For many people the term “costume jewelry” suggests gaudy, over-the-top necklaces they once used for playing dress-up at a grandmother’s house. For others it brings up thoughts of gold rings that turn your skin green. Sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile less satisfactory pieces with the high quality costume jewelry you can find on the market now because our instinct may be to assume that anything “fake” is not worth our money.
In reality, though, costume jewelry has quite a bit to offer if you give it a chance. True, the cheaper options, produced in bulk by machines, go for quantity over quality, and you’ll find the gold or silver plating chips easily and the rhinestones fall out. But there is a higher quality available, too, on that bridges the gap between costume jewelry and fine jewelry.
The main difference between costume and fine jewelry, aside from price, is the materials that are used. Fine jewelry will be made with precious metals, namely, silver, platinum, titanium, or gold that is 10 karats or higher. All natural stones are classified as fine jewelry, including cultured pearls (which are still naturally formed). Diamonds that were created in a lab are still considered fine jewelry because they have the same chemical properties as mined diamonds, but when sold they must be identified as having come from a lab. (They are also significantly cheaper than their naturally formed counterparts.)
In contrast to that, costume jewelry can be made with any other type of metal, like copper and stainless steel; often these non-precious metals are coated with silver or gold. Gems used in costume jewelry are synthetically made, the most common of which are quartz, rhinestone, cubic zirconium, and even glass. When you talk about jewelry that stains your skin, you're referring to the lower end of the costume jewelry spectrum. Those are pieces made with nickel, copper, or silver, all of which react with the acidity of lotion or sweat. But metals like stainless steel, if pure, are fairly nonreactive with the skin. In the higher quality fashion jewelry, you will often find semi-precious stones, like jade or high quality crystal. Stones like cubic zirconia, which simulates real diamond, don’t cheapen the look of the piece and are just as durable as are precious stones.
Chanel, a major purveyor of jewelry, has costume pieces reaching prices in the thousands — with one vintage necklace made of gold-tone metal and faux pearls. For an heirloom that you can pass on for years to come, fine jewelry is still probably your best bet. It’s made to last for generations, using materials that are more durable in the long-term. But costume jewelry shouldn’t cause an upturned nose. There is much more to costume jewelry than what you may have gleaned from a first impression, and if you give it a chance you’ll likely find yourself pleasantly surprised.