By  on July 9, 2007

The term "costume jewelry" can connote images of grandma's beaded necklaces and giant clip-on earrings.

Today's costume jewelry is anything but gaudy. In fact, as more and more high-end jewelers and ready-to-wear designers dip into the category, the line between costume and fine is growing increasingly blurry, leaving room for an emerging middle ground that is both glamorous and accessible.

Jewelry brand Erickson Beamon has been treading the fine jewelry line since its inception over 20 years ago. Known for its vintage-looking bronze and pearl chokers and chandelier earrings that start at $300, Erickson Beamon's baubles may not be fine jewelry but are high-fashion and expertly made. "Erickson Beamon was born during the era of designer jewelry, that's the only niche we've ever known," said designer Karen Erickson. "We are the antithesis to costume and mass production. We do everything handmade, like an art project."

Erickson defines the term designer jewelry in that the materials she uses are secondary to the design. "Everything should be valued on the design element, that's designer jewelry," she said. "It's not limited to materials. If I want to use string and make something beautiful and relative to fashion, then string can be my medium."

But while Erickson Beamon has been on the forefront of designer jewelry for over two decades, the brand is joined by a growing number of designers creating runway-ready pieces that are of-the-moment and affordable. Such brands as Alexis Bittar, Subversive Jewelry, Badgley Mischka and even Dolce & Gabbana's D&G line are falling somewhere in this new gray area of costume jewelry. Their pieces speak to both the aspirational customer and a couture client looking to accessorize a $10,000 gown. And while these artists don't work in 22-karat gold but in bronze and brass, and don't use sapphires and rubies but quartz and crystal, they are nonetheless pushing the envelope of what constitutes fabulous jewelry.

"We've always aspired towards blurring the distinction between costume and fine," said Alexis Bittar, whose eponymous brand features Lucite bangles and gold vermeil rings that range in price from $75 to $1,000. "I started with the aspiration to design a line that was high-fashion, whether using Lucite or sterling silver. It's an exciting thing if you can reference something old, make it look new, make it look fine, but it's affordable.""We call it couture jewelry," said Subversive Jewelry designer Justin Giunta. "It's the easiest way to distinguish between costume and fine jewelry. It's all one-of-a-kind when you look at it. Even though we do reproduce some styles, everything is handmade in the studio." Subversive's layered chain necklaces retail from $1,400 to $2,800. "It's the way it's assembled," he said. "That's what makes it couture in the end, everything is on its own."

In a different nomenclature altogether, Gillion Carrara terms her wooden cuffs and lead crystal jewelry, which she produces laboriously in the style of old Venetian glass-making, as art jewelry. "There's an emergence, whether in Italy or in gallery stores, of using the term art jewelry," said Carrara. "I think it's a term that was used in writing about jewelry, and if that's what they're calling it, I say fine. I've also heard of the term 'objects to wear.'"

But some brands are sticking to a more traditional label. Miriam Haskell, the 81-year-old brand that some say put costume jewelry on the map, is relaunching its costume collection and challenging stereotypes with high-fashion, red carpet-worthy pieces, including gold-plated leaf necklaces and coiled sea beaded cuffs. The collection retails from $150 to $1,500. "We're using the finest costume materials, like brass, Swarovski crystals and glass pearls, and focusing on craftsmanship, artistry and design," said Gabrielle Fialkoff Redford, chief operating officer of Haskell Jewelry. "Even in costume, making pieces requires hours and hours of labor. Our work requires talent and know-how."

Whether designer, art, couture or costume, today's newest jewelry category has one thing in common, if not a title: consumer appeal. "For us, it's about emotion," said Scott Shram, the general merchandising manager of accessories and apparel at Henri Bendel. "Pricing or labeling doesn't have the resistance you'd think it does if the piece you are presenting is telling a story and creating an emotion for the customer."

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