Baubles, Bangles and Bright Shiny Beads Are Back, Baby!

“When you start buying these things as a designer, you realize the raw materials are never in comparison to what they’re priced at,” said Mr. Giunta, who was nominated for a CFDA award in 2008, has designed a capsule line for Target, and argues that the traditional categories of jewelry—fine, costume, junk—are infinitely collapsible. The name Subversive aims to challenge the premise that jewelry is merely “a distribution system of so-called precious materials.” He prefers to value design, basing his pricing on the artistic credo: “You can never judge a painting based on how much the paints cost.”

To some style watchers, costume jewelry—or statement jewelry, or couture jewelry, or whatever you call the pounds of chains and metal being trotted all over town by fashionable women—is less a recession phenomenon than a welcome liberation from constantly changing seasonal clothing silhouettes, allowing a woman some small measure of individuality with her skinny jeans, riding boots and wrap sweater.

Mr. Giunta prefers to think of it as the human spirit seeking creative reprieve from fashion’s long slavery to Calvin Klein–esque clean lines.

“The idea of Zen minimalism is dead,” he said. “We need so many things to function in our daily lives that to carry on that idea in fashion with a disregard for all the extras is kind of a dying battle. Sure, you can have yoga, but it’s just one part of your day, it’s not your whole mentality.”

Mr. Lane agreed. “I didn’t like minimalism,” he said. “I said on QVC once in those days, ‘How can we have minimalism? Girls can’t eat, they can’t smoke, they have to have safe sex and minimalism all at the same time?’ Where is the fun? Jewelry should be fun. That’s really the idea of jewelry, not only for fashion and a look—it’s an amusement for women.”

Even the stuffiest European houses seem to agree: For spring 2009, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga boldly over-accessorized their collections with colorful faux gemstones and plastics. Ms. Watson called it “the new It bag.”

“When I was young, women wore hats,” said Mr. Lane, who is 78. “They wore gloves, they wore combs with little flowers in their hair, all that sort of thing, and they enjoyed doing it. I’m not talking about only the most fashionable women, you know—secretaries, et cetera! Today, it’s all sort of pared down, and really the most amusing accessory they can put on is jewelry. And shoes. Women love shoes, as you know.”

But could it be, mercifully, that jewelry is at last replacing shoes as the accessory du jour? As the introduction to Mr. Lane’s 1996 book, Faking It, puts it: “Faux jewelry is like wearing glass slippers. A woman can feel like she’s going to the ball, even if she’s not.”

And for those who actually get to go to the ball?

“She is our royalty; she’s who everyone is looking to right now for hope,” said Loree Rodkin, who designed Ms. Obama’s inaugural jewelry. Despite containing actual bling (87 carats’ worth, including diamond chandelier earrings, a signet ring, and 13 white gold and diamond bangles), it was of costume proportions. (Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman had requested something “dramatic.”)

“We’re in a tricky time now,” continued Ms. Rodkin, whose celebrity clientele includes Madonna, Rihanna and Daphne Guinness, who has been known to wear one of her bestselling “bondage rings” on every finger. “You want to see glamour, you want to see pretty, sparkly things on people because it gives the illusion that everything’s O.K. I think it goes as far back as the Depression. The musical, the Busby Berkeley theatrics were what everyone was going to see. The opulent, heavily costumed look was an escapism for the country.”

mbryan@observer.com