mainstream than ever. As a result, it’s easy to begin a collection that will be a good investment.

Catherine Diana's ring

Catherine, Duchess of Cornwall, wears Diana’s engagement ring. Image: Shutterstock

What is costume jewellery?

Also known as fake or paste, costume jewellery is made of non-precious metals and stones. Think glass rather than diamonds! It has less intrinsic value than fine jewellery and is usually more financially accessible.

Vintage costume jewellery shouldn’t be seen as the poor relation of ‘real’ jewellery however. The level of design and craftsmanship can be extremely high, and the growing recognition of its aesthetic merits mean that it is valuable in its own right.

As well as offering owners the thrill of a piece of history, vintage costume jewellery has major ethical and environmental advantages. Since the film Blood Diamond was released in 2006, there has been greater public awareness of the darker side of the gemstone industry. There have been some improvements, such as conflict free diamond guarantees and Fair Trade gold certification, but these don’t cover all precious stones and metals.

And these schemes focus on people, which is only one side of the equation. The planetary impact is enormous too.  A decade after his role in Blood Diamond, actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio continues to take a stand against what he describes as ‘the human and environmental toll’ of gemstones.

Jennifer Gibson of Jennifer Gibson Jewellery likens the decision to buy vintage costume jewellery to supporting ethically-minded designers such as Stella McCartney – it’s about using your purchasing power to support change for the better.  You don’t have to worry about blood diamonds, conflict stones, conditions of the miners or the carbon footprint  – you simply have a beautiful piece of jewellery.

Buying guidelines

The advice from Gillian Horsup Vintage Costume Jewellery, located in Gray’s Inn Antique Centre, London, is to buy what you like. Think about your taste: do you prefer diamante, gold tone or plastic?  Bling or more subtle?

Jennifer of Jennifer Gibson Jewellery agrees. ‘You have to fall in love with a piece,’ she says advising that there  are three key steps to making a successful purchase: firstly fall in love with it, then check its condition and stick to your budget.

For first time buyers, Jennifer suggests looking for small earrings or a brooch, which can be particularly versatile. Shop around before you commit.

Be wary of purchasing online when there doesn’t seem to be a seller to consult with. A level of interaction is important, and a good dealer will help ensure the item is right for you.

What to look for

Key time periods in the early history costume jewellery are the 18th Century, when paste jewellery really developed, and the 1880s, when French theatre created fake jewels for costumes (hence the name). Perhaps more importantly for today’s collectors, there were also two periods of resurgence in the twentieth century, between the 1940s-60s and the 1980s-90s in both the US and Europe.

Significant designers from these two later periods include the French design houses of Chanel, Dior, Trifari and Bouchard and pieces marked Austrian is a sign of quality, even if the item is not branded. Look out for multi-tiered necklaces by Askew.

Pitfalls to avoid

Poorly restored or badly repaired pieces. Be alert to different stones being used, the presence of superglue (yes really!) and missing claws.

Later reproductions – copies are fine but only if you pay reproduction prices. Fraudsters are quick to spot popular items and create mimics. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Tips for storing and caring for your purchases

  1. Store each item individually; inside black tissue is ideal.
  2. Do not use washing up liquid to clean them, instead wipe with a tissue
  3. Perfume and make-up damages jewellery.
  4. Consider insurance for your most valuable pieces

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