A few days ago, I went shopping for a birthday gift for a friend. She likes to wear rather large statement pieces of jewelry, and I found a perfect necklace for her at Henri Bendel. Today, wearing costume jewelry is quite common, but did you know there was something similar to costume jewelry during the Georgian era? It’s true. In the 18th and 19th centuries, all that glittered was not gold.
Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term “costume jewelry” to 1927, jewelry made out of inexpensive materials to resemble gold and fine gems dates back much earlier. The first type of fake jewelry I’d like to discuss is paste stones, which are fake gem stones. Paste is a particular type of imitation gem stone that is made out of glass with a high lead content and has been around since the 18th century.
According to Collector’s Weekly, “in 1724 the French jewel designer Georges Frédéric Strass created ‘paste,’ a kind of leaded glass that he cut and polished with metal powder until it appeared to shimmer like a diamond in the light. These white ‘diamante’ or ‘strass’ were a hit with glamorous Parisian high society.” Eventually the popularity of paste spread.
During the Georgian era it wasn’t technically possible to cut and polish diamonds the way we can today, and diamond jewelry had to be made around the shapes in which the diamonds were found. The advantage to using paste was that these stones could be cut and polished into the shapes jewelers needed for their designs. Therefore, some of the most exquisite pieces of Georgian jewelry are made out of paste.
Early paste stones were backed with either clear or colored foil to reflect the light. The backs of foiled paste stones are “closed” which means the back of the stones are covered with silver or gold to protect the foil backing. If you look into the center of a white paste stone, you may see a black dot that was placed there to help the piece resemble a diamond.
I think it’s worth noting that you wouldn’t have been embarrassed to wear paste jewelry. The people who wore these pieces would not have been poor and weren’t wearing them to deceive people into thinking they were wearing precious gemstones. The settings they were placed into and their high sparkle made them very desirable in their own right.
If you own antique paste jewelry, it’s important not to get it wet—especially if there is foil behind the stones. The moisture could ruin the stones’ appearance. Brushing the jewelry with a soft dry toothbrush is an ideal way to remove any dirt. You can also polish your piece with a soft dry cloth. Another thing to keep in mind, paste stones are softer than many natural gemstones, so they should be stored separately.
Another form of Georgian “costume jewelry” is Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck resembles gold but is made from a combination of copper and zinc. The formula for this metal was developed by Christopher Pinchbeck, a London clockmaker who lived from about 1670 to 1732.
Pinchbeck was an affordable substitute for gold, and records indicate that travelers often carried jewelry and accessories made from Pinchbeck if they felt they were at risk for robbery during their journey. Their more expensive pieces were kept safe at home.
Pinchbeck could be worked into the same intricate designs as gold, and it retained its yellow color unlike other gold substitutes of that period which were prone to fading. In the mid-19th century Pinchbeck’s popularity waned when nine karat gold became legal,which allowed buyers to purchase jewelry made from a less expensive type of gold. And about that time the plating process known as electro-gilding was invented, adding to Pinchbeck’s decline.
So the next time you look at a portrait from the Georgian or Regency eras, consider that the jewelry worn might not be what it appears.
Goldemberg, Rose Leiman, Antique Jewelry: A Practical and Passionate Guide. 1976.