Does Costume Jewelry Make Me Look Cheap?

Angelina may wear the real thing, but it's likely the version popping up at the office Christmas party isn't authentic. See more celebrity pictures.
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It's not an uncommon sight, a woman wearing emeralds the size of a small child's fist. And when they're hanging from Angelina Jolie's ears, chances are they're real. When they show up at the office Christmas party, unless you work for royalty or Liz Taylor, it's safe to assume they're costume.

What difference does it make, aside from whether it costs your child's college fund? There are lots of high-end fakes that look remarkably like the real thing. When the industry rakes in a few billion dollars a year, you know there are far more massive ruby brooches out there than there are people who can afford them [source: Sloane].


The thing is, the people wearing them can look perfectly classy and elegant.


Looking classy in costume jewels is not a sure thing. Looking classy in genuine jewels is not even a sure thing, and it can take a bit more to pull off the fake stuff.

You see it all the time, women (or men) looking ridiculous in costume jewelry. It can impart a decidedly cheap look, an air of the tacky. It's easy to recognize the effect. It's harder to define the causes. What exactly is it that determines whether glass, crystal, plastic, foil, and/or a little paint appears stylish or just plain sad?

In this article, we'll find out what it takes to escape costume-jewelry sadness. We'll learn what distinguishes quality from crap, and we'll see how anyone can look fabulous in the fake stuff.

It's really not that hard to tell a nice costume (aka "fashion" or "bridge") bracelet or necklace from something that could've come from a dollar store. You just need to know what to look for.


What to Look For

The cheap jewelry for sale at a local festival or shop might be cute, but it also might not have the highest-quality finishes.
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What distinguishes the woman looking great in costume diamonds from the one you want to save from her own bad taste? It typically comes down to two factors: what she's wearing, and how she's wearing it. What she's wearing is perhaps the easier set of characteristics to define.

It's fairly straightforward: finishes and gems.


Finishes are the colored coatings that turn the chain, setting, French hooks, clasps and all other metal components into, typically, silver or gold tones. Of course, some high-end costume pieces actually are silver or gold. Those are the relatively expensive ones, and are sometimes referred to as "bridge" jewelry. They can run into the thousands of dollars and often sport very real-looking fake stones.

More often, we're talking about the cheaper stuff -- "fashion" jewelry, which you can typically pick up for under a $100 (sometimes way under). In those pieces, the metals usually aren't precious, and finish quality can vary dramatically. What you want to look out for is the cheap, flimsy coating you can scratch off with a finger nail. That stuff looks cheap, acts cheap and is cheap.

Typically, the nicer pieces will be electroplated in real silver or gold. That's when manufacturers chemically bond a thin film of precious metal to a base of non-precious metal. It's a higher-quality finish that looks good and stands up to normal wear.

That's the background, and it's a crucial component in wearing cheaper jewelry without looking cheap. The other major factor is the centerpiece -- the gem.

Expensive-looking costume gems can be made of a variety of materials and take countless forms. They may closely resemble diamonds, rubies, pearls or emeralds, or they may create a look all their own. It's perhaps easier to define quality costume gems by what they're lacking, namely: paint, foil backing and lightweight plastic. And they're not glued on -- they're prong-set or hand-tied.

With an eye out for materials and mountings, classy costume jewelry is pretty easy to spot. Wearing it with class, on the other hand, can be a bit more complicated.


How to Wear It

High-quality costume jewelry can look perfectly tasteful if worn in moderation.
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The thing about wearing baubles, beads, and all sparkling things is, genuine materials or not, it's easy to end up looking overdone. When including costume jewelry in your style, the best way to avoid coming off cheap is to follow one simple rule: Less is more.

You can have the most beautiful costume ruby necklace and turn it into an imitation nightmare by adding a ruby ring, ruby bracelet, ruby earrings, two gold chains, a pearl choker and ruby-and-sapphire headband. Matchy-matchy is usually kind of tacky, and, as they say, how classy a woman looks is inversely proportional to the number of rings she wears.


Keep it simple. If you're wearing a particularly large piece of jewelry, treat it as a focal point. That means only one necklace, and perhaps one or two other "background" pieces, simple gold hoops or a few silver bangles, for instance. You can wear a larger number of subtle pieces at once without looking cheap, but even with simple jewelry it's wise to edit. A thin gold chain can look a bit street-walker when you pair it with 20 more just like it.

Aside from limiting your jewels to a few well-chosen pieces, looking expensive in the inexpensive can also come down to:

Size -- Unless you're royalty, you probably won't look classy in a lemon-size "diamond." Keep it small and tasteful.

Color -- If you're going for an expensive look, a hot-pink or lime-green stone can be tough to pull off. To be safe, stick with colors in the natural-stone spectrum.

Outfit -- Most people look cheap pairing a 10-carat "ruby" with sweats and a t-shirt. Sure, a lucky few in Beverly Hills can make it work, but most people do well wearing fancy jewelry with evening wear and casual jewelry with jeans.

One other thing to think about when wearing affordable jewels: Some people have allergic reactions to certain inexpensive metals. Before you wear a costume piece for a night on the town, make sure you're not allergic to the chain or setting. No one looks expensive in a rash.

For more information on costume jewelry and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Fashion Jewelry Buying Guide. Overstock.
  • Gemstones for Costume Jewelry. Costume Jewelry.
  • Riley, Alice. "A guide to Costume Jewelry." All Things Frugal.
  • Sloane, Leonard. "Consumer's World; Costume Jewelry: A Buyer's Guide." The New York Times. Feb. 3, 1990.