By Katie Austin
You may have noticed throughout all of the previous entries in The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry that with the exception of plating, the history of jewelry leans heavily toward pure metal and genuine gemstones. With the bevy of costume jewelry that you see lining the racks of tween accessory shops and mall department stores, I bet you’ve wondered how they factor into the history of jewelry. Well, wonder no more! Costume pieces define the jewelry history of 18th century Europe. In fact, the 18th century is when the concept of simulant-based jewelry as a mainstay started as a more attainable but equally beautiful alternative to more obscure natural materials.
One of the key materials in costume jewelry is glass. When perusing the racks of chain store costume jewelry, you’ve no doubt come across faux-diamond studs, earrings and necklaces made with crystal, a type of chemically-altered glass. Glass has been around since the Ancient Mesopotamians but its use as a material for jewelry-making really took off with the 18th century world’s frequent use of leaded glass. First created in 1674 by English businessman George Ravenscroft, leaded glass is prized because the lead oxide introduced to the glass in place of its usual calcium improves the glass’s quality and makes it easier to form and shape. The heaviness of lead also leads to a higher refractive index, making the glass more sparkly in light. Today, our knowledge of the hazardous properties of lead, particularly in drinking vessels made of leaded glass, has caused a shift to crystal glass, an alternative crystal with barium oxide, zinc oxide or potassium oxide in place of the lead oxide, which you can find in the forms of crystal jewelry and housewares today. Traditional leaded glass is still popular, though, in glassware and jewelry sought out by collectors, as well as in leadlight and stained glass windows.
I mention leaded glass because the crystal jewelry that you appreciate now as inexpensive accents for outfits owes its existence to an 18th century form of leaded glass for jewelry with a rather odd name: paste. When you think of paste, you probably imagine little plastic jars with applicators on the insides of the lids that were frequently used (and its contents consumed by your weirder classmates) in elementary art class. In the world of jewelry, though, paste is an entirely different animal.
Paste is a type of leaded glass invented in 1724 by Georges Frédéric Strass, a French jeweler. Using metal powder to cut and polish the glass, Strass stumbled upon a method to make glass sparkle like diamonds. His white “diamonte” or “strass” paste jewelry was an instant hit with the Paris aristocracy. Since Paris was considered the heart of fashion and culture, the paste trend quickly spread throughout Europe and European colonies. This was during the Rococo Period of art history, defined by over-the-top ornateness and grandeur in everything from paintings and sculpture to furniture and wall designs. Jewelry was no exception. To have the rich and connected swap out their ostentatious adornments of gold and genuine jewels for leaded glass was unheard of.
If you’re like me, thinking of today’s costume jewelry -and more importantly, how cheaply and badly it’s often made- makes you wonder how such a type of jewelry could have ever caught the attention of the well-heeled in Europe’s center of fashion and culture. The answer is that in the 18th century, paste creation was an art form in itself. From Strass’s white diamond simulants sprouted an entire art of using various chemicals in leaded glass to expertly mimic the hues of just about any colored gemstone. In fact, it’s said that particularly good quality emerald green paste gems were considered more aesthetically appealing than the real thing. We may see glass jewelry today as somehow fraudulent, but that wasn’t the case in 18th century Europe. Paste glass was a revolution of science, art and fashion all at once, and that wasn’t lost on the aristocracy or even on royalty. France’s own King Louis XV had a collection of paste jewelry and for his efforts in inventing the art, Georges Strass was rewarded by being appointed the official “Jeweler to the King” in 1734. Strass enjoyed so much success from his invention of simulant jewelry that he was able to retire at age 52 and live the rest of his life in contented comfort.
While glass no longer holds the same status in the jewelry world as it did three centuries ago, leaded glass is far from obsolete. Like old medications re-discovered as treatments for new diseases, the material seems to have an uncanny ability to reinvent itself. Many a cracked ruby has been saved by having that crack filled with red leaded glass to maintain its strength, structure and visual appeal. Besides kicking off the concept of costume jewelry (though that term wasn’t coined until the 1920s), the 18th century gave us one of modern jewelry’s greatest unsung heroes in stone repair.
What will the 19th century bring to the world of jewelry? Stay tuned for installment #8 of The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry!