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40 years of divine diamanté decadence

Costume jewellers Butler & Wilson prove that you don't have to spend a fortune to look a million dollars. John Walsh celebrates.

Future historians of human adornment may puzzle over the 1970s vogue for fake diamanté spiders worn on ladies' black evening dresses. Students of fashion will wonder why bow-tied teddy bears in rhinestones began to adorn female lapels in the power-dressing 1980s. Psychologists of male purchasing patterns will speculate why so many comfortably-off men, on their wives' birthdays, instead of heading for Asprey and Tiffany's to purchase an 18-carat diamond, went instead to a shop in London's Fulham Road and picked out a pewter-crystal flamingo to adorn the memsahib's bosom...

Why were these bits of jewellery so popular? Because they were gorgeous, and cute and witty, and lent a lustre of vivacity to ordinary people and ordinary clothes. The cat bijoux and fish-head earrings, the red-lips crystalline brooches and lizard pendants that draped over the shoulder, all had an old-fashioned gaiety about them; they were throwbacks to the Jazz Age and the flapper decade, not just their Art-Deco designs but their love of paste diamonds and resplendent fakery for its own sake.

They always went down a storm with the ladies. In male gift-buying circles, they came with a kind of guarantee. A whole generation of men has thanked heaven for the existence of Butler & Wilson: the one shop where you could be sure you'd find something your wife/mistress/sister/mother would like, even if you normally hadn't a clue what to buy her – something bright enough to draw flocks of magpies, but cool enough to be tasteful. It was an added bonus that it usually didn't cost the earth.

Some people raised an eyebrow about B&W's stuff. In the 1970s, they called it tat, in the 1980s kitsch, in the 1990s bling. To old-fashioned tastes, costume jewellery was a cheap and tarty alternative to the real thing; the equivalent of scent rather than perfume. "Decorative jewellery," sniffs the dictionary, "made of paste and base metals, rather than precious stones or gold and silver". But after Butler & Wilson's success, nobody apologised any more for buying or wearing it.

"From the very beginning," says Simon Wilson, "we never did subtle." Wilson and his partner Nick Butler started life 40 years ago on an antique jewellery market stall in Antiquarius in London's King's Road. Three years later, they opened their famous shop on the Fulham Road and added their first original designs to their Art Deco Collection. By the end of the decade, the Butler & Wilson team had been asked to design the Christmas lights in Regent Street. In the next decade, they were commissioned to work with both Pirelli calendars and Georgio Armani; they established a foothold in Harrods and a shop on Sunset Boulevard in LA. When Buckingham Palace opened up to the scrutiny of the general public, Butler & Wilson were appointed to design a range of jewellery inspired by the palace's interiors. They also had a long-term fan in Princess Diana.

In a slightly shocking lurch down-market, they linked up with the QVC shopping channel and made a fortune. Alongside the Buck House collection, they oversaw the Imperial Jewellery collection at the Tower of London. And they started to diversify: the Fulham shop was suddenly fantastically garlanded with vintage clothes, handbags, bridal wear. As the millennium turned on its lever, the partners began experimenting with semi-precious stones, such as opal, turquoise and onyx – and, shrewdly noting that men were happier with solidly expensive jewellery than with paste jeux d'esprit, they launched a men's jewellery collection in 2005 full of silver and semiprecious items. It featured turquoise rings and man-bags in cool Amerindian designs, and was another wild success.

Along the way, they linked up with Swarovski, the cheap but stylish crystal designers who have, over the years, done almost as much as Butler & Wilson to popularise bright, loud but appealing geegaws worn by ladies on special occasions. The Swarovski people asked Simon Wilson to contribute to their Fashion Jewellery Forum in New York in 1998, a considerable accolade in upscale-bling circles.

These days, the signature designs of their early days have been joined by rhinestone Bambis and yet more animals and birds: raccoons, owls and butterflies. Some of their designs can be called "classic" (such as a brooch of a 1930s couple dancing – the woman's dress is made of dangling beads and when the brooch's owner turns or bends, the woman's dress does likewise).

The men's section offers the conceited swine in your life a selection of crystal leopard's-head belt buckles, a pendant of a spider on a death's head (charming) and lots of crosses and crystal bats (the flying kind). It's possible that the men's range is aimed only at people such as Ozzy Osbourne, but I suspect we'll see the £37 Eagle Necklace (with moveable wings) nestling in the chest hair of a lot of male poseurs by the end of the year. Butler & Wilson didn't get where they are today by underestimating how far people will go to express the Flash Harry in their souls.