By Danielle Olivia Tefft, Jewelry Writer
Note: This article was first published on the Ruby Lane Blog and the now defunct Yahoo! Contributor Network.
I specialize in buying and selling vintage costume jewelry. A quick glance into just about every jewelry box I have ever had the privilege of foraging through (several hundred by now) reveals a most predictable occupant: Some rendition of those colorful fifties bead strands, often marked, “Japan” or “Hong Kong,” containing multiple strands in one necklace of imitation pearls and beads.
These iconic fifties necklaces with multiple strands often consist of plastic beads or a mixed lot of glass and plastic beads. They can be found in any color imaginable, from my favorite cranberry and green hues to bright banana yellow and cobalt blue. The findings (clasps, bead caps, etc.) can be metal and/or gold-tone or silver-tone plastic.
These glorious treasures of days past are often accompanied by matching earrings and less likely, a matching bracelet. In fact, many jewelry boxes from that era contain two or more sets of these colorful beads to adorn multiple outfits.
Why did so many women, from all walks of life who lived during the fifties, purchase these colorful beads? First of all, they were inexpensive. In the fifties, even women without much money dressed formally when in the public eye.
Women could purchase these beads, mainly from Japan at first, and then mainly from Hong Kong in the second half of the fifties, at their local department stores and at five and ten or dime stores. Remember Woolworth’s and C. C. Murphy’s? Dime stores such as these offered an endless array of inexpensive costume jewelry like these colorful bead sets. How inexpensive? A beaded choker could be had for around 37 cents! A multiple strand bead necklace could be had for 3 dollars or less!
Don’t let the shockingly low prices fool you into thinking these bead sets were of shoddy quality. They were hand strung and often contained artisan beads made in the best glass factories overseas. The fact that many of these necklaces are still vibrant and wearable today is a testament to their quality. In fact, they are becoming highly desirable as fashion accessories here in the 21st century!
Back in the fifties, the mass acceptance of this fashion trend was not due to any marketing plan of sheer genius engineered by Asian manufacturers or American retailers of these beads themselves. Rather, they merely offered the right product, fairly priced, at the right time. It was the right time because Mamie Eisenhower was the first lady throughout most of the fifties (1953-1960).
There could be no more renowned and universally appealing poster girl for the frugal yet stylish fifties beads than Mamie Eisenhower. She routinely purchased and wore dime store costume jewelry during her entire tenure as First Lady. The world of haute couture frowned upon her accessorizing expensive gowns with dime store jewelry but she always looked lovely. She was known and admired by millions of American women for her frugal yet elegant style. Naturally, they copied her!
So the next time you browse through your mother or grandmother’s jewelry box and you come across a few striking sets of colorful multiple strand beads with “Japan” or “Hong Kong” imprinted on the clasp, think of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and those fabulous fifties when even a poor working girl could wear dime store beads and feel like a million bucks!
1. Carroll, Julia C. (2008). Costume Jewelry 101. Paducah, KY: Collector Books.
2. David, Lester and Irene (1981). Ike and Mamie: The Story of a General and his Lady. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Son’s.
3. Simonds, Cherri (1997). Costume Jewelry: Identification and Values. Paducah, KY: Collector Books.
4. “Made in Japan Vintage Costume Jewelry,” Vintagecostumejewels.com. http://www.vintagecostumejewels.com/Jewels/Japanese_Vintage_Jewelry.htm
5. Personal Experience.
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Danielle Olivia Tefft is a professional writer with a lifelong passion for gems, jewelry and fashion. She is a GIA accredited jewelry professional and the owner of online antique and vintage jewelry shop, Treasure Box Antiques. Current projects include ghostwriting jewelry and fashion blogs for clients worldwide. When she is not writing, she spends time in the garden, spoiling her cats and traveling with her significant other. Would you like to hire her? Visit her website danielleoliviatefftwrites.com for clips, terms and more information.
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The Found in the Jewelry Box Blog is my attempt to teach others about the wonderful world of gems and jewelry, past and present. Please enjoy!