The word "Jewel" is actually a derivative of the french work "Jouel", referring to the royal table dressings many years ago in France. Kings, Queens and people of great wealth and political prominence wore fine lacy jewels throughout the18th and 19th century that were encrusted with the finest gems of the highest quality when they came to the dinner tables of court.
Because members of the Kings/Queens courts often had to travel many miles by coach to reach the destination palace, they would take trunks and lockboxes of jewels and their most valuable possessions to be worn in the company of Royalty. During their travels, however, robbery was commonplace. Hence the term "highway robbery", since people were often stripped of their valuables, precious gems and gold. Given this, which became more common than not, wealthy persons began to commission their very best artisan jewels to create exact mold replicas or imitations of the orginal pieces that they owned. They discontinued the practice of traveling with their authentic gems and would take their replicas or imitation to court so the threat of thievery was that less painful.
These imitations, more specifically the stones, were referred to "paste"-literally the pasting of stones to the mold replica. Paste was the process of using glass with a very high lead content to reflect and refract light, mimicking a true precious gem. Light "refraction" was the look that was sought after and this was achieved by the backs of the stones being "foiled" with a copper or silver underlayment. The jeweler would paste or glue the foiled glass jewel to the bottom of the mold made to accept the replica.
Paste work was just as labor intensive and tedious as fine jewelry making since the entire process was hand honed and done by hand craft. As a result, paste jewels were only afforded to the super rich-it was a luxury to have replicas made of authentic jewels. The facets "faces" of the glass stones, for example, were hand ground. Just imagine the time it took to hand mold and grind and set these pieces-truly works of art. Hence, these imitation pieces to day, can be just as valuable if not more valuable than fine jewelry.
Modern Paste or the Rhinestone and it's US introduction-Eastern European Influences:
In the late 19th century, Daniel Swarovski, an Austrian Jeweler, developed glass cutting technique that allowed faceting to be done by a device. Swarovski devoted his glassmaking technics further in teh early 20th century by producing glass with a high lead content, which gave an incredible the light hit the facets of the stones. He began to sell these as "Strauss Austrian Crystals". This was the birth of the "Rhinestone" as it is known today. Often, older 20th century pieces can be dated and identified by their open foiled backs (as was also a hallmark if the Victorians). Since Swarovski invented a new faceting technique, allowing many more facets to be created on each stone, foiling was not a widely used. In stones with many facet or more than 12, refraction was not necessarily desired-reflection was. In a highly faceted stone, the desired effect was light reflection through the stone.
Modernization or the US introduction to Paste, Rhinestone, Diamente...came in the early 20th century. Coco Chanel made costume jewelry a fashionable wear since the French were experiencing taxation on the wealthy. She promoted suites of jewels or what would be termed parure grand sets, consisting of 4 to 8 pieces of a set of jewels. With her influence and acceptance, costume became part of the accepted fashion staple through the rest of the world.
It has been noted that the actual US acceptance came a bit later and some differing opinions as to what actually sparked the American acceptance since American woman preferred gold and silver. Some feel that WWI made that transition happen since metals were diverted to the war effort and pot metals were easier and less expensive to find. Others feel that it was the influence of the broadway production, Ziegfield Follies, which commissioned Hobe (an American jewelry design house) to create the glitz needed to adorn the glamour girls in that production.
Fascinating history and antique costume only spawned what we consider today to be more modern artform in a more relevant sense. In the 1950's, costume jewelry makers were able to copywrite their designs, solidifying the art of jewelry making as a "true artform".
Look for upcoming and current guides that will help assist you in dating vintage costume based on metals used and clasp construction.
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