From ads about waterproof jewelry, to claims of affordable low-maintenance tarnish-free gold, there are a lot of promises being made about the contents and properties of jewelry at every price point. It can be extremely frustrating and confusing to know what you're actually getting. So, whether you just need a fun pair of statement earrings for a party, or you're looking to level-up and start a collection, here's a guide to help you get started.
1. COSTUME JEWELRY
While the term "costume jewelry" dates back to the 18th century. At the time it was largely a way to affordably reproduce heirloom pieces. In the early 20th century there was higher demand amongst the middle class for beautiful yet affordable jewelry, and costume jewelry as we know it was born.
Costume jewelry originally incorporated base metals like pewter, nickel, brass, and techniques like rhodium or gold plating. During WWII, more silver was being used as base metals were a necessity in wartime production, and bans were placed on their use in the private sector. You'll also see more simulated affordable stones, rhinestones, glass, and occasionally semi-precious stones as well.
I personally think costume jewelry gets a bad wrap. There's a lot of information circulating about costume jewelry being "low-quality" or "cheap", and we've all bought a pair of affordable but badass earrings at a big-box store that irritated our ears and made us swear we're allergic to anything that's not silver or gold. But that doesn't represent the category as a whole.
While costume jewelry is overall the most affordable jewelry category, that doesn't mean it's valueless. There's a huge market for vintage collectibles. If you know what you're looking for, pieces can sell for as little as $100 up to $10,000. With pieces available on the vintage market dating back centuries, we know is can last with proper care, and on the subject of allergies, it's best to buy pieces from someone that can speak to the alloy used in production. (Shameless small business plug!) While some people can truly only wear silver or gold, most people are allergic to nickel. A well informed jeweler should be able to let you know if nickel is used in their alloys. For example, when I was producing brass jewelry, I only bought nickel free alloys. It's harder to figure this out in big-box stores where manufacturing may be de-centralized, and employees aren't given detailed information on products.
I also want to take a moment to address jewelry turning your skin green. While it may be a nuisance, it is NOT an allergy. It's your skin reacting to the copper in the metal's alloy. This isn't a bad thing. Magnetic copper bracelets are often used to treat pain and inflammation associated with arthritis and carpal tunnel. (I cannot speak to its effectiveness.) A metal allergy is often associated with pain, itching, redness, and rashes like other topical allergies.
Finally, what kinda price tag are we looking at here? Honestly, it depends. You can get pieces for less that $10 depending on size and origin. A designer piece could be as high as $5,000 depending on brand, size, and rarity. This is the widest range price-wise. I personally look to costume jewelry to fill the big, bold, fun gaps in my collection. While I'm not opposed to owning a giant emerald encrusted gold choker, it's 100% out of my price range, and an imitation will do just fine.
2. DEMI-FINE JEWELRY
What even is this?! Demi-fine jewelry is a newer term. It serves to distinguish semi-precious jewelry that doesn't quite qualify as fine from the larger umbrella of costume jewelry. The biggest difference being the metals used. Demi-fine jewelry incorporates precious metals, but rather than using solid gold you'll see labels like vermeil (heavy gold plating on a sterling silver core) and gold-fill (two thin sheets of gold clad to a base metal or silver core). You'll also see rhodium-plated silver which gives your silver a brighter white color and keeps it tarnish free longer (though with daily wear, the oils in your skin will also help prevent tarnish). You'll also start to see more semi-precious and precious stones being used in this category.
In terms of longevity, the better you care for your pieces, the longer they'll last. Keep them dry and away from perfumes, lotions, and other chemicals, and they'll hold up for years to come. Keep in mind that when the gold plating starts to fade on your vermeil pieces, you can take them to your local jeweler and have them re-plated at a low cost. (If you bought your pieces directly from Banks Designs, you can send me an email and I can have them re-plated for you.)
I recommend demi-fine jewelry as a good place to start a collection for people looking to level up from costume jewelry, but aren't ready to go all in on fine jewelry. You can find a range of styles from everyday to statement, and if you are someone that can only wear silver or gold, this is a great place to start. While you can still pay a few thousand dollars for a piece (again depending on size, metals, and stones used) the barrier to entry is still lower than fine jewelry and many options fit in the $50-$500 range.
3. FINE JEWELRY
Last but not least let's talk fine jewelry! This is where you get your solid gold (14K and up) and platinum, though silver's still in the mix. You're also going to see more precious stones like diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.
This is the category where you're not just talking materials but value retention. While precious metals like gold and platinum are desired for being non-reactive (they don't tarnish or fade) they are also PRICEY, and because their value mostly increases over time, so does the value of your items.
Fine jewelry is perfect for everyday wear. While you should always be nice to your jewelry, if it gets wet you don't need to worry about it. This is also where people go when they want to sleep in their jewelry, but I don't advocate for that. Our bodies move freely in sleep, and fine jewelry can still break, especially when it comes to more dainty pieces like fine chain. Just take it off and put it back on in the morning.
Fine jewelry is for you if you're looking to make more of an investment in a piece of jewelry rather than make quick trendy purchases. This is the perfect category for classic styles you'll wear everyday, and special occasion pieces (engagement rings, memento mori pieces, heirlooms) that might warrant more investment. But at the end of the day if you like a piece, and you can afford it, I say why not!
Ultimately this is the least accessible category in terms of price point. The sky is the limit, but a thin 1mm stacking band is going to run you close to $100. That's without any stones or designs. So if you want something more substantial or decorative, the entry cost is in the $300-$600 range and increases quickly (but think small semi-precious stones or wider bands that are still very thin).
Honestly, each of these categories could be a blog post on its own, but for now I hope this helps you understand a little more about types of jewelry, and how each does or doesn't suite your lifestyle.