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Book editor, industrial designer, sculptor, fashion-show producer and publicist. The previous careers of some of the industry's most innovative up-and-coming costume jewelers might not seem to have much in common, but there's no mistaking the artsy street cred each brings to his or her new venture. From wood and feather-festooned earrings to necklaces of chiffon rosettes to silver cocktail rings bedecked with teeny-tiny plastic platters of fruit tarts, the new costume pieces being snapped up by retailers have a fresh whimsy, and usually occupy a more affordable niche in the ever-expanding jewelry market.
"In the same way that clothes should be comfortable and let you move around, jewelry should also be casual and fun," says designer Elizabeth Yarborough, 28, who left her job as an editor at HarperCollins two years ago to start Yarborough Jewelry, a line of necklaces, cocktail rings and knit and cashmere-wrapped bangles possessed of a humorous charm — e.g., food-platter knuckle-dusters. "I want my pieces to engage with the wearer, really get incorporated into daily life." Like many of her industry counterparts, Yarborough, whose pieces wholesale from $22 to $260 and are currently sold via four Web sites and at 16 stores worldwide, hit upon costume jewelry design as an outlet for an overflow of creative impulses. ("I was the type of kid who took Christmas ornaments and strung them from my ears.") The craft itself is also accessible to new designers looking for a business with relatively low overhead, since found and sourced materials such as wool, leather, brass and ribbon replace the more expensive elements of fine jewelry. The final product isn't always so easy on the wallet: Subversive Jewelry's Justin Giunta, who was nominated in 2007 for a CFDA Swarovski Award for Accessory Design and has done runway jewelry for Chris Benz and Trovata, recently added one-of-a-kind pieces of silk and cotton fabric piled with quartz, turquoise, glass pearls and Lucite acrylic beads to his lineup of coveted layered necklaces and bracelets. The new cloth, armor-esque creations retail for between $15,000 and $22,000 apiece, while the regular Subversive collection pieces wholesale from $180 to $1,280. "I took the concept of jewelry added to clothes and flipped it, putting the clothes into the jewelry," says Giunta, 28, a former painter and industrial designer whose current status as a fashion darling was cemented by a collaboration with Target that began in March. "The concept of the design is more valuable than the sum of the materials," he adds. "And by lending my aesthetic to something like Target, I can maintain the integrity of my own line. I think what this type of jewelry is doing is challenging the established institutions, the preconceptions of what is beautiful. It doesn't have to be all about precious materials."