It was the weekend of one of my favorite antique shows in Dallas, Texas – one that brought dealers from near and far, all over the U.S. to set up their booths and display their collection of beautiful, sparkly vintage jewelry for people like me to drool over and, if really lucky, bring a little of it home with them, too.
As I was slowly walking around taking everything in, I heard a woman trying to get my attention from her booth. I turned around and she motioned for me to come to see her display in a tall, glass case filled to the brim with sparkle. She told me it all dated back to the early 1800s. It was so alluring! She asked if I would like her to take some of the “paste” jewelry out of the case so I could get a better look.
The last time I heard the word paste, I was in kindergarten. We used it to make paper crafts and it had absolutely nothing to do with jewelry. I was certain I had not heard the woman correctly, so I asked her to repeat herself. She said it again and I had heard right, but I still had no clue what it was.
If vintage costume jewelry sparkled, I always thought the sparkle came from rhinestones. Centuries ago, rhinestones had not even been invented. So where did this sparkle come from?
During the late-1600s, British craftsmen developed paste, a term used for cut leaded glass that is faceted to sparkle, resembling gems or precious stones. Paste is a mixture of glass with high lead content which made the glass extremely reflective. Without lead added, glass does not reflect light or color.
Georges Frederic Strass
In 1730, a man named Georges Frederic Strass who had moved to Paris, France, began promoting paste as a substitute for precious stones, particularly diamonds. His paste was of exceptional quality and he became world-famous because of it. You may actually hear paste referred to as “strass.” By 1734, he was appointed as “Jeweler to the King.” His work was in great demand at the court of King Louis XV.
King Louis XV in 1748
After mixing the glass with lead, it was then cut into a variety of sizes and shapes such as marquis, oval, and pear, and then mounted in settings usually made of silver. The backs were coated with metal or foil which was sometimes tinted to imitate the color of other precious gemstones. This made the faceted glass even more brilliant.
Foiled paste was most often seen in closed-backed settings, meaning the back was covered with silver or gold to protect the foil underneath.
Here is a paste pin from the late-1800s that was partially tinted to resemble the gemstone, amethyst:
Black Dot Paste
Another form of paste was called black dot paste. It had a tiny black dot painted on the culet, the flat bottom of the cut glass to mimic the open culet of early diamond cuts which often looked very dark or black. This black dot gave the illusion of depth to the stone.
The way diamonds are cut today, all of the facets come to a perfect point. In the past, the facets came together around a flat area on the bottom. Black dot paste is a distinctive characteristic of very fine paste, although not all high-quality examples of paste have painted black dots.
An Increased Demand for Paste
Brighter lighting with candles made of beeswax was introduced during the early 18th century. There was an increased number of formal social events to attend that could now take place after the sun went down. This also increased the desire for brilliant jewelry to be worn at these events.
The middle class in Europe was beginning to prosper and they wanted the same glamorous look of the elite. Diamonds, however, were somewhat scarce and extremely expensive.
Paste closely resembled diamonds and before long, its dazzle was in great demand. It was not possible to cut and polish diamonds the way we can today, so if diamonds were used, jewelry had to be created around the shapes in which they were naturally found.
With paste, it could be cut and polished into whatever shapes the jewelers wanted to use. Some believe the term “paste” came from the Italian word pasta because pasta is soft, moldable, and easy to shape.
Paste reached its height of popularity during the 18th century when there was a demand for paste jewelry as an economically reasonable substitute for diamonds and faceted gemstones. Paste jewelry also replaced finer gemstones for the wealthy when traveling so they could look their best without the fear of getting robbed by highwaymen and losing a fortune.
It was set into high-quality metals such as silver, gold, or steel, and was used in everything from ornamental shoe buckles to jeweled cuff links and decorative buttons.
Pair of woman’s shoe buckles with paste stones from England, circa 1780-1785
The Art of Paste Jewelry
Paste was considered an art form because craftsmen were able to create quite elaborate pieces as glass has a more pliable consistency and was less costly than gemstones. It was inexpensive to replace if a mistake was made in cutting. Because of the exceptionally fine workmanship, paste jewelry could be regarded as an exclusive luxury.
This made it popular with royals such as King George the III and IV and other high-ranking officials. Although they could afford whatever they wanted, they loved the look of paste jewelry. Most paste came from France, England, Spain, or Portugal.
In 1830, the styles and the way paste jewelry was constructed changed due to the new industrialized production which replaced making everything by hand. Years later, there were also changes in the style of diamond cutting which was adopted to the way paste was cut. Instead of unusually-shaped stones that were characteristic of 18th-century paste, there were now uniform round stones to make it easier for using stamped or cast settings.
Brilliant cut diamonds do not need foil backs, so jewelers began using open-backed settings. Paste jewelers tried using the same technique, but without being foil-backed, paste did not reflect the light like diamonds. Fortunately, a new process was developed in 1840 to coat the back of glass stones with a thin film of silver, replacing the foils.
The New Sparkle
In 1892, Daniel Swarovski patented a machine that could manufacture faceted and polished glass stones at a high rate of speed. He moved his company to Austria, near the Rhine River, to take advantage of local hydroelectricity for the necessary high energy grinding processes. He began referring to his glass stones as “rhinestones.” These replaced time-consuming, hand-cut paste and were used in costume jewelry for years to come.
Here is a 1950s Swarovski rhinestone pin in different shades of purple that I repurposed into an adjustable ring:
How to Care for Your Paste Jewelry
If you happen to own any paste jewelry, be sure to never get it wet, especially if it is foiled, as the moisture will destroy the look of the stones. To clean, simply use a soft, dry cloth, or toothbrush. Store paste jewelry separately from your other jewelry as paste is softer than gemstones and can be scratched easily.
I definitely consider myself one of the lucky ones who not only got to bring home a few sparkly, vintage treasures I found that day, but also a new appreciation for paste that I had not had since kindergarten!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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