Fashion & Costume Jewelry Made Simple - Blush and Bar

March 23, 2020 12 min read

What is fashion jewelry?

It’s an affordable alternative to fine jewelry.

Fine jewelry, made from materials like solid gold and diamonds, keeps away much of the market due to its price tag. Fashion jewelry, on the other hand, often looks identical but costs much less.

There’s very little information online about jewelry craftsmanship and fashion jewelry in general—and even less on how to take care of what you own. We built this guide to fill in that gap and explain what you should look for and what you should avoid.

In this guide, you’ll learn what fashion jewelry is, how it’s made, how to make a smart purchase, and how to care for pieces for years to come.

You can also check out our Fashion Jewelry Glossary for clarification on some of the most common terms used.

Let’s get started!

What is fashion jewelry? A simple definition

All jewelry can be broadly divided into two groups—fine jewelry, and fashion jewelry.

The difference is simple and is based on the materials used to create the product. Fine jewelry is made with precious metals like solid gold and platinum and high-value gemstones like diamonds.

Fashion jewelry is typically any type of jewelry not made from solid precious metals. That definition seems clear-cut, but with high-quality pieces, the line may seem blurry. For example, an opal ring crafted with gold-plated silver uses a real gemstone and is made of over 90% precious metal.

Because it’s not solid gold, however, it would be considered fashion jewelry. Usually, the best indicator of fashion jewelry vs. fine jewelry is the price. Generally speaking, if it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars, it would be considered fashion jewelry.

You may have also heard the term “costume jewelry.” The difference has more to do with its usage and history.

When fashion jewelry burst onto the scene in the 1920s, it was called costume jewelry due to its use by film stars. Today, the term “costume jewelry” and “fashion jewelry” mean essentially the same thing.

What type of craftsmanship is used in fashion jewelry?

One of the most important factors in fashion jewelry is one of the most overlooked—craftsmanship.

Just like any piece of art, the quality of a piece of jewelry depends on who crafts it. Most of the fashion jewelry you’ll find online is factory-made in a developing country and imported with little or no quality control.

We’ll talk in a bit about some of the risks associated with that process, including the presence of dangerous metals like lead and cadmium, but for now, let’s focus on quality.

High-quality fashion jewelry should be designed and crafted by skilled professionals that have been vetted and have a quality track record. While it’s easy to cut corners, true quality jewelry that’s built to last is created by people who know what they’re doing.

Another indication of quality is a guarantee. This shows that the company is serious about its offering and is willing to promise you a high-quality product. That’s why all of our pieces at Blush and Bar are guaranteed for life.

What metals are used in fashion jewelry?

One of the primary differences between fine jewelry and fashion jewelry is the type of metal used. Fine jewelry is typically made entirely of a precious metal like gold or platinum.

Fashion jewelry, meanwhile, maintains quality at a lower price point by using semiprecious or common metals. If you’re going to buy fashion jewelry and want to make an intelligent purchase, you need to understand the type of metals used.

Base metals

Fashion jewelry often uses common metals as the base for the piece. Sometimes these are covered with gold or another metal but oftentimes are made completely of the base metal.

Common base metals include steel, tin, nickel, brass, bronze, and aluminum. For bolder pieces that want a distinctive touch, designers might work with metals like copper and pewter.

When it comes to fashion jewelry base metals, however, there is a clear winner in terms of both quality and durability—sterling silver.

Sterling silver is a combination of the precious metal silver and another metal like copper. This alloy preserves the color and improves the durability of the silver. Sterling silver is often preceded by the number .925, which indicates it contains 92.5% pure silver.

Much high-quality fashion jewelry, however, doesn’t end with the core metal. Instead, it’s covered with a layer of pure gold. Let’s look at that next.

Plating, vermeil, and gold-filled

Most people who purchase fashion jewelry aren’t looking for something that looks like it was made from cheap metal. That’s why many types of fashion jewelry—including a large number of the items sold by Blush and Bar—layer the piece with gold.

There are three primary ways to cover a piece in gold.

Gold plating is the cheapest and most common. This involves covering a piece made of a (usually low-end) base metal with a thin sheet of gold.

How thin? The U.S. Federal Trade Commission defines gold plate as including a layer of gold of at least 0.175 microns thick. That’s about 0.000007 inches—a sheet of printer paper is as thick as 500 sheets of gold plate!

Unfortunately, with such a thin coat, base metals like silver and copper will quickly “leak” into the gold over the course of months or years. And while gold itself doesn’t tarnish, the gold plate will as the base metal diffuses into it.

Gold-filled isn’t what the name suggests at all. It’s not filled with gold, but rather gold plating with the additional legal requirement that the piece must be 1/20th gold by weight. Other than that, there’s no requirement for the thickness of the plating or the type of base metal used.

Gold vermeil(typically pronounced vur-MAY, and sometimes known as silver-gilt) is made of a silver base with thick gold coating, making it more durable, higher quality, and more valuable. It’s often called “demi-fine” as it straddles the line between fine jewelry and fashion pieces.

Legally, vermeil must have a base of .925 sterling silver, use gold of 10K or higher, and have a thickness of at least 2.5 microns (14 times thicker than gold plate).

Since pure gold is soft, fragile, and prohibitively expensive, many of history’s most famous “gold” items, like Olympic gold medals and pieces of the Britsh Crown Jewels, are actually made from vermeil.


It’s also the metal used in nearly all items in the White House’s so-called “Vermeil Room.”

Vermeil Room in the White House


When buying a vermeil ring, pay special attention to the karat number as an indicator of quality. The higher the number, the higher-quality the gold.

For a quick recap—karat indicates the amount of gold versus alloys, measured in increments of 1/24ths. While 24K is pure gold (typically labeled 999, or 99.9% gold), it’s a very poor choice for vermeil and jewelry in general due to its softness … it’ll get scratched and damaged from day one.

Instead, look for gold blended with an alloy. The higher the karat, the more valuable. So 18K gold contains 18/24 parts gold, or 75% pure gold.

If there is no karat information, you should assume the manufacturers are meeting the minimum legal standard of 10K, or just 41.7% gold.

Metals to avoid

While it’s not the most pleasant topic, a section on metals used in fashion jewelry wouldn’t be complete without explaining what to avoid.

The most common metal to avoid, and one that’s most often violated, is lead. It’s often added to improve the weight and color of jewelry but can lead to learning disabilities, organ failure, and death.

The legal requirement set forth by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission for children’s jewelry is 600 parts per million or less.

However, low-quality, typically imported, jewelry often exceeds this limit. For example, in 2017 the California government found a number of pieces with toxic levels of lead in excess of 61,000% of the legally allowed limit.

Toxic Jewelry samples


An unintended consequence of the government’s stricter enforcement has been the replacement of lead with cadmium, another toxic metal.

Most often these products come from countries with lax health standards or poor enforcement of the standards that exist. When they arrive in the United States, they’re immediately shipped to suppliers without any kind of quality check.

So, how can you avoid jewelry with toxic metal? Unfortunately, a label by itself isn’t a guarantee. Many products with lead, for example, are illegally marketed as “lead-free.”

The solution is to work with a supplier or brand you can trust.

Ideally, use a company that ethically sources its materials and assembles in the United States. There are a number of companies that craft their products this way, including our process at Blush and Bar.

Finally, another metal you should avoid is nickel. While it’s legal and can’t poison you like lead or cadmium, if you have a nickel allergy it will bring on dermatitis—a rash and itchiness—anywhere you touch the metal.

But we recommend against nickel even if you don’t have an allergy. That’s because continuous exposure to nickel can cause you to develop an allergy. And once acquired, that allergy is permanent.

Nickel is hard to avoid—it’s present in a number of everyday items like coins, zippers, and eyeglass frames—so avoiding nickel jewelry can prevent you from developing a painful lifelong allergy.

What gemstones are used in fashion jewelry?

Due to the high price of precious stones, most fashion jewelry uses alternatives that still have the same look without the high cost.

Typically, stones used in fashion jewelry are divided into two types—synthetic gems and semiprecious stones.

Synthetic gems

The first type of gem is synthetic. Instead of the normal process of heat and pressurization that happens in nature to create most minerals, those forces are reproduced in a lab.

Perhaps the most well-known of these synthetic gems is cubic zirconia, which is produced with extreme heat to generate a manmade crystal similar to a diamond.

Smelting Furnace

Cubic zirconia can be colored and cut to look almost exactly like a diamond. Because it is chemically different from true diamonds and doesn’t undergo the same processes, cubic zirconia will never hold the same value.

But for jewelry, its appearance is nearly indistinguishable from diamonds to the untrained eye.

Cubic Zirconia colored stone
Source:Michelle Jo via Wikimedia Commons /CC BY

While cubic zirconia dominates the market, there are other synthetic stones as well. These include moissanite and synthetic diamonds.

Semiprecious stones

The other opportunity for fashion jewelry is with semiprecious stones.

Unlike synthetic gems, these aren’t created in a laboratory. Like the traditional four precious stones—diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires—they’re mined from the earth. The difference is that they’re not as scarce, and hence as valuable, as precious stones.

One of the most common types of semiprecious stones for rings, for example, is opal.

Solid Opal Stone

Source:James St. John via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY

But other types of semiprecious gems abound. Some of the better-known types include amethyst, beryl, garnet, jade, onyx, quartz, topaz, and zircon.

Organic gemstones

The final type of gemstone is technically not a mineral at all, but rather an organic element used in fashion jewelry. While the term “gemstone” is often used, these elements are neither mined from the earth nor manufactured in a laboratory. Instead, they’re created by living creatures.

These include pearls (formed by saltwater clams or freshwater mussels), amber (tree resin that has been fossilized), coral (the same type of coral that forms the oceans’ reefs), and mother of pearl (the inside layer of a mollusk shell).

Many organic gemstones have the advantage of being sustainably produced. However, they can also be controversial, since harvesting them often comes at the cost of an animal’s life.

How to care for and clean fashion jewelry

So you’ve decided what type of fashion jewelry you want, and you’ve purchased it. Great!

If you’re planning on keeping your jewelry for a long time, you need to learn how to properly care for it. A few extra minutes of cleaning and protecting your jewelry can keep it bright and brilliant for years to come.

In a second, we’ll cover the details on exactly how to keep your jewelry in tip-top shape. But of all the details summarized below, there are two easy tips to keep your jewelry looking great:

  1. Store jewelry carefully to prevent scratching and corrosion.
  2. Make sure your jewelry is dry and dust-free when you take it off.

Now, let’s dive into all the details on how to extend the life of your pieces.

How to wear fashion jewelry

First and most important, don’t let your jewelry get wet. It can cause corrosion and is one of the quickest ways to reduce the lifespan of any piece. Don’t wear jewelry into the ocean, the pool, or the shower. And take off all jewelry before washing dishes, taking wet clothes out of the washer, or exercising.

One of the most damaging things you can do to your jewelry is to let it come into contact with foreign chemicals. And remember—chemicals that are fine for you are probably not good for your jewelry. This includes lotions, perfumes, hairspray, and other beauty care products.

A good tip is to put your jewelry on last and take it off first. This helps ensure you put it on once perfumes and lotions have dried on your skin. You should also never sleep in your jewelry.

If you want to care for gold vermeil, you should also watch out for oxygen and sulfides. This means avoiding substances like wool, felt, rubber and latex.

And finally, it’s a good idea to not wear the same pieces every day. While jewelry is designed to withstand basic wear, using it less will extend the overall lifespan of each piece.

How to store fashion jewelry

We’ve already mentioned keeping jewelry dry while you’re wearing it, and the same goes for storage. Keep a soft cloth, like flannel or an eyeglass cleaning cloth, and wipe down jewelry before storing it.

To prevent scratching, store each piece individually if possible. You’ll also want to avoid extreme temperatures and direct sunlight. A good rule of thumb is that if it wouldn’t be a comfortable temperature for you, it’s probably not good for your jewelry, either.

One of the most corrosive agents for metals is the air we breathe, so try to keep it out as much as possible. Consider a Ziploc bag or other airtight container. Moisture in the air can also be damaging—especially if you live near saltwater—so you may want to invest in silica packs (the kind in shoeboxes) and anti-tarnish protector strips, like those sold by 3M.

Finally, if you travel a lot, it’s likely a good idea to invest in a travel case.

How to clean fashion jewelry

The first tip in cleaning your jewelry is to not use chemical jewelry cleaners. These usually contain harsh chemicals that can destroy the surface of gold vermeil rings.

You should also avoid cleaners with the three A’s—acid, alcohol, and ammonia.

Some sites recommend abrasive agents, like baking soda or toothpaste, but we recommend against it. They might work for cheap metals, but with precious metals like gold and silver, abrasive agents do a great job of removing debris … and a layer of metal along with it.

Now that we’ve gotten the wrong methods out of the way, how should you clean your jewelry?

It’s a good idea to learn about the type of jewelry you have before doing any cleaning. The wrong solution can ruin an otherwise perfect piece.

The best way to clean jewelry is to maintain it. Whenever you take off jewelry, wipe it down. Also regularly check to make sure there is no dirt, scratches, or loose clasps or stones. For debris, remove with a gentle cloth or cotton swab. You can gently buff the jewelry with a cotton or microfiber cloth as well.

If you need to clean your jewelry, do so with gentle soap and warm water. Be sure to dry your jewelry well after cleaning it.

Celebrities who wear fashion jewelry

Now you know plenty about fashion jewelry. But do any celebrities wear fashion jewelry pieces?

The answer is yes! While celebrities might spend $750,000 dollars renting a necklace for a single night, the reality is that such extravagance is usually reserved for special occasions.

Many of the pieces celebrities use day-to-day come from stores and brands the average person can afford. Here are a few examples.

Actress Camilla Belle posted a photo of her wearing a simple fashion jewelry necklace back in 2018.

Camilla Belle Fashion Jewelry Instagram

English-American actress Lily Collins has been seen wearing a simple star choker, a jewelry piece sold by online retailers like those mentioned in the next section.

Lily Collins Fashion Jewelry Instagram

Actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens posted a photo of her wearing a bold pair of fashion jewelry earrings to her Instagram.

Vanessa Hudgens Fashion Jewelry Instagram

In 2019, model and fashion designer Sofia Richie proudly posted a picture of herself with simple hoop earrings from a fashion jewelry company.

Sofia Richie Fashion Jewelry Instagram

Victoria’s Secret model Jasmine Tookes posted a photo of her wearing fashion jewelry earrings in this tropical-themed photo on Instagram.

Jasmine Tookes Fashion Jewelry Instagram

Additional examples abound. Celebrities who have been spotted wearing fashion jewelry include Meghan Markle, Jessica Biel, Mindy Kaling, Selena Gomez, Jessica Alba, Lupita Nyong'o, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Jennifer Lopez, and Julia Roberts.

Let’s wrap up by looking at the companies in the space.

Where to buy fashion jewelry

Blush and Bar

Of course, you know we’d mention ourselves! Blush and Bar offers demi-fine 18K gold vermeil jewelry designed in NYC and assembled in Ohio.

Adornmonde

Adornmonde offers a broad range of pieces. They have a category of fine jewelry as well as a number of pieces with 14K gold plating.

Alex and Ani

Alex and Ani sells more decorative fashion jewelry, from rings and necklaces to bangles and charm bracelets.

BaubleBar

BaubleBar offers a range of jewelry from fine to demi-fine to fashion. Their gold fashion pieces include plated and vermeil options.

Stella & Dot

Stella & Dot sells not only fashion jewelry, but other accessories like bags, skincare products, and even clothing.

Conclusion

You’ve now had a crash course in fashion jewelry—what to look for, what makes a quality piece, and how to buy smart and keep your pieces for years to come. 

What do you like about fashion jewelry?

Do you know anything we’ve missed?