Rhinestone jewelry graces the showcases of retailers and bridal shops attracting customers that carefully choose the balance of glitter and good taste for special occasions. Traditional rhinestone jewelry becomes the choice of most—designs that seem to be as old as time.
Now for the surprise! Look at vintage jewelry books that cover the early 20thCentury and the look we most commonly call rhinestone jewelry isn’t there. Rows of rhinestones soldered into bibs, cascades, V necklaces, and Y designs—none of it is there. Rhinestone earrings with cascading rows of sparkling rhinestones and rhinestone bracelets from single row to several rows wide simply didn’t exist.
The rhinestone jewelry prior to World War II is what we commonly call crystal jewelry today—stones individually set in designs. Actually the rhinestone and crystal stones are the same and the words are interchangeable, especially before the war. During World War II metals were rationed for the war effort and most costume jewelry consisted of plastics and materials other than metal.
With the end of the War came a boom in the jewelry industry in Providence, Rhode Island and a new development would change the look of rhinestone jewelry forever. A machine developed to produce rhinestone chain. Square settings linked together in a flexible manner with each square holding a prong set stone and the chain came out of the machine in long rows and was rolled on spools ready for the designers.
Designers soldered the rows together in every imaginable design. The solder burnt the findings, but rhinestone could be left in their settings and immersed in the plating without polluting the plating material. So first came the creation of the design and then the plating with stones in place. A new look blossomed and as years past, it became traditional rhinestone jewelry. Providence had set a standard of quality and design, but it wasn’t always affordable.
Overseas manufacturers seized on the opportunity to provide an affordable alternative in rhinestone jewelry. Korea and Taiwan produced rhinestone jewelry that entered the American market and then China trade opened up. Taiwan jewelry manufacturers brought the skills to Guangzhou, a city in China, and fashion jewelry flourished giving China a Providence of their own. Rhinestone jewelry prices escalated downward as the battle developed for the most affordable rhinestone.
At the center of this competitive fight were the stones. With stone cost constituting 60 to 80 percent of manufacturing cost for rhinestone jewelry, this was the highest expense. Only a few elite companies were using Swarovski crystals. All others used Czech stones, Mid-Eastern, or Chinese rhinestones. Czech and Mid-Eastern stones had one distributor with set prices and discounts available based on volume. But Chinese stones, at first inferior, had a number of manufacturers so a single distributor didn’t set prices.
With time some Chinese stone manufacturers approached the quality of Czech and Mid-Eastern stones, but not all, and new concern surfaced—who do you trust? Inferior stones had short coming including foil backings of stones burning during the soldering process, leaving some stones darker. Manufacturers could show a sample made of Czech stones and deliver Chinese. In addition, there were concerns of lead and nickel content laws. So importing rhinestone jewelry became a specialized art and fell to the hands of knowledgeable importers who build trust with manufacturers over years of working together.
Rhinestone jewelry has undergone huge developments over the last 70 years. Amazingly, with all the change, consumers look on rhinestone jewelry as very traditional, even timeless. And this is the preferred look in jewelry for bridal, prom, pageant, and every other special occasion.