27 July 2016

Jewel History: Hiring Jewelry in London (1913)

Detail of Giovanni Boldini's 1911 portrait of Princess Marthe Bibesco (Image: Grand Ladies Site)

"Hiring Jewelry in London"
(originally appeared in the Washington Post, 27 Jul 1913)

Jewels are rented by the day or night in London. This jewel renting is now the most popular thing in the way of acquiring "borrowed plumage" [1].

The renting of jewels started years ago, but has increased rapidly and is now at the height of its popularity. The fact that jewels can be rented is just being discovered by those of the great "middle class," who are hastening to take advantage of it. Already the poor but haughty lady of rank who wished to keep the world from knowing her real financial condition has learned the secrets of this borrowed finery.

Laurits Tuxen's "The Anointing of Queen Alexandra" (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The first time that jewel renting was introduced into England was at the coronation of King Edward [2]. Women of rank who wished to appear in the magnificent ceremonies found that they had no jewels worthy of the great occasion. So they went to the well-known jewelers with their lamentations.

A few of the jewelers refused absolutely to have anything to do with jewel renting, but others, scenting a way to make money quickly and without risk, consented to lend some of their choicest designs for the coronation. At this time, the fact that the jewels were rented was kept a complete secret, and the women borrowers had the satisfaction of appearing in magnificent jewels at a small cost each evening.

This gave jewelers the idea of renting jewelry at all times. They let it be known that, for such and such a sum, they would rent beautiful brooches, rings, necklaces, and tiaras. They had many kinds of precious stones set into odd designs.

Women model the latest fashions, ca. September 1913 (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

These rented jewels could not be advertised. One word printed about them in the newspapers would ruin their renting value at once, for no one would rent jewels if there was the slightest chance of their origin being suspected. Advertising them by word of mouth became the popular method. Even now not much has been said in the press about them.

Poor women of gentle breeding who were not above earning "an honest penny" were taken into the confidence of the jeweler. Now, when a big entertainment is to take place, or before the opera season starts, these women whisper to their friends: "Now, if you only had a few more jewels, your appearance would be perfect."

"But I haven't the money for jewels," is the answer.

"Don't buy them," whispers the woman who is employed to introduce the rented finery. "I'll tell you a secret. ____ and ____ will rent jewels to you. Everybody is renting them and it's the only way now that times are so hard."

The woman who wants to look beautiful hurries to the jeweler, and the woman who is doing the advertising has earned another neat commission.

Aristocrats at the coronation of King George V, May 1910 (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Years ago, people who could not afford real jewels bought paste imitations. Although some of these seemed real, and they were made up in choice designs that glittered and sparkled on their fair wearers, they were not received with favor. Paste jewels grew ordinary and finally descended to the shop girls, where they have remained. The rented jewels have proved an acceptable substitute. So great has the practice grown that at the coronation of King George [3], millions of dollars' worth of hired jewels were worn by society, and no one was the wiser.

Some of the better jewelers are strongly opposed to this borrowed plumage fad. They say that it is hurting legitimate trade: that the woman who contemplated buying a valuable tiara will borrow one for the few formal occasions when it is worn. By borrowing one of the same design for several occasions, she gets all the credit of owning it with none of the necessary expenditure of money.

The jewelers who do the renting are, of course, enthusiastic over the plan and are planning to increase it each year. By careful renting, they are able to get as much, during the season, as a piece of jewelry is worth and still have the original in their possession.

Women attending Royal Ascot, ca. 1913 (Photo: Grand Ladies Site)

Not everyone can rent jewelry, even in London. The renter must be "a responsible person." Even those who are responsible are apt to be rather great risks, so the jewels are insured, the lady who rents them paying for the insurance.

Since the renting of jewels and the insurance has been arranged to the smallest detail, it is now possible to hire jewels by the week, month, or even by the year. No longer is it necessary to hire by the evening only. A woman may hire a lovely necklace of pearls for the London season. She may rent many thousands of dollars' worth of jewels for a period of two years.

Lady Cynthia Asquith, ca. 1912 (Photo: Grand Ladies Site)

Many matrons with marriageable daughters are hiring whole outfits of jewels for themselves, in order to impress possible future sons-in-law with their worldly wealth. After the wedding, the jewels go back to the jewelers, to be snapped up by another prospective mother-in-law.

The borrowed jewelry may be taken out of London now. In fact, the wearer may take it wherever she goes, except to Russia and Spain.


1. PLEASE NOTE: I have no evidence that any of the jewels worn in any of the photos included in this post were rented rather than owned! They're included as examples of jewelry and clothing worn during the era when the article was published.

2. The coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom was held at Westminster Abbey in London on August 9, 1902.

3. The coronation of King George V and Queen Mary of the United Kingdom was held at Westminster Abbey in London on May 6, 1910.