Jewelry from Georgian Paste to Art Deco Rhinestones and Beyond
Let me start by saying that I love copies. As a lover of antique, vintage and period fine jewelry, I knew that I would never be able to afford to own the fine jewels made of precious gemstones that I coveted from companies such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, so I set out to find the best copies that I could. This led me to the wonderful world of vintage costume jewelry.
The First Rhinestones
There was no shame in wearing paste jewelry and it didn’t mean you were poor or trying to deceive someone into thinking that you were wearing precious gemstones. Those paste stones were even more difficult to hand cut than diamonds because they were softer, and foiled not only to give them more sparkle, but also to add color. They were set in either all sterling, or sometimes in silver topped gold just like their fine jewelry counterparts. These pieces were collected and worn even by Marie Antoinette. During that time frame real diamonds were also foiled before they had better stone cutting abilities, so they are many times indistinguishable from paste stones. (I have been the lucky recipient a few times of pieces thought to be paste which turned out to be diamonds).
In 1892, an Austrian jeweler named Daniel Swarovski, patented the electric cutting machine that mass-produced faceted glass foiled imitation stones, still in use today, under one of the most famous trademarks in the world: SWAROVSKI. Swarovski rhinestones were, and still are, used by all of the best makers of imitation/costume jewelry. Your 1925 art deco sterling and paste bracelet from France no doubt has Swarovski Austrian rhinestones in it.
The Original Costume Jewelry
Jewelry made during the Georgian era of paste, is the “original” costume jewelry. Today you can still find Georgian paste buckles and buttons, sometimes in their original cases, but many times they have been converted to brooches, rings and other jewels. Imagine how they sparkled by candlelight at night, all those hair jewels, tremblers and parures.
Since so little fine Georgian jewelry exists today, unfortunately broken up for the stones and melted down to make newer more modern jewels, it’s the paste versions that survive. We are lucky to have them, since beyond what is shown in paintings these pieces let us know exactly what the fine jewelry from that era looked like. Some are in museums, some in private collections, and they can still be found on the market today, but be prepared to spend a FORTUNE for an original piece in fantastic condition.
Certainly later during the Victorian period and the Industrial Revolution, jewelry that was once only owned and worn by royalty, nobility, and clergy, and for the most part hand fabricated, came to be mass produced and those pieces are easier to come by today. This was a time when everyone could own jewelry, even if it was only a little collar pin.
New metals were invented such as pinchbeck (an alloy of brass , copper and zinc made to imitate gold which is no longer in existence since the formula died with its inventor, Christopher Pinchbeck) and rolled gold. Gold plating was used as was sterling silver. They all held paste and glass stones of the period. Even Wallis Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor, when she was a married woman not of great means (but always of great style), wore an aquamarine paste parure when she was presented at court in 1925. She continued to love costume jewelry and mix her real breathtaking gems with the fakes for the rest of her life.
This type of jewelry was ALWAYS expensive. Many an eye has been fooled by these gorgeous imitations of the day. For us, as collectors, dealers and especially as historians, we are very lucky for these paste jewels to still exist. Since they have no intrinsic value, they were spared the cannibalization of the authentic jewels for their stones to be used and metal to be melted down and reused.
Who Commissioned the Paste Copies?
In 2006, the estate of Madame Claude Arpels, widow of Claude Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels, came up for auction at Sotheby’s. Along with all of her breathtaking diamond and gemstone jewelry were the CZ and platinum copies of some of her rings. So if Mrs. Arpels had copies of her fine jewelry made for insurance and travel purposes, so did many, many others.
Plenty of jewelry crafted of precious metals and gemstones sat in banks while their exquisite copies were worn by their owners with no one the wiser. Many wealthy people had their precious jewels copied in paste, because insurance has always been expensive and thievery rampant. Some of the most gorgeous sterling and paste jewelry that I own are exact copies of fine jewelry made in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.
These fake counterparts were a viable and necessary alternative to wealthy women. The copies were so good they were undetectable without close examination. In Paris, Cartier had paste copies of real jewels made for their clients. Pforzheim was Germany’s jewelry center and they made some of the most gorgeous paste jewelry that was exported all over the world, including to the fine jeweler Asprey’s in London. A watch I own made of sterling and paste “diamonds” with an Asprey face was sold in the store and I have a 1930s Asprey’s advertisement for rhinestone and paste jewelry including watches, earrings, rings, and double-clip brooches.
During the Art Deco era some of the most gorgeous, jewelry in the world was made in Europe, as those jewelers were always known to be the best. Then as war loomed in Europe, many of those jewelers who were Jewish fled their homelands to come to America to seek freedom from religious persecution. Others emigrated just to find a better life for their families, no matter what their religion or heritage. They went into the costume jewelry business in the United States after losing their jobs during the Great Depression. What did they produce? Copies of the fine jewelry they knew so well, as meticulously made as the originals since the techniques were almost exactly the same, along with many other original designs.
As much as the fine jewelers influenced the costume jewelers, I think the opposite is also true. Sandra Boucher, designer and second wife of Marcel Boucher, said the first time she ever heard of him was when a customer came into jeweler Harry Winston where she worked, with a costume jewelry Boucher brooch they wanted re-made in precious gems. In costume jewelry (although it was a commodity and had to sell for a price) there was no restriction in how beautiful and exuberant their designs could be, because they were not hindered by the cost of precious metals and gemstones.
A Word About Identifying Fakes of Georgian, Art Deco and other Period Copies
At this point it’s wise to warn you of the tons of Georgian fake paste and fine jewelry being sold through online auctions and the Internet in general today. When you see thousands of listings for “Georgian” jewelry, it’s impossible they are all authentic.
This was early 18th and 19th century handmade jewelry not made in mass quantities. The best way to protect yourself from these true reproductions is to learn what the real paste jewelry looks like, the cuts of stones, the manner of stone setting, and the like. You will then find it easier to weed out the reproductions from the authentic.
For Edwardian and Art Deco paste jewelry, it’s imperative that you know the jewelry made during that time frame, although already using mass-produced machine cut stones, were a different cut than the modern day rhinestone with smaller and higher tables (the flat surface on the top of a stone), and they were bead-set, channel set, bezel set or prong set. No glue was used.
Many of these reproductions are made from molds of authentic antique pieces, but they are usually cruder and not as beautifully finished as the originals (that takes time and money), and the stones are GLUED in whereas stones in the original pieces were not.
Edwardian and Art Deco paste earrings are probably the most popular reproductions you will encounter. To find an authentic pair of period earrings in beautiful condition is difficult, since it is more common for one earring to be lost over time. Also, during that period screwback earring mechanisms came into fashion due to the long, heavy, pendant style of earrings. When you see these styles sold by a host of different sellers by the boatload (and if you shop the internet long enough, you will), 99 percent of the time made with 9 ct. gold ear wires when during the original period screwbacks were more in vogue, be wary. Also check the pictures closely if buying on-line. You will see in a good picture the glued setting of the stones (oftentimes they don’t even fit the mountings properly). They are usually also marked SIL and/or 925.
But know that the fakes are getting so good that sometimes even auction houses today are fooled. There are now “forensic jewelers,” or “CSI for jewelry” if you will. Sometimes auction houses have to call them in to check out fine jewelry due to the proliferation of fakes that now flood the jewelry market.
Refashioning Jewelry Through the Decades
Just like today, when we enjoy different styles of jewelry, so it was back then. And when Granny’s Georgian and Victorian jewelry went out of style and became old fashioned, women had the stones removed (and many times re-cut to more fashionable and modern cuts), the metal melted down, and re-created into the modern styles of the day.
I own many early jewelry store catalogs from 1912, up to the 1930s where they write, “Let us re-make your old fashioned jewelry into modern fashions.” I also have jewelry wholesale bluebooks where the description of an item will say “reproduction of a precious model.”
Whether it was Georgian, Edwardian, art deco, retro, or jewelry of the 1950s and on, jewelry has always been refashioned and copied. When an authentic antique or period jewel (especially if signed) comes up for auction today, in original condition, especially with a known provenance, you can almost be guaranteed that piece will go for a great deal of money.
Robin Deutsch has been a jewelry historian and collector since the 1990s. She specializes in American and European costume jewelry, anything from Edwardian to made yesterday. She is a member of many fine and costume jewelry organizations, and she also has her own website on the German jewelry company Knoll & Pregizer which she published in 2009, bringing to the forefront the name and history of this company that was lost to posterity. She was also a lender to the museum exhibit “Finer Things” at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron, Ohio, April-October 2012.