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Rhinestone History

Officially, a rhinestone is lead crystal initially sifted from the Rhine River, or a faceted chunk of glass, usually backed with foil. However if any piece of jewelry jangles for more than just a dry definition, it's the twinkling diamond-pretender, the rhinestone.

After the domestic austerity imposed by World War II, post-war American women sought glamour, which for the diamond less set meant rhinestones. Cocktail party circles assumed that the exotically named rhinestone designers - Schiaparelli , Eisenberg or De Mario - exported their dazzling rhinestone bracelets, brooches and necklaces from more romantic European shores. Little did they know that almost all of them were fabricated in humble Providence, Rhode Island, by dozens of companies who employed hard-working yet inexpensive immigrants to churn out the glitz.

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, Italy in 1890, drawn to the arts and design at an early age and establishing her first couture fashion house in Paris where she was both a contemporary and competitor to Coco Chanel.

With the coming onset of World War II, Schiaperelli left France in 1940 and sailed for the U. S. where she immediately put in place her own fashion operation based in 1949 in New York. A daring, flamboyant fashion innovator, she popularized brilliant colors, especially shocking pink. She was the first to use synthetic fabrics and zipper fastenings and the first to open a boutique offering ready-to-wear clothing.

Schiaparelli closed the French fashion house in 1954, and focused on the U. S. operation and her fine costume jewelry. Schiaparelli was well known inside the industry for her talent and innovation as a designer, but she was also a very astute businesswoman in the same vein as Miriam Haskell and Hattie Carnegie. Some of her best known and most avidly collected designs are whimsical pieces she designed with circus themes, signs of the zodiac, and surrealistic jewelry inspired by the surrealist art of Salvador Dali.

Schiaparelli costume jewelry is usually quite colorful, using multi-colored rhinestones in often striking designs

Jonas Eisenberg , an emigrant to the United States in 1880 from Austria, founded his company in Chicago in 1914 to make and sell high quality but ready-to-wear clothing.

Jewelry was not introduced until 1930, mostly as a complement to their clothing line, and their accessories were typically sold as part of the garment but were also sold individually in a blue velvet box marked Eisenberg & Sons Originals. Jewelry eventually became predominant and they stopped selling clothing in 1958. While mostly producing very fine costume jewelry, they also produced some outstanding sterling silver pieces mostly during the years of World War II and up until 1948.

The costume jewelry was some of the finest ever produced in the U. S., using Swarovski Austrian crystals and rhinestones, the best plating and metalworking techniques available, and other high quality materials that made their jewelry expensive even when originally marketed. This is a trend that has obviously continued in the collectible market as their pieces are highly sought by vintage costume jewelry collectors. The Berns-Friedman group purchased the company in 1977.

Most early Eisenberg jewelry was unmarked although some sterling silver pieces made during World War II due to restrictions on other materials were marked "Sterling". About 1935, Eisenberg began marking their jewelry "Eisenberg", "Eisenberg Original", or the script letter E used during World War II. In the early 1950s they also began marking some pieces marked "Eisenberg Ice", but throughout their history some number of pieces emerged from the factory absent any markings to identify the piece as made by Eisenberg.

DeMario was founded in New York City in 1945, producing jewelry that combined the materials of beads, faux pearls and rhinestones in exceptional designs and countless colors. DeMario never had a large scale production, serving mostly a regional Northeast market and therefore rarer than most marked vintage costume jewelry

While the fashion of rhinestones has persisted longer than many style gurus had predicted, they almost certainly hit their cultural glory days a generation ago, due in large part to the supreme rhinestone lover of them all, Liberace. Brian Paco Alvarez, collections manager at Las Vegas' Liberace Museum , describes Liberace as someone who brought "the piano to the people" - and the delivery often came encrusted in rhinestones.

"He wanted things that glistened under the lights," says Brian. "And the next best thing to diamonds were rhinestones." Liberace most likely had the largest rhinestone collection in the world. From time to time he drove his Rhinestone Roadster across the stage to his rhinestone-skinned Baldwin piano. And then, of course, his eyes always brightened upon seeing rhinestone costumes.

"If it was outrageous and glistened like diamonds, he'd wear it," Brian says. Liberace's Platinum Mink Coat and Rhinestone Costume (that's its official name, Brian says) carries tens of thousands of rhinestones - even the heels of the outfit's shoes sparkle with them.

Liberace's love for rhinestones deluded many fans into thinking he wore simply costume jewelry. Rhinestones, though, were his only plunge into fake stones. "He wore jewelry made with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires of the highest quality," Brian explains. All stones both precious and expensive, however, are outshone by the crown jewel of the museum: a clear, 51-pound, 115,000-carat rhinestone that Swarovski & Company, of Austria, gifted to Liberace in 1982.

The Rhinestone Car was customized in the style of a Duesenberg Roadster. It was used for the finale of Liberace's 1985 and 1986 performances at Radio City Music Hall and has a Chevrolet 350 engine and chassis.
"He was Swarovski's biggest customer," is the way Brian explains the reason for the generous present, valued 20 years ago at $50,000. "Liberace was spending a lot of money on rhinestones."

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