Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All that Glitters Isn't Gold: It's 18th c Paste

Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

When I first came across the term paste used to describe jewelry, I could only imagine the sticky white stuff from elementary school. But in the 18th c, paste jewels belonged in the ballroom, not the schoolroom, and the more, the better.

Paste was the name for faux jewels, cut leaded glass faceted to mimic precious gems. Most often paste jewels imitated clear diamonds, but with colored foil placed behind them, they could also stand in for sapphires, emeralds, and other colored precious stones.

Just as the Duchess of Windsor wore costume jewelry in the 20th c, there was no stigma for the Georgians to wearing paste, and the settings were elegantly designed and often crafted in silver. Even the French Queen Marie-Antoinette mingled paste jewels with her real diamonds, and only a practiced eye could tell the difference.

What mattered was the sparkle, especially when even the most luxurious room lit by candles could be a murky, shadowy place. Clothes for evening were made of gleaming silk and embroidered with metallic threads and sequins, all designed to seize every glimmer of light and reflect it back. The more bling, the higher the fashion, and the higher the wearer's status, too, which led to the craze for paste.

Worn by both men and women, paste stones appeared not only in earrings, necklaces, and rings, but also were pinned into elaborate hair styles, set into buttons and stomachers (large jeweled pieces that were pinned to the front of bodices), and outlined buckles on shoes. By the 1850s, paste had been replaced with other kinds of imitations, but as these examples show, the beauty of paste remains undiminished.

Top left: Women's Fichu Buckle, c 1780-1790, England. Paste stones, silver, & gilt metal, engraved steel. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Right: Earrings, late 18th c, French, paste & silver. (Screw backs modern.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower left: Shoe buckle, c 1760, English, silver set with pastes. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Like to see more historical jewelry? Check out our latest board on Pinterest: In Our Jewel Box.


Lenora Jane said...

...suddenly a whole lot of random lines about jewelry from c18th and 19th novels are making more sense to me.

jacqueline | the hourglass files said...

I can totally imagine how beautiful and sparkly paste would have looked in candle light. These pieces you've included are so pretty.

Isobel Carr said...

I love paste. I have a beautiful paste witch’s heart broach from the 1780s that I always get compliments on.

Kathy said...

Why were they called "paste"?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

KWillow, every place I've looked says that no one knows why the glass jewels are called "paste." No doubt it's some forgotten-garbled word - such an unlikely term for such pretty things!

Isobel Carr said...

Encyclopedia Britannica says: Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Isobel, I saw that definition, too. But I also saw it dismissed in other places as an "after the fact" definition that came into use after the term was first used. So....may be right, may be wrong - though who wants to argue with the Encyclopedia Britannica? :)

Gemma Buxton said...

Don't you think this would be the perfect thing to cause some tension/conflict in a ballroom scene? Someone getting called out for wearing paste jewels rather than the real deal they claim it to be? Or it could be the first signs of a financial crisis for the family...
Wonderful stuff - I'm so glad I found this blog!

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