Glittering gems and captivating crystal – a new exhibition repositions costume jewelry as a major creative force.

An exhibition of sparkling stones unveils the supremacy of costume jewelry in the fashion world.

Throughout the 20th century, costume jewelry has played second fiddle to fine jewelry, especially in the haute couture domain. "Les Paruriers: Bijoux de la Haute Couture," a wide ranging, eye-opening and ultimately beguiling exhibition in Belgium is about to revise our ideas of the place of the fake, putting a focus on audacious jewelry that has driven the creativity of the precious jewelry sector and become a major area of collector interest in its own right.

A glittering collaboration between art historian and author Florence Muller and dealer-collectors Patrick and Godelieve Sigal, between them they've amassed over 600 pieces for this illuminating show, in the process rediscovering forgotten designers and revealing a profession that's flown below the radar for far too long.

Alongside pieces marked Chanel, Poiret and Schiaparelli, the focus is on a host of jewelers like Gripoix, Goossens, Roger Jean-Pierre and Roger Scémama. The latter is probably the most important and diverse of the independent creators, known as paruriers, having produced landmark pieces that are easily recognized today for the biggest couturiers, primarily Dior, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent.

Then there are the unknowns, whose names have faded from memory. As Sigal points out, the long-running double conundrum was that the jewelry was "often neglected as it wasn't considered part of the couturier's output," but the couturier's name was still attached to it, with the result that the actual designers and manufacturers went unrecognized and unremembered.

But the show turns up many surprises, including porcelain tubes, folded reeds and rolls of sliced leather worn as necklaces created by Elsa Triolet around 1930 and held in storage in a small French library. These remarkable pieces have never had a public outing before. "I don't know about you," Muller said, "but to me this is the most modern thing in the exhibition." Peering into cases that feature works right up to the present day – including a forgotten cache of sculptural samples by an unlocatable Oscar Gustin, accidentally unearthed from a storeroom at Ungaro after more than 30 years – one feels she might well be right.

Scenographer Winston Spriet has given the exhibition the allure of a bewitching boudoir – curtains of black fringe seductively conceal perfectly-lit black cases in which the jewels sparkle effusively, almost as if in candlelight.

Candlelight is the ideal light in which to view diamonds, and these costume pieces are treated with as much care and elevated respect. It was not always the case for paruriers – their industry was only granted an official standing in 1901. "Before, makers of imitation jewelry were of low standing. This was their stamp of recognition," Muller explained. From the dawn of the last century onwards their output and creativity boomed.

With the appearance of the couturier as a dictatorial force fashion in the 20th century was no longer a small-time collaboration between dressmaker and client – the couturier decided everything, right down to the smallest accessory. Thus paruriers worked closely with couturiers, but always in an independent vein, never sure that the prototypes they produced free-of-charge would please the couturier's exacting eye and be purchased in multiples. Despite the financial instability involved, this interaction provided "examples of a real sharing relationship between the couturier and the jewelry maker, something that doesn't exist anymore," Sigal says.

Beneath the large photographs of little ateliers and of Christian Dior supervising a final fitting surrounded by trays of jewelry, a number of haute couture dresses have a chance to shine. They're examples of how jewelry can be incorporated into the design of a dress. To wit, three Chanel dresses featuring heavy Lesage beading as trompe l'oeil jewelry (one requiring 400 hours of handwork), or the dangling red jeweled cummerbund of a printed Lacroix dress, or a Gaultier number where the fabric is gathered into soft pleats that work their way through the slits in the bronze breastplate from which the dress hangs.

"Remember," Muller noted, responding to a question from a rapt viewer, "that costume jewelry has inspired fine jewelry throughout the 20th century. Paruriers allowed themselves such flights of fancy that clients had fakes copied in real."

As she stopped in front of the recreation of the tiny, tool-filled workshop of the late Jacques Gaultier, a master of enamel work, she reminded her audience, "From these dark and dusty places emerge jewels of splendor."

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