There was a time when glittery jewelry was the ultimate sign of glamour. In the 1930s, a diamante necklace was the signature accessory of more than a few Hollywood legends. Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford – their celluloid beauty was only emphasized by the crystals worn to decorate custom made ensembles.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, clear, diamante jewelry took Hollywood by storm. Designers created rhinestone pieces not to imitate fine jewelry, but rather to connect to fashion at the time. Elsa Schiaparelli designed decorative broaches to match her whimsical designs, and Henry Schriener inverted crystals over gold settings to match the creations of the houses of Balenciaga and Dior. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and, “it “ girls of yesteryear, icons of “now,” helped promote this new take on the diamond by incorporating personal pieces into their looks.

We see Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes wearing a busty pink dress and satin gloves and row upon row of shining jewels.  There is a diamante choker around her neck, accentuating the sweetheart cut of her gown and forcing the viewer’s eyes to settle on her upper body.  She was an exhibitionist who could control her audience with the not-so-simple placement of a statement piece.

Later, Madonna produced the perfect pastiche of Monroe with ‘80s punk style when she channeled the original Hollywood bombshell in her video for “Material Girl.” When Madonna ‘found’ spirituality circa 1998’s Ray of Light, she was quoted saying “Material Girl” was the song she most regrets (“God forbid irony should be understood”), quite a turnaround given the singer’s penchant for assuming so many different global identities using jewelry as a definitive prop. Apparently, the facile gemstone was the one thing she couldn’t fetishize.

Fashion designer Bob Mackie, known for outfitting and styling Diana Ross and Cher, designed costumes for Las Vegas burlesque in the 70’s and 80’s. Mackie lined transparent pieces with rhinestones, creating sensual illusions and directing attention to the actual body. These shows and costume designs were inspired by The Ziegfeld Follies from the New York City Broadway performances, which were in turn inspired by Parisian shows, such as the infamous Moulin Rouge. Icons of the 1920’s such as Josephine Baker manifested as Burlesque Queens like Gypsy Rose Lee into the 1960’s prom-queens inverted into the new bohemia of punk mavens dripping in rhinestones, which gave way to today’s rhinestone-laden celeb free for all. The history of twentieth century pop culture. In rhinestones. Phew.

Now, rhinestone styles of 1920’s Paris on 80’s punk queens as sexy as 50's starlets are everywhere. The designer Tom Binns injects a playful tough-girl aesthetic into his confetti-colored costume baubles. He salvaged rhinestones tangled in flea market bins like pirate booty and made them cool again. Tiered necklaces14100bosgmk5C8A66DE576AB77A7, rhinestones tied to safety pins, and lux-meets-punk  bracelets became the go-to accessories for style artists such as Grace Coddington and Lori Goldstein, worn by icons such as Julia Roberts and Michelle Obama. Today, Tom Binns-inspired replicas can be found in Urban Outfitters and H&M. Can Swarovski have replaced Harry Winston as girl’s best friend?

Diamonds are certainly Mickalene Thomas’ go to jewel. Thomas is a New York-based artist who uses rhinestones, enamel, and acrylics to create portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. Make-up artist Pat McGrath, channeling Thomas’ embellished subjects, decorated models’ mouths in bright red, pink, and coral rhinestones this past month for Christian Dior’s couture show. Dressing up and beautifying subjects with the faux opulence of faceted crystals raises the issue of  “what is it that we value as women?” 

On stage, Beyonce wears a reproduction of her eighteen-carat diamond engagement ring, keeping the real deal private, or at least in a safe at home. One can put a ring on it but are materialized luxuries really a girl’s best friend?  Kate Middleton paired fake diamond earrings with a McQueen gown for the Diamond Jubilee. Rihanna makes layered rhinestone necklaces by DanniJo worn with a torn t-shirt, look better than, well, diamonds. From the calling card of the 1920s performer to a product of the pre-post-modernism of the 50s, the golden-age of celluloid, to a tongue-in-cheek accent of 80’s post-modernism, rhinestones have long sat front and center in a culture of celebrity and performance. What kind of value do they have now? After the collapse of post-modernism, in the age of cheap –aka Work in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in China- things are so fake they’re real. And with shiny objects in particular, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Want to explore the streets of Lima or Bangkok in fluorescent crystal-encrusted earrings? Gamble in Monaco or Macau in an avant-garde collarep122z15u-yJQMOKKRSJLKOPLLOL? Escape to the Amazon or a Kiwi Lodge adorned in luster? Travel to the destination of your Pinterest dreams- a journey you never thought you could afford- manifested. Leave the diamonds at home. Or trade them in for the most awesome experience of your life.
Now that’s a best friend…

~Susan Brickell

February 2013